Meeting new people used to terrify me. Born with a cleft palate that went mostly uncorrected until I reached my twenties, I had a profound speech impediment. Pronouncing “s” and “j” correctly was physically impossible for me.
Just think a minute about all the words with “s” in their spelling. You can see how disruptive my handicap was to my ability to communicate. Now remember that my name is Jake. Imagine introducing yourself knowing that most listeners will misunderstand what you say.
For instance, a new football coach in middle school got to know his players by asking us our name, writing our name on a piece of masking tape, and plastering the strip of tape on our helmet. My helmet announced “Gay” to all my coaches and the rest of my team for weeks. That’s what he had heard me say when trying to say my name.
Depending on where you grow up, that might not be a big deal today, and it really shouldn’t be. But back then, for a bunch of middle school boys, it was like blood in the water of a shark tank.
Seeing how hard it was for me to make new friends and to enter into new situations, some of my family and friends gave me what they thought was helpful advice. “Just be yourself.”
For most people that is probably helpful advice. But the self that God made me to be happens to ask questions like this: What does it mean to be yourself?
That’s obvious, right? Only a person marred by too much training in philosophy—in other words, people like me—could make such an obvious piece of advice into a complicated puzzle. Right?
Well, actually, not so much.
The story of Jesus’ baptism raises precisely this question. And it suggests a paradoxical answer: Being yourself is not all about you. Let’s take a closer look at Matthew’s account of the Baptism of Jesus and I think you’ll see what I mean.
When Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism, a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) God is speaking. Not just to Jesus. But to all of us.
This public message unpacks and enlarges the private message that Joseph had received in a dream before Jesus was even born. Learning that Mary was pregnant before they had had intimate relations with each other, Joseph decides to break off the engagement quietly. Joseph changes his plans when, in a dream, God tells him that Mary is a virgin and that Jesus has been supernaturally conceived by the Holy Spirit.
To speak figuratively, Joseph (and Matthew’s readers) learn in that dream that Jesus has God’s own DNA. But there is much more to being father and son than shared genetic makeup.
God wants us to see that Jesus is more than his accidental offspring. After all, we know that men can be merely biological fathers. Even if they dwell in the same house, some fathers are so absorbed in their own pursuits that they have built no substantive relationship with their sons and daughters. Still others deny or abandon or even reject their children.
God tells the world, “I love this man. Who I am is forever bound up with who he is. And no matter what, I’m really good with that.”
In other words, even for God, being himself is not all about him.
That voice from heaven tells us to look at the relationship between the Father and the Son. It defines them both at the very core. The Son can be the Son only by having a Father, and the Father can be the Father only by having a Son.
For instance, I recall lying in bed with my oldest when he was just a baby. At that instant, I realized that my life had forever changed. Andrew was not just my biological offspring. Without quite realizing it, I had given him my heart. My joy and sadness, security and fear were forever bound up with his life. My heart had laid claim to him in a way deeper than biology and more profound than any legal commitments.
This is a pale analogy—my love is sometimes misguided and more often than I like to admit mixed with fear or self-interest or my control needs—but it illustrates to some degree what that voice was saying. God’s relationship with Jesus makes God who he is. He’s all in.
Relationships run in more than one direction. God the Father loves Jesus with a fierce, tender, unrelenting vulnerability. He initiates the relationship. Jesus returns that love as a Son. That’s what he’s getting at in his response to John the Baptist’s reluctance to baptize him.
Jesus says, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15) He is perfectly obedient.
That word “obedient” is something of a turnoff for most of us. That’s because many of us don’t really get it, not in its truest sense. We think about authority figures barking commands and subordinates carrying out those orders.
In the Postmodern West it is difficult to hear the word “obey” without filtering it through notions like power differential, submission, and coercion. But I ask you to give it a try.
Jesus hears, really hears, God’s “I love you.” It’s not just his ears at work. God’s love resonates in Jesus’ marrow. Jesus surrenders himself to the one who already loves him precisely in order to be himself. To be the Beloved.
When we think about being ourselves, we tend to think in terms of self-expression and differentiation.
That is to say, we think of the self as something deep within. We often hide that interior self and will be happy if and only if we bring it out, if we express it.
Correlatively, we contrast being yourself with living up to others’ expectations. Many of us remain under the impression that only by differentiating ourselves from what the Existentialists called The Herd or the They can we become our authentic selves.
So, when we hear that Jesus obeyed the Father, we have to struggle to set this pattern of thinking aside.
Jesus is not giving up his true self in order to please God. It is in relationship with the Father that the Son can be a Son at all. The true self is not hidden deep within. It is found in the relationships to which we surrender ourselves. This is true for Jesus. It’s true for us.
At the River Jordan, Jesus lets John immerse him in that water to lay claim to his relationship with us. He’s all in. In our glory and our shabbiness, in our tender mercies and our cold indifference, in our loyalty and our betrayal, in our belonging and our loneliness, in our laughter and our tears.
He becomes most truly himself when his life is no longer about him. And when we follow Jesus, we follow that same path.
God wants us to be ourselves, the selves he has dreamt about and longed for since before time. The self who aches when others suffer, who rejoices when others get good news. The self who measures success by the well-being of others. The self who finds no contentment while others know misery, who rises to defend the weak, and who refuses to sit idly by while others endure injustice.
God wants you to be yourself, and the key is to remember that being yourself is not all about you.
This sermon was preached at St. James, Alexandria.