Baptism of our Lord A: Family Name
Dear Partner in Preaching,
In the summer of 1906, my great-grandfather, a pastor and professor of theology at Wittenberg Seminary, ventured east to look for a summer cottage. The cottage he bought, on Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York, has been in our family ever since and has served as a wonderful retreat for several generations of pastors and their families who otherwise would have had a hard time affording a summer getaway. The last name of my great-grandfather, and the majority of my aunts and uncles and cousins descended from him, is Gotwald, and as a kid I would go by that name, rather than my own, while at Cooperstown. Why? Because identifying as a “Gotward” made me instantly recognizable to other residents and merchants who knew my extended family. “Gotwald” meant that I belonged to a family; it meant I – or at least my family – was known. It meant that I mattered. Indeed, just two summers ago when I was explaining to a local official why I shouldn’t have to pay the non-resident fee to receive parking tags for the local boat launch, all his objections faded when I said that I was a Gotwald.
I start with this story because it reinforces the power of names. No, Gotwald wasn’t Roosevelt or Kennedy or Bush. But along the northern shores of Otsego, it is still recognized, and so it means something. The biblical story about the baptism of Jesus reminds us that, like Jesus, in baptism we are also given a name that matters: “beloved.”
Interestingly, there has been debate about the significance of this passage (and those like it in the other Gospels), since their incorporation into the New Testament. Some feel that because Jesus was sinless, he didn’t need to be baptized, as they understand Baptism primarily as the washing away of original sin, and so have found this story somewhat confusing. Others are troubled by Jesus “submitting” to John to be baptized. And, indeed, it appears John had the same trouble, questioning Jesus’ actions. Despite these questions and objections, I think this passage is both important and timely because it helps us recover and reclaim baptism as a dynamic, present-tense activity rather than being seen as a quant ritual or ceremony.
Yes, Baptism washes away sin. Moreover, Holy Baptism promises ongoing forgiveness of sin and relationship with God. And this is both important and central to our understanding. But baptism also provides something more: a name – Beloved – and with that name, an identity – child of God, one to whom God is unfailingly committed. And that name and identity has never been more important.
We are at a time and place where so many would like to identify and define us by many, many names: Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight, rich or poor, Black or White, and the list goes on. Additionally, we are also and increasingly named and defined by the products we use or stores at which we shop. Nike, Apple, BMW, Tiffany, Hallmark – these are not just company names, but lend a particular sense of self, and increasingly the brand labels on our shirts, shoes, cars, and computers convey a great deal of our identity. As one article on branding puts it:
For people who aren’t deeply religious, visible markers of commercial brands are a form of self-expression and a token of self-worth, just like symbolic expressions of one’s faith, according to new research by a Duke University marketing professor and colleagues in New York and Tel Aviv. 1
Which is why it’s so important to remind people this week of the importance of remembering our primary identity as “child of God” and how in Baptism God named – and continues to name us – as “beloved.” It’s not that all these other names are worthless; some of them may be quite important to us. Rather, it’s that while all these other names, affiliations, and identifications may describe us, the dare not define us, as only the name we receive in Holy Baptism grants us the life we enjoy in Christ.
Names are powerful. Notice that in the very next verse after our reading (4:1), Matthew records that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. This happens only after he has been baptized and named. Similarly, when we remember we are God’s beloved children, we are far more able to flourish among the swirl of names, identities, and values that compete for our attention and allegiance. In short, Baptism matters because it tells us who we are by reminding us whose we are: God’s beloved child.
The conventional advice on this Sunday, Dear Partner, will be to stick to preaching on Jesus’ baptism and avoid a sermon about baptism itself. I understand that advice and have, on occasion, given it myself. But I think our folks have been given a treasure in Baptism that few of them understand and even fewer make use of, and so I would urge you to consider preaching about baptism to help them claim and live into this wonderful inheritance. But perhaps the way to approach this sermon is not by explaining doctrine but instead by telling a story, a story about names. Perhaps it will be a story like the one I opened with, when claiming a particular name made a difference to you. Or perhaps it will be a story about the power of names to hurt, as we all learned in childhood, leading to sharing how important it is to remember our family name as God’s beloved children. Or perhaps you’ll have occasion to invite folks to share stories, whether in the service or after, of their own names – nicknames, given names, family names – and what those names mean to them and how the family name we receive in Baptism precedes and circumscribes all those other names.
Names are powerful: they convey identity, purpose, authority, and more. And we have been given an awesome family name. We are God’s beloved children, and each time we wash, each time we are near water, each time we make the sign of the cross, we remember that name and are renewed in faith, hope, and courage.
Bless us this week, Dear Partner, by reminding us of the name we bear and share. It is a sermon and reminder we need to hear, and I am so grateful for your willingness to proclaim it.
Yours in Christ,
1. “Brand Loyalty and Expression of Self-Worth, Just Like Religion,” in Duke Today.https://today.duke.edu/2010/09/brandreligion.html