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For Sunday January 17, 2016

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)


Isaiah 62:1–5
Psalm 36:5–10
1 Corinthians 12:1–11
John 2:1–11

At church last Sunday we celebrated the ancient practice of Christian baptism.  The priest poured water on baby William three times, and then made the sign of the cross on his forehead. As he did so, he recited those beautiful and powerful words: "William, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ. You belong to God."

The baptismal party then processed down the center aisle of our church.  Leading the way was a person who held high a red banner with the words of Isaiah 43:1: "I have called you by name, you are mine."  At the end of the group, William's father asperged the congregation to remind us of our own baptisms.

In the outward ritual of baptism we enact an inward spiritual reality — that every person has a name, and that God knows every name.  The oily cross on William's brow will wear off, but not the unconditional promise that he belongs to God.  Forever.  Full stop.  Nothing can ever change that.

 Fresco from the Roman catacombs, third century.
Fresco from the Roman catacombs, third century.

Although baptism is a ritual of the church, it's also a sign to the world.  What's true for William is true for me, for you, and for every person.  We belong to God.  He knows our names, and he's calling every one of us to himself.

The act of naming people, places and events to signify their essence recurs throughout the Bible.  On the very first pages of Genesis Adam and Eve name the animals.  Jacob gave the place where he struggled with God a special name, Peniel, "because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”  Children received symbolic names, like Ichabod ("the glory has departed") and Isaiah's son Shear-jashub ("a remnant shall return").

Re-naming carries even greater significance.  A new name signifies a new reality.  Sarah and the patriarchs received new names.  Pharaoh renamed Joseph. Cyrus renamed Daniel and his three comrades.  Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter.  After his conversion, the "Hebrew of Hebrews" Saul assumed his Roman name Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles.

In our own day, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the 266th pope, he took the new name Francis in order to signify a radical new direction for the Catholic Church.  And what a difference he's made by living into the reality of a new name.

At the beginning of this new year, the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 62 promises us a new name, and with it the possibility of a new reality.

You will be called by a new name
    that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.
You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand,
    a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
No longer will they call you Deserted,
    or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah,
    and your land Beulah;
for the Lord will take delight in you,
    and your land will be married.
As a young man marries a young woman,
    so will your Builder marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
    so will your God rejoice over you.

Calling someone by name conveys a shocking sense of intimacy with the divine.  It points to our deepest and most fundamental identity as children of God.

 Miniature of the Echmiadzin Gospel, sixth century, Armenia.
Miniature of the Echmiadzin Gospel, sixth century, Armenia.

In his own baptism, Jesus received a new name — he was beloved by God.  Writing in the Huffington Post about the baptism of Jesus, Vicki Flippin of The Church of the Village in New York City says, "I tell folks that baptism is the church declaring what has always been true, that each of us belongs to God and only to God. The child is claimed by God above all other claims."

Many malignant forces try to name and claim us. Baptism reminds us that first and foremost, above and beyond all other claims — however legitimate or oppressive — we belong to God.  He knows and calls us by name.

We don't belong to our boss or the bank. We don't belong to an abusive spouse or our addictive impulses. We're not defined by sickness, success or failure. We don't belong to the political propagandists or the advertising industry. We're not the sum total of our poor choices, painful memories, or bad dreams.

"Even though it might feel like, look like, smell like, hurt like you belong to all these other things," says Flippin, "as sure as water is wet and God is good, I heard a voice out of the heavens say it: 'You belong to God.' Our baptism can remind us that no one determines our worth in this world or in the next other than God."

God created each one of us. He cares for us. And he calls us by a new name: "you are my beloved."

Image credits: (1, 2)

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