Sermon for Sunday 8 January 2023
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
“Who am I and who do I love?”
Those are two questions I heard put to the audience in the theatre last week. They come at the beginning and at the end of a fascinating new play based on Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. It’s playing at the Garrick Theatre and has Emma Corrin as the lead. You might remember her as the young Princess Diana in the Crown.
Woolf’s novel is a very complex text indeed. It’s a satirical exploration of an enormous host of themes to do with identity and selfhood: money and power; class and inequality; gender and sex.
Orlando, the hero, strangely lives for hundreds of years through different periods of history. He mysteriously changes gender, never ages and experiences, and is the subject of, numerous loves and infatuations.
Time and time again, the audience is prompted to ponder in the midst of this intriguing tale what it is that gives us our truest sense of identity, and where we find the freedom to embrace or challenge it?
Emma Corrin turns to the audience twice in the play and asks those questions, “Who am I and who do I love?”
The Gospel we have heard today is also a narrative in which identity is explored and defined.
Christ comes to John asking for baptism. John refuses. He knows who Jesus is. He cannot permit himself to baptize the one who is greater than him. Yet Christ insists. It is at the moment when he comes out of the water, that the identity of Jesus is revealed to us: the Father’s Son, the Beloved, in whom he is well pleased.
And if that is the essence of Christ’s identity, then it is also ours, for we are made one with him in our own Baptism. Just as Christ is the beloved child of the Father, so are we. Just as he delights in Jesus, so he delights in us.
The Baptism of the Lord prompts us to ask each year what it means to be delighted in by God. It calls us to ponder what it is that most truly gives us our identity.
I think those two questions that Orlando asks the audience are actually a pretty god place to begin.
Who am I and who do I love?
In fact I’d be tempted to argue the Christian tradition’s answer has always been to say the answer to the first question is in fact the second. If you want to know who you are, tell me who or what it is you love.
For the secular world proposes a whole load of explanations to us of what we are. Some say we are simply the sum of our DNA, with our life mapped out ahead of us in our genes. Much public discourse values human life in terms of its economic output – who we are is defined by how much money we have. The influencers of our social media culture argue who you are is something you can find and create yourself – simply live your best life and be your best self.
And yet the Christian tradition has always argued that the question of who we love is fundamental to what we are. For as created beings we were made not just for this life but for the life to come too. We were made to be loved by God and to love him back for all eternity.
There is something in the human spirit that constantly seeks beyond itself the one who created us, something that reaches out to the infinite, wondering what our purpose and our end is.
Most famously St Augustine summed this up when he said of God, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”
Above and beyond the tribal instinct of our modern culture that seeks to divide us into groups or assign identity tags of various kinds, the Gospel of Jesus Christ reminds us that above any human category or group, beyond any human allegiance or sense of self, irrespective of our power or lack of it, our identity rests in being a beloved son or daughter of God.
For the Christian, that identity is deepened and made personal in our baptism, when we become part of the Body of Christ. From that day onwards, God finds us in his Son and delights in seeing us in him.
And our truest, our most important vocation is simply to love him back now and in eternity.
Who I am, who I truly am, is about who I love, or rather about the one who loved me first before I ever knew what love was – God himself, my creator and redeemer.
Fr Peter Anthony