The Power of a Good Name

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Somewhere along the way — I think in a college English literature class — I remember a teacher saying that there are only seven major themes that animate all great books: human against nature, human against human, the pursuit of love, the loss of love, etc. Sometimes I think the same is true about preaching — there really are only about seven or eight major themes that make up the core of the gospel and our best sermons are animated by some variation on them. Today’s gospel story about Jesus’ baptism pulls one of these themes front and center: identity.

There are a number of interesting questions surrounding the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, questions that date from the earliest Christian communities. In fact, given the various re-workings of the story by the four evangelists, it’s likely the very existence of this account was troubling. Why, to summarize the early church’s difficulty, did Jesus need to be baptized by John at all? Surely it wasn’t for the forgiveness of sin? Or because John was the greater prophet or teacher? Then why? Each evangelist works out a distinct response to this question, including Matthew in today’s reading, where he links Jesus’ baptism to the fulfillment of righteousness.

While these differences are both important and interesting, however, all four gospels share two plot-related features that I think are key to interpreting this passage meaningfully. First, in each account Jesus’ baptism is accompanied by the giving of the Spirit, and in three of them it is accompanied by a voice from heaven pronouncing Jesus’ God’s beloved Son, a child with whom God is most pleased. Whatever else Jesus’ baptism may mean, therefore, it certainly is the place where he learns definitively who he is in relation to whose he is. At his baptism, Jesus is given the intertwined gifts of identity and affirmation.

This leads to the second important plot element of the gospels: Jesus’ baptism precedes the commencement of his public ministry. In John’s account, this begins with the calling of the first disciples. In Matthew and his synoptic cousins Mark and Luke, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness immediately following his baptism and only then begins calling followers. In all four, the theme is clear: the gift of identity precedes mission. We might even go further and say that only by having a clear sense of God’s affirmation and identity can Jesus take on the enormous mission in front of him. This is poignantly clear in Matthew and Luke, where the Tempter’s point of attack is precisely at the question of identity: “If you are the Son of God….” Satan calls into question Jesus’ relationship with his Father because he knows that Jesus, as with Adam and Eve before him, is vulnerable to temptation precisely to the degree that his is insecure about his identity and mistrusts his relationship with God.

And this is where these stories of Jesus’ baptism intersects with the stories of our own. For we, too, can only live into the mission that God has set for us to the degree that we hear and believe the good news that we, too, are beloved children of God. As with Jesus, we discover in baptism who we are by hearing definitively whose we are. Baptism is nothing less than the promise that we are God’s beloved children. That no matter where we go, God will be with us. That no matter what we may do, God is for us and will not abandon us. In baptism we are blessed with the promise of God’s Spirit and given a name, and that name is Christian, one marked with the cross of Christ and named a beloved child of God forever.

This matters tremendously because names are powerful. The names we are given or take, the names that arouse pride or shame, names are important. Some we have chosen; others have been given to us. Some lift us up; others tear us down. Whatever the case, names are powerful. This reading promises, however, that no matter how powerful our earthly names, yet they do not define us. What defines us is the name given to us by God alone: the name of beloved child.

So imagine for a moment, Working Preacher, if during your sermon you took a moment to invite people to remember some of the more difficult names they have been called during their lives, the names that no matter how long ago they were uttered endure in their memories, dogging them through the day and haunting them at night. Names like “Stupid” or “Egghead,” “Fatso” or “Ugly.” Names like “Loser” or “Priss,” “Know-it-all” or “Victim”. Ask them to call to mind these names for one painful moment so that they can then hear God say to each of them, “No! That is not your name. For you are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.”

As we heard a week ago in John’s prologue, the Word became flesh so that all who receive him may be given power to become children of God. And today we learn that we, like Jesus, discover who we are by hearing once again whose we are, God’s own beloved child. We may be living at a time when the question of identity has never been more pressing, for there are so many sources from which to receive and construct our identities, and anyone with a connection to the Internet knows this first hand. But so few of these names are life-giving, and none redemptive. No wonder this gift of identity and affirmation is one of the great themes of the gospel, as it sends us forth from the sanctuary armed with our primary name — Christian — that we may face the various challenges and opportunities before us knowing that we are God’s own beloved children. So take this opportunity to remind us — nay, even to pronounce us once again — God’s own beloved Child. And then step back and look out, because a name — and especially this Name – is indeed powerful. Thank you, Working Preacher, for this and for all you do.

Yours in Christ,