Claimed and Named: Walking on the Baptismal Road
Today in our gospel reading from John, we hear John the Baptist re-telling the story of Jesus’ baptism. John tells a slightly different story around this event than do the other gospel accounts, but John’s gospel carries on our theme for Epiphany – that of Jesus’ baptism and the dawning understanding of Jesus’ identity.
Jesus gets a lot of titles in John’s gospel. In our reading alone, John gives Jesus four titles: Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, and Messiah. If we continue to read the entire gospel we find many more. The interesting thing about titles is that they are our attempt at understanding something. I always think of that Bob Dylan song – “man gave names to all the animals, in the beginning, a long time ago.” To name a thing, to give it a title, is to attempt to understand it and to try to define it.
We, too, are given titles and names. Our parents gave weight and importance to our given names – hoping that those names reflect something perhaps about them or someone they loved, and their hope for our lives. As we grow we get more titles: sister, brother, girlfriend, aunt, father, pastor, teacher, husband, and so on. These titles reflect a piece of who we are and also who we belong to. They identify us.
But we know that these titles don’t contain all of who we are. They are pieces of the puzzle. Jesus, too, couldn’t be contained by the titles given to him – perhaps that’s why we get so many different ones in John’s gospel.
Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, writes on finding our true identity. He says that our identity doesn’t come from outside of us, but rather, much like what we heard from Sonia’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, our identity is already formed, God-given really. Sometimes, Rohr says, we have to unlearn or shed titles that have been given to us, or that we give ourselves, because they don’t fit who we really are and who we are called to be.
This is especially important to remember in this world where we place a huge emphasis on success acquired, money amassed, fame claimed, and beauty won. Oftentimes, if we don’t get these things, the names we give ourselves, or others give to us, become hurtful: loser, ugly, lazy, screw-up, and worse.
Lizzie Velasquez is a 24 year old motivational speaker and author. She will shortly release her 3rdbook. She just graduated from college with a degree in communications studies with a minor in English. She has accomplished some of the goals she set for herself.
Lizzie, the oldest of three children, was born with a rare genetic syndrome that does not permit her to gain weight. She has zero body fat, is blind in one eye and doesn’t see too well in the other. Her face is small, her legs are small, her arms are small. Her skin is aged prematurely. Only three other people in the world have this un-named genetic syndrome.
When she was born, just a little over 2lbs., her parents were told that Lizzie wouldn’t walk, wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t think or do anything herself. After hearing that tragic information, her parents said to the doctors that they would take her home, love her, and raise her the best way they knew how.
While Lizzie was in high school someone posted an 8 second video of her giving her the shameful title of “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” The video got 4 million views. And it got thousands of comments – most of them hurtful and mean. One person said, “Do the world a favour, Lizzie, put a gun to your head and kill yourself.” Other people commented that Lizzie was an “it” or a “monster.”
For a young woman who had experienced unconditional love from her family, her friends, and her faith community, it was an incredibly cruel blow. But it wasn’t the first time. Lizzie had been bullied before; many, many times before.
For a time, like so many girls and women, Lizzie thought that it was looks, or beauty, that defined who she was. Or in her case, the lack of beauty. She prayed every single day that God would take this disease away from her and that she would be different. Every single day she was disappointed.
But after the video went viral, Lizzie made a choice. She has chosen not to let others define who she is. She took that shameful title and refused to let it define her, making it the catalyst for her own life goals of motivational speaking, writing, an education, and a family of her own. She has not let the syndrome from which she suffers define her either. Lizzie says, “I’ve had a really difficult life but that’s ok.” Instead Lizzie sees that her life is placed in her hands. She used the comments and the difficulty she experienced, “to light my fire and keep me going.” But she had to find her own fire. With humour and courage she has walked forward into her own life and into who she is.
“The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”
This is what happens in John’s gospel today as the journey of discipleship begins: there is a claiming and a naming. We hear that Andrew is first encouraged by Jesus’ invitation to “come and see.” After listening to Jesus and being in his presence, Andrew then brings his brother, Simon, along. It is in this invitation where Simon encounters Jesus. Jesus looks at him, knows who he is, and re-names him Cephas, the Aramaic word for Peter.
Peter is claimed by the One who knows him and is given a new title, Peter, meaning “rock.”
It’s important to remember that Peter claimed and named by Jesus didn’t always get Jesus identity or his own identity right. In fact, Peter usually messed up badly at times, got the whole thing really confused, or wrong all together. But, according to John’s gospel, this is where his journey into his true self began, and in faith, Peter was learning along the way.
Journalist and author Paul Salopek writes, “Walking is falling forward. Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith.”
I love this quote. “To walk becomes an act of faith.”
This is where our walk begins, as with Jesus and with Peter – it begins for us at the waters of our baptism, where we are claimed by the One who loves us, who calls to us, who names us as beloved daughters and sons. Here, around the font, we begin our walk in faith to the One who says, “you are mine” and who does not let us fall and who holds us up.
So how do you define yourself? That was Lizzie’s question to herself and to others who will listen to her. What are the titles you claim for yourself?
Maybe just maybe the best title of all, and the only one that really counts, is “Child of God.” And I can tell you, when you listen to that invitation to “come and see”, when you journey along your baptismal road, when you let yourselves be claimed and named by the unconditional love of God, that will be the light to keep your own fires going.