What's Your Identity?
There are things that happen to us in our lives that come to define us. They are the things that most make us who we are. Some of them happen before we are even born – where we are born, the color of our skin, our gender, our DNA that comes with its own timeline and traits, handed down from our ancestors or parents, that predisposes us to disease, temper or genius, a biological tendency toward addiction, or a mind for math.
Then there are things that happen to us when we are young – particular experiences, like the loss of a parent, a childhood spent moving around from place to place, an exceptionally encouraging teacher, an acutely abusive coach, an accident or illness, or a relentlessly reoccurring message about what it will take to be accepted by our family or community.
Then, there are the things we experience or choose, the opportunities open or doors closed to us, the advantages or struggles that set the stage for our lives, the terrible mistakes or the soaring successes, the communities that raise us and the ones we seek out, the places we get our stories and the people who tell them to us all shape our identities.
We live in a time where more than ever before in history, it is presumed in Western culture that the purpose of life is to define your own identity. Nobody else can tell you who you are; that’s exclusively your job, it’s your main job, and it’s your highest job.
It’s become such an important project, defining your own identity, that we do it all the time without even realizing we are doing it. It requires comparing ourselves to others nearly constantly. It means knowing what identities are available so we can figure out where we fit, listening to others who have our chosen identities so we know more how to be whatever they are, whatever we are, so that we can find community or ensure respect by fitting in well enough with whatever that identity happens to be. Who are you going to be?
The tricky part is, some of these things change, in fact, a lot of them do. Because people change. You see it most easily with children. One year their favorite color is yellow, but then it’s blue and you didn’t get the memo. First it’s dresses and skirts all year, and then, (after you’ve shopped), it’s only pants the next year. It’s basketball all the time, and then it’s photography; it’s the inseparable best friend, and then a completely new crowd. Let’s just say, after being able to quote nearly every episode, now nobody in my house will use the Dora the Explorer beach towel in public.
And being human also means moving through knowledge and development, through ideas, and experiences that shape us and change our perceived identity. We move from student to master. From amateur to professional to retired. From employed to unemployed. From ability to disability, health to sickness, and back again, perhaps several times.
And over time beliefs change. So what you might have thought or shaped your life around previously, no longer is central for you, or becomes more nuanced, or is traded out for something else entirely. And now something new defines you. This new thing becomes your identity. Until something happens that might shift that again. You move to a new place, lose your spouse, your career ends, your health changes, your child comes out to you, you become your dad’s caregiver, your church falls apart, new questions arise in your spirit, new callings emerge.
And is our identity even consistent from context to context? With one group of friends we might be the outgoing one, with another group, the quiet one. In one situation you might be related to everyone in the room, in another you might be the only woman, or only black person, or only English-speaker. So even though we think it is ours alone to create and shape, our identity has something to do with those around us, and the role we play in the group.
And to complicate things, our culture puts on pressure to be immediately identifiable in your self-chosen labels, so that even thought you’re supposedly completely unique, you should be properly categorized and labeled as a “type.” People want to know, are you a Republican or a Democrat? Are you Progressive? Conservative? An ally? An enemy? What do you do for a living? Where do you live? Rent or own? Are you single? Did you come from somewhere else?
We wont admit it, but we want to be able to make assumptions and snap judgments about people based on things like education level, finances, or body weight, which, according to a recent study, is the one area today where stereotypes and prejudices are increasing, while in all other areas, like race, religion, sexual orientation, rates of prejudice are dropping.
And it really throws us for a loop when people don’t fit neatly into the categories. What do we do with a black, gay, Republican, Christian Pastor with Asbergers, like my friend Dennis? Which table does he get assigned to in the lunchroom of life? I read this week that the Woman’s March founders – for all their unity of goals and perspective, had a personal rift because they differed on whether the Jewish member was part of the dominant white culture, or a marginalized person. Was she a victim of oppression or part of the oppressive power structure? And we need to know these things so we know how to treat each other. We need to know if you belong, or who belongs more, or who needs to work harder to belong.
Because in a time when our main job is to create and curate our own identity, we had better not slip up and mislabel others or ourselves and we’d better not lose a prized label once it’s secured. People are always paying attention, everything we say and do is evidence of our belonging or not, and our place and potential in the world will be shaped by our self-defined identity. So choose carefully and walk delicately.
This is a new thing. In the past, identities were pretty much given to you by your community. You didn’t get a say, because it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that it was the individual person’s job to figure that out. For better or worse, you simply were defined by where you were born, and your status and role in society were predetermined. You just lived into it. Of course, this had its own problems, but whatever they were, people were not swimming in options and drowning in expectations as they figured out their own slippery identity and tried to live it out in the world.
Step into this framework, the Messiah. And here’s an interesting case. Is he God? Is he human? In the lineage of a king, or the son of a carpenter? (Trick questions, the answers to all of them are YES).
Messiah - This is a one and only role, never before lived into, with a collection of deeply held expectations at the get-go. Messiah was supposed to liberate the people from an oppressive empire, to bring in a revolution, restore the nation of Israel. The Messiah belongs to Israel. Messiah is strong, extraordinary, powerful and obvious, not vulnerable or ordinary, weak or hidden.
So Jesus has already thwarted all these expectations pretty radically by being born in a (debatable) stable, being honored by a bunch of pagan mystics from a far-off land for his cosmic significance to the whole world, and spending the first few years of his life as a refugee, and then having apparently the most ordinary small town, Middle Eastern Jewish upbringing that it’s not even worth mentioning, with an appearance that didn't stand out in any remarkable way.
And he hasn’t come to overthrow the Romans! He has come to overthrow death! We don't have a category for that one. So there are lots of identities being thrust upon Jesus before his ministry even begins, but there’s only one that matters.
And it’s spoken at his baptism.
John has been preaching and raving in the wilderness, and people are flocking to be chastised by his strong language and powerful rhetoric, and then baptized by him. And Jesus shows up there, just, it seems, as John references this Messiah that is coming, one who is so important that John would not be worthy of even untying his sandal and washing his feet like a servant.
But Jesus slips into the crowd, according to Luke’s telling, and gets baptized right alongside the rest of them, and John seems not to pause the act, and rather than stopping himself from washing the Messiah’s feet, John proceeds, apparently, to wash him completely, just like the person before and the person after him.
And then the Holy Spirit descends in bodily form like a dove, and Jesus hears the words spoken over him like a pronouncement, “This is my child, the beloved one; I am delighted with him.”
In this moment heaven and earth converge in the person of Christ. Jesus is God, fully God. That is his identity. And the full God shuffles into the waters of humanity, submitting anonymously, alongside everyone else, to this act of repentance and renewal – for that’s what John’s baptism was. God claims his identity as a human being, a creature in need of God.
And at the same time the human Jesus reaches out toward the divine, the divinity of God reaches out and claims Jesus with a voice from heaven and blessing, and the Holy Spirit wraps the connection in affirmation, pronouncement, and blessing. The Trinity is present here, and the movement of God toward us and us toward God.
Every tradition has that movement, by the way – dedication as a baby and baptism as an adult, baptism as a baby and confirmation later, they all try to capture and express the covenant movement of God claiming us and us responding Yes to God’s Yes.
It’s worth noting that baptism is an enactment of dying and rising. This gets missed with the gentle Presbyterian head sprinkle, but is easier to see with the full immersion dunk.
We are baptized into Jesus’ own death and resurrection. We acknowledge that we die. We are, in fact, given over to death. And then we are raised up in Christ’s life. Jesus’ own relationship with God, his identity, becomes ours– permanently sealed into the love of God. Receiving God’s Yes, living toward God as God lives toward us, is our acknowledged purpose.
And Jesus, all the things he was supposed to be and do, all the messages shaping even his own beliefs about Messiah, and the people’s intense expectations on him, they die here. And what rises is just the connection with God, just the identity as beloved, just the purpose of embodying the love of God to us and us to God.
We wont talk about it until Lent, but right after this, Jesus is sent into the wilderness to face temptation, all the things that would try to claim and shape his identity. These too are what he is prepared to let go when comes up out of that water and hears spoken his true identity – the temptations he hasn’t yet faced in the wilderness, and every day after that.
Baptism is not some kind of magical thing. Ordinary water, ordinary words, ordinary people watching and pouring water and making promises. But in this ordinary moment, we trust that God –who always has claimed you for love – now becomes the source of your identity, the love of God becomes your purpose, the grace of God becomes your belonging. It’s the convergences of Yeses. God’s and yours, back and forth.
All other identities, whether long-term or temporary, inherent or chosen, released or reclaimed, whether denied or explored, embraced or rejected, they are not the true identity that defines us. None of them is powerful enough or expansive enough to determine our deepest self, and our truest purpose.
There is but one identity that defines us first, last and most completely. It is true of each of us before we came into being, and it remains true after we are gone from this earth. Beloved, child of God, in whom God delights.
So despite the relentless messages around us, our primary job is not, in fact, to construct our own identity in the world. That’s already been decided for us.
Our first job, our only job, is to live into the identity decided for us to us before the foundation of the world. Made in God’s own image to share this life with God, the grace of God reaches out to us by the Holy Spirit, and brings us back, every time we forget – and we forget many times a day! But God’s grace always brings us back to our truest, deepest identity: which is Beloved. Child of God, in whom God delights.
Your life is a gift, made to be lived in response to God’s grace.
Each one of us is completely unique, unequalled in all the world. Each one of us is a mix of contradictions and conundrums, beauty and ugliness, struggle and gladness, a glorious hodge-podge of features and facets. Not one of us fits easily into human categories or labels, nor should we. We are each meant to be the one and only you or me that has ever, or will ever, walk on this earth.
But the only way that is possible is if we trust that our identity isn’t up for grabs. It is secure. Unshakable and permanent. It cannot be altered or abolished. It cannot be lost and it cannot be earned. It is bestowed upon us by the Creator of all, given to us by the one who comes in alongside us. And in baptism, this identity is recognized, confirmed, celebrated, witnessed, and sealed.
Death gets spoken over you first. You will die. This is good news. First because it’s true. And baptism tells the truth.
But also because in baptism we die to all the identities we thought made us who we are, or all the things that will one day seek to so.
They do not determine our being or define our ultimate worth.
They cannot give us our purpose or take away our belonging.
We live in this world as though we’re already dead, so we don’t need to fear death or avoid it – even if we’re threatened with loss, rejection or obliteration. Jesus died for us, Jesus’ death takes on our death, and we take on his.
And then, resurrection. We rise to a new life, a new identity. Beloved. Child of God, in whom God delights. Belonging forever to God, existing for life that will never die.
This identity will never fade.
This purpose will never disappear.
This belonging will never end.
It turns out the only person who can really tell you who you are is God.
And God names you Beloved.
This is your true self.
And God names you Beloved.
This is your true self.
Live it boldly.