Baptized as a teenager, I have clear memories of the pastor whose hand poured the water and invoked the Spirit over me. In addition to the prayer of the liturgy summoning the power for faithful discipleship into my life, she concluded her blessing by looking me in the eyes and saying: “Always remember who and whose you are.”
Those words have stuck with me through the years and I have repeated them often to others whom I have reminded of their own baptismal identity. To the child on their baptism day: Always remember who and whose you are. To the youth as they leave on retreat: Always remember who and whose you are. To the scorned wife questioning her worth: Always remember who and whose you are. To the man who has just been laid off from his job wondering how he will provide for his family: Always remember who and whose you are. To my children as they pour out of the car at school each morning: Always remember who and whose you are.
In all cases, this reminder is meant to be both affirmation and challenge for whatever the world throws their way. It is a prayer that they would hold onto their irrevocable identity as beloved children of God, no matter what another might say. It affirms their citizenship in God’s heavenly kingdom. It challenges them to live according to the ways of that Kingdom, which may or may not be popular.
Baptism of the Lord Sunday is the church calendar’s first stop following the bright lights of the Epiphany. In these appointed texts we continue the news of Epiphany that the gospel is on the move, beyond the confines of Israel, on a mission to embrace the whole world. On the one hand, that news conjures up gentle Sunday School images and songs (♪Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black, and white, they are precious in his sight). While not untrue, what those images obfuscate is the reality that the arrival of the coming Kingdom in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit also has political implications that cause the kingdoms of this world to tremble with both fear and rage. John’s announcement that there’s a new king in town with the power to burn up all that is not of his new kingdom is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Herod, who quickly throws John in prison.
The wide embrace of the Kingdom, particularly as seen in the lesson from the book of Acts, reveals the political implications of this proclamation with the tearing down of racial and cultural barriers in the inclusion of the Samaritans. The word spoken and Spirit descended from heaven over Jesus, telling him who and whose he is, will provide the affirmation and strength that he will need to stand up to the powers that be in the days to come.
Likewise, for those of us formerly “outsiders,” the expansive vision of life under the reign of a king whose baptismal claim on us is unbroken by the whims or self-interests of the powers that be is good news indeed. N.T. Wright points out, however, that “the better the news from the true God, the more likely the angry reaction from false gods and those who serve them.” One only need turn on the evening news for a few minutes these days to find an illustration of this truth. That we remember who and whose we are is necessary affirmation and also marching orders empowering us to stand firm against the powers that might diminish life, erect walls of hatred and division, and scorn the cause of the poor and oppressed.
The good news of Christmas is that God in Christ has been sent by God to usher in a new kingdom of mercy, judgment, and justice. In Epiphany, and particularly as we are invited to reaffirm our own baptisms, the boundaries of that kingdom push wide to include you and me, our friends and our enemies. Some days that sweeping wind and burning fire of the Spirit in our lives feels like promise and other days it feels like challenge. I suspect that’s what the waters of baptism felt like to Jesus as surely as they do on our brow today. Marked by the water this weekend, may we each remember who and whose we are and may that reminder hold us tightly in the love that will not fail, that we might stand firmly for the kingdom that will prevail.