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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Names are important. Each January our nation celebrates the name, memory and legacy of the late Civil Rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Most people, however, do not know the connection between the Southern Baptist minister and the medieval German monk. In the 1934, Michael King Sr. was one of 10 Baptist ministers who was invited to travel to the Holy Land and then later to Germany. It was on this trip that the senior King “discovered” Martin Luther the Reformer. So as an adult, Michael King Sr. chose the name of Martin Luther for himself and his five year old son. And Martin Luther King Jr. grew into the name. A single issue for each of them was to spark their lifelong battles for reform. For Martin Luther, the Catholic monk, it was his watching peasants buying indulgences, purchasing their salvation to fill Rome’s coffers. And for Martin Luther King, Jr. it was a black woman being arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Names, you see, have a way of defining our lives and our futures.
My friends, today as we mediate on the baptism of Jesus, I would like to invite you to consider the importance of your own baptism and the name that you were given. Let us consider first, baptism’s naming, second, the assurance offered, and third, the challenge presented.
Baptisms are important to me and throughout the course of my pastoral ministry I have performed hundreds of baptisms. Now I wish I could say that I remember the name every man, woman and child whom I have baptized, but that would be a lie. There are some baptisms that I do remember with clarity and fondness because of my own human error. I remember the nervous groom that I baptized only minutes before his wedding day and the water that was still trickling down his cheeks as he said his vows, and I remember the poor Lithuanian child who I fear was baptized in the name of the Father, Zone and Holy Toast. Or there was the family of three adolescent aged children who all seemed to receive their baptismal names- jumbled.
Naming the child and calling them God’s own is an integral part of the baptism service. When I was baptized, it was still a part of the liturgy for the pastor to ask the parents, “How shall this child be named?” And most assuredly, they had prayerfully meditated on this name- after all this was a sign of what the child would become. Apparently, in my home church, the pastor was not convinced that a set of parents had meditated enough. They had chosen to name their infant son Sandy after the baseball player Sandy Koufax. The pastor refused to write it into church registry until they came up with a proper Christian name. The name Arden slipped in through the cracks. It must have been written in some book of obscure but acceptable names. Since the earliest of times, churches have wrestled with the significance of naming of children. St. Chrysostom wrote that the conferring of a name ought to be regulated by some idea of Christian edification. He was concerned with those who had gave little thought to the significance of a child’s name. “When it comes to giving the infant a name, caring not to call it after the saints, as the ancients at first did, people light lamps and give them names and so name the child after the one which continues burning the longest, from thence conjecturing that he will live a long time.” I will say that that pattern is ingenious. Throughout the middle ages, parents simply named their child after the name’s day of the saint. Infant mortality was great and so it was a comfort to know that their name sake in heaven would be watching over them.
Of course, not all Christians agree on the importance of a naming or even on the significance of baptism. In most Lutheran of churches, you will find a variety of meanings given to baptism. Some see it as a quaint, old fashioned ritual, while other view it as central entrance rite to the kingdom of God. Others still simply focus on baptism’s metaphor of water and washing. Believe me, it is comforting for me to say that that baptism washes away sin. Moreover, I trust that baptism promises the ongoing forgiveness of sin and a new relationship with God. But I also believe there’s also something more which takes place at baptism.
There is the word of assurance and protection which God offers to all he calls by name. God promises that he will watch over and protect you from the devil and all his empty promises. For in baptism, you are given God’s word, that there is nothing in all creation that can separate you from his love in Christ Jesus. Nothing. Not disease, not suffering nor death. That is the power of baptism. It is a promise that cannot be taken back, even if you are suffering from old age and dementia, and you cannot remember your own name. God will not forget yours.
We could cite of a number of important ways in our names define us. Consider the ways in which Martin Luther King Jr. the civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner grew into the likeness of Martin Luther the Reformer. Martin Luther King Jr went to university and gained a doctorate in theology while Luther was university professor. They both started to write, committing their thoughts and beliefs to paper and leaving large tracts of their thoughts and beliefs. Both men lived controversial lives, suffered incarceration and death threats, and both spent their lives fighting for justice and equality in the eyes of God and their fellow man. Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. were both fathers and husbands who deeply loved their families despite their many other commitments. Martin Luther was a modern thinker many say bridging the gap between medieval times and the Renaissance. While Martin Luther King Jr sentiments echoed the desire of so many and have become near universal beliefs of a world without prejudice and hatred. Yes, the power of a name.
But this morning’s gospel reading also teaches us that, like Jesus at his baptism, all of God’s children have been given another divine name. We have been baptized into his name. It is a name that you and I have been invited to grow into- and that name is “beloved.” We are living at a time and place where many people would like to identify and define us by our earthly names. There are political names such conservative or liberal, or socio-economic names such a rich and poor and middle class, or racial names, such as Black or White, or even inclusive and exclusive names such American or foreigner. Sometimes we let these names define us, which is why it’s so important to remind ourselves that our primary identity as followers of Christ is as “a child of God” and how in baptism God named us and continues to call us “beloved.” It’s not that all the other names are empty or unimportant. They may be useful. Indeed, they may be helpful to describe who you are, but they cannot define who you are. It is only the name you receive in baptism that ultimately grants you the life you enjoy in Jesus Christ.
Now for the challenge. With all that said, how often do you let that name, his beloved, define you- define your character and your actions? In our most honest moments, you and I must confess that we like Christian as a description, but we don’t always try or aspire to grow into it. You see the true test of baptism is not whether you can see yourself as “God’s beloved child.” But the real challenge is whether you can allow others in your sight to be seen and treated as God’s “beloved.” Frankly, it is often easier to call them by earthly names. So I challenge you. Can you call others “beloved” who have a surname name different than your own? Can you call your neighbors “beloved” who have opposed you politically and even family members who have disappointed you deeply? This is not simply a theoretical exercise. My friends, if your own God given name of “beloved” is real for you, then you must dare to find a way for it to become real in how you treat and honor others. Remember, you have been given that name so that you can grow into the likeness of Christ For we, too, are God’s beloved children, those with whom God is well pleased.
There was a bad snowstorm in the Midwest. Chicago’s O’Hare airport had been closed for hours. The passenger agent was desperately trying to reschedule a long line of weary travelers. Finally a priest found his way to the head of the line. “What is your final destination,” asked the agent. “Heaven, I hope,” said the priest. “But today I’ll settle for Cleveland.” Remembering the name given has given to you in baptism “beloved,” demands that you keep your eyes on what is ultimately lasting and living it out in your day to day journey.
My friends, names are powerful: they convey identity, purpose, authority, and so much more. But whether the words Martin Luther appear in your name, or the name of any biblical saint from Anne to Zachary, or whether your parents lit candles to see which would burn the longest to choose your name, you have been given an awesome family name. You are God’s beloved child, and each time you wash, each time you are near water, each time you make the sign of the cross, remember the name that has been given to all who are baptized “beloved.” They are your brothers and sister, and together, we should be defined and grow into the likeness of Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.