Angela and I binge watched our way through the Crown. Never having had much of an interest in British Royalty it surprised me how compelling, if not always enjoyable, I found the show to be. There was one episode – or actually, a particular segment of an episode – that’s been playing in my mind ever since first seeing it. I’ve searched Youtube to find the moment again to share with you, but I’ve been unsuccessful. In it, Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher are having one of their regular sit-downs. I can’t remember the exact circumstances that provide the context for their discussion, but the Queen is concerned with the Prime Minister’s actions and the impact they may have on what she calls the “collective identity” of the nation. Thatcher interrupts with the claim that any notion of a collective identity is a myth and a lie. There’s no such thing as collective identity, just individuals doing their jobs or not, taking responsibility for their lives – their successes, their failures – or not. The only identity anybody has is their own, individual, personal identity for which they alone are responsible.
The moment struck me as important one because it points to an issue that I believe underlies many of the arguments that divide us currently as a nation: Personal responsibility verses the influence of circumstance and environment to shape who we are, what we do, and who we become. I’m not going to get specific here with the examples because I think it could distract us (and perhaps you can think of your own), but I’ll say that in this area I believe there’s great opportunity for people to express a biblical kind of love for neighbor by engaging in some deep listening to one another. We might discover truths we’ve never considered and more common ground than we ever expected.
One place where this dynamic plays out is in the world of Christian faith and we can see it pretty clearly in the extremes, but at the same time these extremes have interests and concerns that when heard might at least calm the waters and allow space for the Spirit, if not bring about some growth or unity. When I’m tempted to dismiss the “get saved” people as the Christianized expression of a me-first, selfish individualism I’m also reminded that among the names God knows intimately is my own, that a grace is given to each of us to experience and cherish and that no one else can experience it for us. I have a friend who says, “I just can’t feel any kind of faith,” but I’m pretty sure she’s never seriously surrendered enough of herself to give it a try. Of course, I can help her, but I can’t do it for her.
At the same time, I’ve known churches that are only interested in saving souls and in some ways miss out on what it means to actually care for them. They would benefit from Christian voices that, though they may err on the side of subordinating God to their causes, at their better moments remind us that the grace that calls us by name is the same grace that calls others by name and is the same grace that calls us out of our individual selves into the family of God’s people.
You may remember how Paul spoke of this in terms of a body where Christ is the head and we are all members. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” says Paul. And, not just that, but “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” He goes on, “As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
Baptism of the Lord Sunday is a “thing” in the church – more liturgical traditions call it a feast – because our baptisms are a participation in Christ’s. We become members of his body by being baptized “into Christ” as Paul says. Our Acts passage today draws the distinction between being baptized in John’s name and being baptized in Christ’s. John’s is for forgiveness. John’s baptism is a solution to a problem in that sense. Jesus’ baptism on the other hand is for a future; it’s for an unfolding reality of a life that is shared with the life that Christ shares with his God. Elsewhere Paul calls it an adoption. Through baptism we are adopted into the sonship of Jesus so that when the voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased,” that voice is for us too.
Part of me immediately wants to say, “No it’s not. That voice is for Jesus. Let’s not confuse the two.” But, that’s exactly what Jesus does. He confuses the two. He shares himself. He takes this great moment of divine affirmation offered personally to him and he shares it with us each individually. The Spirit given to him he gives to us, which says something, I think about collective identity. It says it’s a thing. It says it’s real. It says we are part of one another because the same Christ is in us all.
Now, that wind from God that swept over the face of the waters back in Genesis when the earth was but a formless void is the very same spirit that Christ shares with us. (That’s why the lectionary writers pair it with today’s gospel.) Since it is there at the beginning what that says to me is that it is part of the Creator’s design for all people; it is there always and forever and for everyone. Baptism is our way of proclaiming, owning, and celebrating a truth that is truth even for those who are unaware of it. This Holy Spirit moves where it will, and it wills to live and move and breath in all of us. What’s essential about us all is shared by us all, and the Church proclaims this and models it by living as a community, as one body with many individual parts.
Here’s a vision I would like you to hold with me. Imagine being there at the Jordan with John the Baptist and the hoards of others who’ve come because like you they are ready for a new thing, a different, more God inspired way of being in the world. Imagine John’s hand holding the back of your head as you sink below the surface. You close your eyes and hold your breath and feel the cold water rushing past you. Then, he lifts you up and you take your first new breath and you open your eyes and you see that it’s a sopping wet Jesus with his hand on you now, and you hear him share those words that came to him from heaven: “YOU are my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” As the grace of those words sinks in, you look around you and you see that at the exact time of your rising a river full of graced people just like you have risen too. The same words are shared with them, and we’re all sopping wet together, drenched with grace.
Let’s hold that vision into our futures. Let’s try to see it as we see one another. Let’s hold it as we see just about anybody.