What is My Identity?

By The Rev. Anne Michele Turner, Bridge Rector

A friend of mine has, for a couple of years, been encouraging me to join Twitter, and a little while back, I went poking around on the site, trying to figure out if I wanted to.  I noticed that most people described themselves with a series of labels:  Knitter.  Bird-watcher.  Scientist.  Father.  Runner.  Patriot.  Cook.  It made me think about what label I might give myself.  Mother?  Priest?  What is my identity?

Our culture gives out lots of labels.  Some of them we choose for ourselves.  Others get stuck on us.  A lot of them cling to us unintentionally, even insidiously in this culture of social media.  The internet knows what I look at on line, and my browsing history has clearly labeled me as a shoe-shopper, a hiker, and a heavy user of Amazon Prime.  Ads on the sidebar tell me so.  You can understand who am I and what I think is important, presumably, by which Washington Post articles I click on, which charities I donate money to.  We are all branded, aren’t we?

In this cloud of labels, it’s hard to know which ones are the right ones.  It’s hard to know what is reflecting who I am, and what is shaping who I am, and what is trying to change who I am.  You and I live in a world that makes us doubt who we are. In a world of brand loyalty, what should our brand be?  Do we even get to choose?

Today we hear about the branding of Jesus.  Today we hear about the most fundamental mark of identity that there is: the mark of baptism.  Jesus comes to John at the Jordan river and is washed in the water there and comes up and receives this unmistakable proclamation from heaven: This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

In celebrating Jesus’ baptism, we remember not just that first baptism, but the very act of baptism—the gift of the sacrament to the church.  Which is another way of saying that we celebrate the gift of identity.  Because Jesus’s baptism was an act of identity—marking him as the one that John had foretold, as messiah, teacher, savior, anointed.  And all of our baptisms are acts of identity, too.  They brand us at a level far deeper than Twitter or Amazon could ever reach.

The act of baptism, of course, has many components—there is the ritual washing, and in our modern infant baptisms there is often the first presentation of a child in church.  In fact, baptism is often equated with infant naming ceremonies in other cultures.  And, indeed, there is a giving of a name.  But it is not the infant’s name that matters, so much—not John or Elizabeth or anything like that.  It is the giving of God’s name, the mark of God put on us that counts.  I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  That’s the identity we get.  That’s the brand to which we are made loyal.  Once that name is given, it becomes the most fundamental layer of our selfhood.

Who are you?  Maybe a runner or a cook or a shoe shopper or any of the rest.  But once you have been baptized, the most fundamental, indelible truth of you is that you are a Christian.  You are in Christ.

It’s important to unpack what that means, though, in this culture of labels—because, honestly, “Christian” can become just another hashtag, interchangeable with the rest.  In our political and cultural climate, “Christianity” can become another marketing tool, a catchphrase with particular and even arbitrary signifiers.  I’m guessing that a many of you have had that experience of being in a place where naming yourself as Christian lumped you with a particular and narrow brand of evangelical theology.   So if we say that being “Christian” is at the bedrock of our identity—well, whose Christianity?  Whose Christ?

I think the gospel today tells us.  It is Christ the Beloved who marks us.  Our brand is beloved.  That is who we are.  We are the ones who are loved by God.

This may sound ordinary and kind of obvious on the surface.  But think about it for a little while, and it’s really kind of revolutionary.  The most important thing that we who are baptized with Christ can say about ourselves is that we are loved.  How often do you really, actually believe that about yourself—that you are loved?  How often do you live that way?

When I first became a priest, I thought I would spend time helping people think about theological problems, or working with them to understand suffering, or wrestle with them to understand their sins.  I was wrong.  The hardest thing for almost all of us, I’ve come to realize, is to believe we are loved.  It’s so hard to understand that love comes as a gift before we have done anything and not as a reward in response to our merit.    I don’t get why it’s so hard.  But it baffles us.

Can you know that you are loved?  This is both the gift and the challenge of this gospel: to embrace our particular Christian brand, the brand of grace.  And to embrace it not just for ourselves, but for our whole human community.  Because once I realize that I am loved, not for what I’ve earned by instead as the completely wonderful and random gift of God—well, then I have to accept that the person next to me is probably loved the same way.  And the person next to her, too.  And the guy down the street who bugs me.  And the person in pew behind me who I had a fight with last week.  And the uncle at Christmas dinner who voted for the other party.  And that woman at work whose Facebook postings are completely offensive to me.  Beloved.  All of them.  All of us.

There was a piece in the Washington Post opinion section last week, and I’m not quite sure how it wound up there among the partisan sparring, but it said something pretty important: “it we must prove our worth, it is possible to be worthless.  If we earn love, it is conditional and fickle . . . It is maybe the work of a lifetime to live as if we are loved.”

This is our work, here and now, the work of grace.  You are beloved.  Live that way with one another here and now, and live that way everywhere you go from this place.