It seems like every week this summer I come before you after a week of horrific violence and tragedy in the world and try to offer some consolation and hope from scripture. Then in the following week, even worse things happen. I won’t recite the litany of the past months to you, nor even the tragedies, violence, and injustices of the past week. The images are all too familiar to us now even if they were shocking when we first saw or heard about them. Once again, we have had laid bare to us the racism, injustice, and inequity that pervades every aspect of our society. As a human race, we see ourselves in all of our evil and inhumanity.
Who are we? I daresay when confronted by such realities, we are quick to deflect them away from ourselves—to deny our participation and culpability in the injustice and racism of our society, to decry the violence of Islamic jihadis as barbaric and inhuman. We appeal, as President Lincoln once did, to the “better angels of our nature.” We want to see ourselves as decent human beings, incapable of the hate or violence that we see too often here at home or across the world.
Who are we? Most of us, on some level at least, claim our identity as Christians, even if we wear that label somewhat uncomfortably, given what the term Christian has come to represent in our society. And we might even admit that claiming that identity bears little cost to us for the most part We marvel at those Christians across the world who suffer for their faith, those who are given the alternative: renounce your faith or die. I think that in our global context, with the suffering of Christians for the faith a reality and growing tragedy, what we do here today, both in confessing our faith, and in baptizing new members of the body of Christ, takes on new significance and meaning. To claim our identity as Christians is becoming a dangerous and political act—not just in the mountains of Iraq or in China, but here in Madison—to claim our identity as Christians, to witness to and participate in the gospel of love preached by Jesus, to share that love with the stranger and enemy as well as with our neighbor and friend. That is revolutionary. That is dangerous.
In a few minutes, before I baptize Theodore and Eliza, I will say to their parents and godparents, “Name this child!” It’s a vestige of what used to be a rather common custom—the notion that one was given one’s name at baptism—in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, it’s still fairly common for adults who are baptized to be given a baptismal name different than their legal name. Even if, as in Eliza’s case, the one being baptized has had her name for quite some time, it’s still important to recognize that baptism, like the process of naming itself, is about identity. The sacrament of baptism identifies us as children of God, as members of the body of Christ. It declares our identity in and to the world.
The story of Moses contains a number of themes that have carried over into Christianity and into our understanding of the sacrament of baptism. There’s water and naming, of course, but there’s also the theme that Moses is saved by the miraculous intervention of people and forces outside of himself, and outside of the other main characters in the story. Perhaps even more important is the larger theme and story of which Moses’ birth is just an episode. That is the story of Israel, God’s chosen people. We have heard over the last months stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebekah, Ishmael, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, and Esau. We have heard of God’s promises to them that he would bless them, make a mighty nation of them and give them the promised land. But after all of those promises, after all of those years, here we are in Egypt. The Israelites are strangers and aliens. Now they are slaves. And Moses is abandoned, a baby without a name or family, and rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter. The name he’s given is an Egyptian name, not Hebrew and he has the opportunity to have a new identity as a member of Egypt’s royal family. But God had other plans for him.
The memory of their slavery, of their time as strangers and aliens in a foreign land would continue to dominate the Israelites’ self-understanding and how they organized their society. Their laws, their justice, their ethics, would all be shaped by that story. They were commanded to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, because they were once aliens in Egypt. It would also carry over into Christianity as the notion of the people of God was expanded to include all who identified Jesus as the Messiah.
Paul draws on that story of the Israelites in bondage in a foreign language in our reading from Romans 12 when he writes, “Be not conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” For Paul, this people of God, called together by its common confession of Jesus as the Messiah, is a people who are not citizens of this world but owe their allegiance to Christ. We are exiles, sojourners in this place. Even the great confession of Peter shows the same dynamic. It occurs in the region of Caesarea Philippi—a city built as a monument to the emperor and as a symbol of Rome’s power, majesty, and sovereignty. When Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, he is confessing Jesus’ lordship over all, lordship even over Rome. Confessing Christ is a political act; it is a confession that God’s power and justice transcend all human institutions and that God judges all nations and cultures.
As Paul says, our confession of Christ is never just or only a political act. Our confession of Christ transforms us as well. Here, Paul appeals to the community’s oneness in Christ. We are one body in Christ. When we are baptized we are given a new name and identity. We belong to Christ. That name empowers us. It transforms us. To accept that name and identity also means accepting the gifts that God gives us, the power to do God’s work in the world. Moses couldn’t do it on his own. He did it with God’s help.
We aren’t on our own either. We have God’s help, of course, but we also have the body of Christ that feeds us and strengthens us. As Moses was given the gifts to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, so too our baptism, our naming as Christ’s own, gives us the power to be the body of Christ. More important, our baptism brings us into a revolutionary community, the body of Christ, in which all members are equal—male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, black and white. The body of Christ witnesses to the love and justice of God, witnesses to the dignity of every human person. The body of Christ witnesses to the love of God, the love of neighbor, the love of enemy. When we confess the name of Christ, when we are baptized, we claim our identity in that body, we claim our participation in that new community of love.