There’s a story behind my name—a story tied up with my family and roots, and it’s a story and a name with which I’ve always struggled. It’s not just that my surname is both awkward and uncommon—should it be pronounced Greezer or Greizer—or, heaven forbid, Greaser. BTW, I had a German prof in college who took great delight in addressing me as Herr Greaser…
It’s a German name, so it’s Grieser, of course. And while it may be rare in Wisconsin or worldwide, my hometown was full of Griesers. My grandfather, great-grandfather, and great great grandfather all had lots of sons who had lots of sons, and most of them stayed in the area. At least back home, they know how to pronounce it.
But there’s also the matter of my first and middle names. My parents wanted to call me Jon, but they wanted my initials to match the initials of my deceased grandfather—so DJ—but in my case the D stood for Dale—my father’s first name. So growing up, I was Jon, even though at least two other Jon Griesers in my elementary school, which led to infinite confusion. For example, I once wore a pair of prescription glasses for a week that was meant for one of the other Jons.
That particular confusion came to an end when my fifth-grade teacher, calling the roll on the first day of class, saw my first initial and promptly named me DJ. The name stuck and by DJ I was known until I graduated from college. That brought its own set of confusions and challenges—the inevitable question—are you a DJ?
So I’ve struggled with my first name and when I’m dealing with doctors or business or what have you, if I identify myself as Jonathan, they won’t be able to find my record. And then there’s the whole issue of my surname which is uncommon, unattractive, and confusing to pronounce.
Names are funny things, and we’ve just learned this week that our nation’s political polarization extends to preferences for naming babies. Apparently there are different lists of the most popular name in blue states and red states. Perhaps like me you’ve struggled with the name your parents chose for you, or you struggle with the surname that you carry with you.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is puzzling and problematic on several levels. In the first place, while the synoptic gospels all tell some version of the story, there are significant differences. Remember that the gospel of Mark was probably the first of the gospels to be written, and that Matthew, which we are reading in this year of the lectionary, draws heavily on Mark as a source. But Matthew changes Mark in some important ways. Only in Matthew, for example, do we have the dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus, in which John protests saying that Jesus should baptize him.
More significant is another slight change. In Mark, after the baptism, the voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In Matthew, the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In other words, in Mark, the voice seems to be speaking directly to Jesus, naming him as God’s Son; in Matthew, the voice speaks to John, and or to the crowd, identifying for them who Jesus is.
In these different accounts of Jesus’ baptism, we can see early Christians struggling to make sense of this event. It’s a problem for them for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is the obvious one. The gospels tell us that John baptized people for forgiveness of sins—baptism was a symbol of repentance and amendment of life. But if that was the case, why would Jesus, who presumably being divine was without sin, need to be baptized?
The second problem is perhaps less obvious but equally troubling among the first followers of Jesus. That he was baptized by Jesus implies that John somehow had as much, or more, authority than Jesus. We know from other stories in the gospels, and from the book of Acts, that there was something of a competition between followers of Jesus and followers of John, and it didn’t strengthen the position of early Christians in this controversy that John baptized Jesus. We can also see that as time goes on, there’s an attempt to erase the act of Jesus’ baptism. Thus, in the gospel of John, while we read about John the Baptist and learn of encounters and conversations between Jesus and John, if you look carefully, you will note that no where is it stated explicitly that John baptized Jesus.
All of that is of historical interest, but the story of Jesus’ baptism is not important only for the problems it presents to the gospel writers and perhaps to us; it is also important for the meaning the gospel writers attach to it. Although the voice from heaven says slightly different things in Matthew and Mark and may seem to be addressing different audiences, the message in both instances is quite clear, that Jesus is God’s Beloved Son.
To state the obvious, Jesus’ baptism is about his identity, making clear who he is. It’s not coincidental that in both Matthew and Mark, the very next event recounted is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which was about Satan testing Jesus’ identity.
This is where Jesus’ baptism connects with our own baptisms. In our baptisms, we become children of God. As I remind you regularly, when I make the sign of the cross with the oil of chrism on the forehead of the baptized, I say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
In baptism, we become sons and daughters of God. In baptism, we claim our identity as Christians. That identity, that belonging to God, cannot be taken away by anyone or anything. I’m not even sure we are able to renounce that identity, even if we want to. Our identity as Christians, as beloved of God, is a reminder of who we are, a reminder of our value and worth, in the eyes of God and of the world.
It’s a message we need to hear regularly, in a world in which there are so many other claims on our identity, challenges to our identity. We need to be reminded that we are God’s, that we are beloved of God, especially now, when there are many who would deny the value and worth of so many of us—that because we are not white, or male, or heterosexual, that because we were not born in this country, our lives matter less, our hopes and dreams are worthless. We are all beloved of God.
But don’t take it only from me. Right now, I would like you to turn to your neighbor, introduce yourself if you don’t know each other’s names, take your thumb and make the sign of the cross on each other’s foreheads, and as you make that sign, say, “You are God’s beloved child.”
That, my friends, is the meaning of baptism. Let us claim it, and let us claim our shared identities as God’s beloved children.