It’s good to be back with you after some time away in Kansas with Abbie’s family. Part of vacation is setting aside the work and the concerns of one’s normal routine and I was able to do this for the most part, only I had peeked ahead to what the lectionary readings were going to be for the first several Sundays in January, so I knew that this Sunday was about the baptism of Jesus. So I was kind of surprised when I saw a baptism-like event over the vacation that I hadn’t anticipated. Part of the surprise was that it occurred while Abbie and I were watching the movie Avatar….which, by the way, is a really good movie.
Abbie and I don’t get to the theater much these days, so when we do go there is some added pressure that we have to pick a really, really good film…and we were not let down. See it if you can, preferably with those really cool 3-D glasses.
So just to set up the scene a bit – it takes place some time in the future when a mining corporation from earth is trying to gain access to a valuable commodity on the planet Pandora. The main catch is that the native human-like population on Pandora, the Na’vi, has no interest in giving up or trading for the resource. The company has made somewhat of an effort to try and get the natives to move from the land. If they can’t get them to move, they’re prepared to use military force. One strategy for getting to know the natives is growing avatars which are living beings which look like the natives but which are controlled by the mind of a human back on the base. One of the avatars is controlled by an ex-marine who plans to help the military unit of the corporation uncover the weaknesses of the natives. This character is soon captured by the natives who want to kill him, but it is decided that he is allowed to live if he will learn their ways.
Now I’m not throwing in any spoilers here, but the scene that had all sorts of echoes of baptism came when he is ready to be accepted as one of the Na’vi. He has been trained how to live as a Navi and has learned their language. Like Na’vi catechism. So there is a ceremony where it is told that the Na’vi believe that a person is born two times. Once from their mother, and a second time when they are ready to become a part of the people. All of the Na’vi gather around him and place their hands on him such that the entire tribe is either touching him or has their hand on the shoulder of someone in the chain who is eventually touching him in the inner circle. The allusion to being born again and the fact that my own baptism ended in just the same way, with members of our small congregation gathering around me and placing their hands on me and offering a blessing made the scene a pretty powerful display of what it means to join a peoplehood, to receive a baptismal identity.
There’s a lot more movie after that and one of the themes of the film, and the theme I’d like to highlight with baptism is this very question of identity. For this ex-marine part of the identity struggle is the tension between his commitment to serving the mission of the humans in obtaining this resource and his growing sympathy for the native population. For the Christian in the 21st century US we are faced with particular challenges about how baptism informs, shapes, names, our identity. In the five year visioning outline that I shared with you in November, I mentioned my thoughts that we would do well to allow these signs of discipleship to be elevated in their significance and in our consciousness. So I would like to speak about baptism as a gift of identity. A marker which signifies who we are and what we are to be about in this life and what it means to be a part of a people. And after I’m done we’ll have communion, which as we practice it, is either an invitation to, an anticipation of baptism, or a reaffirmation of one’s baptism.
We’ll take some cues from the brief account we are given about Jesus’ baptism, which I’ll read now and comment on in a little bit. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.’”
One of the wonderful but also challenging aspects of our setting is that our culture is soundly pluralistic. I say wonderful because pluralism brings with it the gifts of the many, and the possibility of encountering beauty, encountering goodness, encountering the Wisdom of God, in people and traditions other than our own. Other than Mennonite. Other than Christian. Not yet other than human, but who knows? Pluralism is a gift and we can all be wealthier in spirit by being open to the plurality in which we live.
I say that it is challenging, because one of the difficulties of living amidst so much diversity is that we run the risk of forfeiting or losing our own identity. Or we may think that by claiming a particular identity that we are somehow defining ourselves over against others. Can one be a Christian and befriend Jews and Muslims in their Jewishness and their commitment to Islam? What does our Christian identity call us to hold as vital and essential to who we are? And can one be plural in oneself? If we feel deep kinship toward multiple traditions, can we claim both of these as our own? Hey, the Nisly-Nageles did it with their last names. They chose to keep both of their family identities and pass those on to their children, so can we be hyphenated in our spirituality? Can we be Mennonite-Catholics? Or Methodist-Mennonites. Or Christian-Buddhists? Or Christian-humanists? What does that look like and what does that mean for us as a congregation of a particular denomination in this country?
It just so happened that this morning was a time that worked out for me to meet with the youth during the Sunday school hour to talk about baptism. They are asking similar questions of identity…
One of the things that I shared with them that I also want to share here, because I think it highlights some of the identity questions so well is a paragraph by someone struggling with their identity – the person happening to be my brother, who, in my biased opinion, is a pretty darn good writer. I’ve actually shared a snippet of this before in a Musing, but here it is again. Keep in mind the reality of pluralism and identity as you hear this:
“Here’s what – ten thousand folks are floating around the grey soup in our heads – aunt, uncles, grandparents, pastors, old ladies from church, school teachers, friend’s parents, authors we’ve read and loved, men and women we’ve read about. One day somebody smiles at you and he slips in through your eyes and starts swimming around – or the old lady who knows your grandma asks what year you’re on in school, and in through your ears she slides, slipping into the gray soup. They’re all in there, thousands of them, telling you where your home is at, who you are, where you’re going, whether you’re doing all right.
“And I can’t tell you whether there is something more to who we are – a kernel of self that doesn’t need to be named by folks from the outside, something only we and God know deep down. But I can tell you this: When those then thousand folks all floating in your head stop their swimming all at once, close their eyes shut, stop their whispering, and start scratching around – some clawing to find their way out, others taking hold of some part of your skull, kicking and pulling, like they’re battling you for space in your own head – that’s when you find out just how much of your self is made up of those ten thousand folks. All along you never knew that those voices telling you how to find your way were anything other than your own brain talking to itself.” (Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality, pp. 218-219)
I believe in the same Musing I mentioned this idea from family systems theory that we all walk around with something like funnels above our heads of our parents and grandparents, and their parents, and our cousins, and friends and all these other influences that make up so much of the composition of who we are, how we think about ourselves, what’s important to us.
When I first thought about these things in relation to baptism, I thought that there was one really strong connection to the Luke text, but after reading it several times and then reading a little further down, I noticed another connection which I’d never thought about in this way before.
So that first connection addresses all these voices that we have going on within us. Along with family and friends and maybe even enemies, and religious traditions, we can add cultural forces like consumerism, violence, racism – the voice of the TV – the liturgy of the commercials telling you what to buy and what it means to be beautiful. All these things. And what we see in Jesus’ baptism is that he is given the gift of hearing a voice. A clarifying spoken word that gave him a place to stand and an identity that trumped all other identities or forces at work in his life. When Jesus is baptized he comes out of the water, receives a gift of presence of Spirit that is illustrated as a descending dove, and hears this voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well please.”
I would like to offer that this is one of the shining gifts of our baptismal identity. This voice that declares us a beloved child of God. We don’t become a beloved child of God because we’re baptized, as if it’s something that we do – we are already beloved – but in baptism we recognize that we have been given this identity and it is confirmed in the community of believers, and we have this anchor, this defining voice that helps keep all the other voices in perspective. No matter who else we are, we are beloved children of God, and that changes everything. Our orientation toward life, our very basis out of which we live, the well of energy from which we draw on a daily basis, is that of belovedness. You are my son, you are my daughter, the beloved. All of a sudden the gray soup, the funnel, is placed in a different light, and there’s some sense of grounding. Of being held up in our createdness, and centered in the love of God.
The thing I hadn’t noticed before, is that right after Jesus’ baptism, right after he is given this marker of selfhood, Luke goes on to name the funnel above Jesus’ head – his family tree. “Jesus was the son (as we thought) of Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, on and on all the way back to Adam. So Jesus carries with him both the inherited identity of his family system, as well as the divine gift through baptism that solidifies that he is ultimately born of God and given identity by and in God. He is a part of his family story, but also not limited by it or confined to it, which is also what we hope for – that we have these voices that inform us of who we are and root us in a story, but that we ultimately are listening for the voice of the Spirit that directs our paths as a beloved child of God. And if we carry a lot of destructive and unhealthy patterns that we inherit from our past, or family history, then there is this second birth of finding ourselves born of God and ordered by the Spirit and having the beloved Father/Mother God as the one offering us the gift of who we are.
And baptism is our way of saying Yes to this gift that is being offered. Yes, we accept this. Yes, we want to make a public confession and acceptance of being joined up in this story, this funnel with its great cloud of witnesses, the gray soup where saints and sinners swim together as reconciled brothers and sisters, which we call the Church.
Our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective says, “Baptism is a testimony to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and the continuing work of the Spirit in the lives of believers. Through the Spirit we repent and turn toward God in faith. The baptism of the Holy Spirit enables believers to walk in newness of life, to live in community with Christ and the church, to offer Christ’s healing and forgiveness to those in need, to witness boldly to the good news of Christ, and to hope in the sharing of Christ’s future glory.
That’s a more formalized way of saying what has already been said.
I want to end by reading the last paragraph of the essay about struggling with identity, and the voices of the gray soup – written still very much in the struggle, but providing this image that can help teach us who we can be as a congregation.
“At my baptism, I remember going under and coming back – how dark and smooth the underwater felt, how when lifting back up I seemed to pierce the surface, coming up baby-wet into the arms of my father and pastor. Afterward, on the shore, the people laid their hands on me for a blessing prayer. Imprinted in my memory is the feeling of standing solidly upright, hands pressing in from every side, knowing that each hand followed back to five more – hands on my back, chest, side, neck. I knew then that if I couldn’t hold my head or my shoulder or my body up anymore – if my legs gave way – if I could no longer stand – those hands would hold me tight, safe, anchored to my place. I could not fall.” (Stumbling… p. 226)