I’ve spent most of this week thinking about the issue of identity. The congregation I serve will be voting this Sunday on whether or not to join a cooperative ministry with three other congregations, and to their credit, some of the members have been very honest that one of their fears in this process is losing their identity as a congregation. I did some visits with parishioners in nursing facilities earlier this week, several of whom are grappling with different forms of dementia, which also raises all kinds of questions about identity. I’ve also been working all week on a lesson plan for confirmation class about baptism and identity, including a music video set to the Who’s “Who Are You?” (I thought about using a song actually recorded during the lifetime of the students, even going so far as to ask for recommendations from some audiophile colleagues; but then I realized that the students already know I’m an old fogie, so I may as well embrace that piece of my own identity.) To top it all off, I’ve been watching a lot of Breaking Bad on Netflix, and I’m fascinated with the way the identities of the various characters both changes and remains the same with each episode.
All of this has gotten me thinking about that question: Who are you? Jesus actually speaks to the issue of identity quite a bit in teaching his disciples, and by extension, us:
- “You are the salt of the earth…” (Matthew 5:13)
- “You are the light of the world…” (Matt. 5:14)
- “And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!” (Matt. 12:49)
- “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:7)
- “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
- “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples…” (John 8:31)
- “…if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
- “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants* are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:15-17)
- “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
- “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
- “You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants* any longer, because the servant* does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:14-16)
- “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The apostle Paul also adds to the scriptural witness regarding our identity in Christ:
- “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit,since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Romans 8:9)
- “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)
- “For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:20)
- “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)
Whew! There’s a lot to chew on there, and this is by no means a comprehensive treatment of all that the New Testament (let alone the Old Testament) has to say about our identity. And maybe that’s as it should be. After all, identity is a complicated thing. Some of it is static, solid and unchanging; some of it is fluid and changes over time. At the moment, my identity includes things like: father, ex-husband, pastor, veteran, friend, native Texan, registered independent, Lutheran, son, brother, nephew, fiancé, recovering alcoholic, and pet owner. At other times in my life, it has included things like: student, naval officer, athlete, manager, retail worker, etc. Some of things I consider as markers of my identity are permanent, others are transitory, but all of them mix together to form a kind of stew that is me. Likely your identity is just as complicated.
The audacious claim of Christianity is that all of these identities, and all of the identities listed for followers of Jesus in the New Testament, are touched, washed and informed by one overarching identity: baptized child of God. Through water and the Word of God, we are washed, made clean, and soaked in the love of God. Although my faith tradition typically doesn’t practice it, I think baptism by full immersion illustrates this point better than sprinkling. A sprinkling gets at the surface dirt that piles up on us day to day, but something much bigger is going on in baptism: the old us is drowned, buried even, and a new creature rises to life. As Luther puts it in this Small Catechism:
What does such baptizing with water signify?
Answer: It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new [person] daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
“A new person daily come forth and arise.” That’s what baptism promises us. That each new day we come forth not just cleansed but renewed, freed to live even more fully into all of our many other identities by being firmly grounding in the identity that never changes and never passes away. It is that identity as a baptized child of God that underlies all of the other identity markers listed in Scripture, and all of the other identity markers we collect through life. And that, I suppose, is the ultimate answer to the question, “Who are you?”
Who am I? I am a baptized child of God, a sinner redeemed by grace, and of more value than many sparrows. And so are you.