Many of you know my son Tristan; he is eight years old now, and currently he is obsessed with talking interactive computers like Google’s search engine, which lets you ask rather than type a question and answers back in an audible voice. Mostly he asks about the weather or about the news or to hear a song, but sometimes he gets more philosophical and asks a deeper and more profound question: “Google, who are you?” Tristan will ask. And Google answers: “Searching for oneself can take a lifetime, but a good place to start is classic rock,” whereupon Google provides you with a link to a video of The Who’s 1978 smash hit “Who Are You?”.
Besides the title to a classic rock track though it’s an important question actually, one that all of us have asked, and we spend our whole lives asking it of ourselves most of all: “Who are you?”
The reason I bring this up is because in today’s readings we actually get answers to this profound question. Both our reading from Mark’s Gospel and from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians each in their own way explicitly address the question of identity, the identity of Jesus Christ, and our identity as Christians.
I bring it up for another reason too and that is that today we are blessed to baptize another young member of the body of Christ, our little friend Luke Graham Ankstitus, whose parents Laura and Dayna have brought him here in faith today to receive the sacrament that will initiate him into Christian life. And therefore I will also speak about baptism, because baptism is the place where the question of who Jesus is and the question of we are come together; baptism is the place where his identity and our identity intersect.
Let’s start with Mark. This brief reading is Mark’s version of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is quite minimal when it comes to detail. We have been given almost no information at all about Jesus. John the Baptist is in the wilderness, and hordes of people are pouring out of the city of Jerusalem to be baptized by him, something that normally would only happen to Gentile converts to Judaism. Yet John is calling for everyone to be baptized, for all the people of Israel to repent of their sins and recommit themselves to follow God.
Jesus steps into this scene from some other place altogether, not big-city Jerusalem but backwater Nazareth. And yet John has said someone like this is coming. He knows that someone mightier than he is on his way, and now, from an unexpected place and without any warning, out of the blue, here Jesus is.
What is he doing here? How did he get here? What does he want? What does he look like? Where was he born and who were his parents? In short, Who is this?
In Mark’s version of the story nobody at this early stage seems to know for sure. Nobody knows why Jesus would want to be baptized when he has no sins to repent of and he is already wholly committed to God.
So the question is “Who are you, Jesus?” And the answer comes in verse 11, and it comes from God Himself. Jesus goes down into the water, and when he comes up, we get the answer. Who are you? “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
That is the answer to the question “Who are you?” when addressed to Jesus. This is his identity. For Mark, this comes first. Who are you? You are my son. And I am pleased with you. He introduces who Jesus is with these words, with God’s words.
Mark does not tell us about Jesus’s miraculous birth, his mother, his father, there’s no angels, no shepherds, no magi, none of that comes up at all. For Mark, Jesus’s identity comes not from his origins, from his parentage, from the time or place of his birth, it doesn’t come from his job or from his friends or his peers. It comes straight from God. And the basis of Jesus’s identity, his being as the Son of God, is something that is made clear for the first time at his baptism.
So what about us? When we think about our identity, where do we think it comes from? From our parents? From our culture? From the time and place of our birth and upbringing? From our job or our friends or family or peers? That’s what I think of first. If you asked me “Who are you?” I would tell you where I was born, what my parents are like, where I grew up, about my job, my wife, my son. I bet you would too. It’s not at all surprising that’s the sort of thing we think of first.
Because just about the entirety of the modern world is based on the idea that my identity is what I can call mine. We think our identities are built up from our homes, our language, our family, our property, and at the very bottom of it all if I have nothing else to point to my identity is based on my body. In fact, enormously influential economic and political theories have been based on this idea: If you have nothing else, you have yourself, and even if you don’t believe in the soul you at least have a body and that is yours if nothing else is.
And what could be more obvious? Isn’t it plain that my identity consists in what is mine, and that even if I have nothing else I have my own self or at least my own body that I can call my possession?
As obvious as that seems, I say it’s false. I think it’s wide open to challenge, and I think St. Paul rather boldly challenges this cornerstone of the whole modern world.
The truth is that for a believer in Jesus Christ our identity also comes straight from God.
This is the key teaching I think from St. Paul in today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians. He says everything you think you know about your own identity is at best only part of the story. You are not just your parents’ child. You are not just your place of birth or where you grew up. You are not just your native culture and language. You are not your family or friends or your job or even your body. And why is that?
1 Corinthians 6:19: “You are not your own.” This is Paul’s answer to the question “Who are you?” This is what he teaches us is the basis of our identity. Who are we? Paul says we are not our own. And this is why he condemns sexual immorality, not because he is a hopelessly outdated puritan and a joyless scold but because our souls and yes even our bodies do not belong to us. They belong to God, and our identity too comes straight from God.
And this is what we affirm in baptism. When we bring a child forward to be baptized into the body of Christ, into the family of those who believe in him, we are saying something powerful about identity: about the identity of Jesus Christ, about our identity, and about that child’s identity.
I said before that in baptism Christ’s identity and our identity overlap. When we baptize Luke we do so in confidence that Luke’s life and death will be caught up in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the victorious Son of God. In the moment of his baptism, God says to Luke too, “You are my Son,” because from here on out Luke is no longer Luke.
His identity is found from now on not in his loving parents, his home here in Boston, or even his own body: None of that is his, and his identity from now on comes from God.
So what does that leave him with? What does that leave us with? I am telling you something outrageous, something that nothing in our culture would countenance, that nothing we our tempted to call ours is really our own. So what can I call my own? What can Luke call his own once he is baptized?
Remember the words of God that Jesus hears at his baptism. God the Father proclaims not only “You are my Son” but also “With you I am well pleased.” Why should God the Father be well pleased? What is the source of this pleasure?
I believe that God the Father is pleased with Jesus’s sinless life of perfect service to and love for others. But God has declared that Jesus is his one and only beloved Son, and in Jesus’s life God was so pleased that he refused to consign that perfect life to death but raised him from the grave.
God the Father’s pleasure at the Son’s life lived wholly in devotion to God the Father and in sacrificial love and service to others moves God the Father to vindicate the life of the Son by making that life invincible. And if God raises Christ from the dead then anyone whose life has been given over to Christ will also be raised. As Paul says in verse 14, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.”
What Luke is left with, then, what we are left with, is a life that can not die, a life of service and devotion to others, the only life that pleases God. The life that pleases God consists not in what we think we can call our own but only in what we give away. In baptism he and we die to all the things that we think give us our identity—those things are drowned—and what comes back up from under the water, what survives the plunge, is only what pleases God, only the love and service and giving for others that Christ models for us in his perfect divinity and perfect humanity. That is the true identity of Christ. And it is the true identity of all those who follow him. Amen.