The image comes from a mural in Kessler Park’s United Methodist Church
So it seems the world is gripped by the latest royal drama. This time it centers on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s desire to step back from the first rank of the Royal Family to carve out for themselves a more independent lifestyle and protective identity.
Identity is a tricky thing. Is identity a given or is it constructed? Prince Harry has finally said enough is enough of the blatant racial abuse of his wife by the British popular press, with the Daily Mail – like Fox News part of the Murdoch media empire not surprisingly, leading the charge in expressing scurrilous media persecution and bigotry.
The depth of the racism expressed against the Duchess is astonishing. The BBC fired Danny Baker one of its more populist Radio Five presenters for tweeting a picture of a chimpanzee after Meghan gave birth to Prince Archie. Even a member of the Royal Family, Princess Michael of Kent – the wife of Prince Michael, a cousin to the Queen, was forced to apologise for sporting a blackamoor brooch on her lapel as she attended a royal family event. Though educated largely in Australia, we might remember that Princess Michael is the daughter of minor German nobility with her father having been a principal aristocratic supporter of Hitler’s Nazi party. Princess Michael and her husband are no strangers to controversy.
Identity stories shape us. Prince Harry is not the first royal to struggle within the tension between the identity he was born into and the one he seeks to adopt for himself and his family.
I wish I was a natural storyteller. I firmly believe that as human beings it’s through stories that we create meaning from our experience in the world. A recurring theme for me is that story is all we have; that human beings construct personal and social meaning through the stories we tell ourselves and each other; that certain stories influence us, shaping our worldview, claiming our allegiance whether we know it or not.
Though not naturally gifted as a storyteller – an appreciation for the power of story lies at the heart of my theology. I think of myself as a narrative Christian. A narrative Christian is one who chiefly encounters God within the overarching Biblical Story – a story that is brought to life through participation in the life of the Christian Community.
Where do we draw our identity from; now a burning question for Harry and Meghan? Stories that privilege material progress, increased social inclusiveness, the building of a society based on principles of equality, justice, and the rule of law; these are among the central stories that lay principal claim on me and have shaped my sense of personal identity as someone who passionately believes that such stories identify those pillars of society that are non-negotiable. These story themes have transmitted to us across 4000-years of the human community’s struggle to stay in faithful relationship with the God who throughout the great biblical story of Jewish and Christian history unequivocally reveals such social stories as sacred.
In a matter of days, 19 to be exact, liturgical time has moved us through 30 years of Jesus’ life – from the stories of his birth to the story of his baptism.
The New Testament gives us four Jesus origin stories. Matthew and Luke begin with Jesus’ birth – and the birth of Jesus took place in this way. The third origin story comes from John, who paints an overarching scenario of cosmic proportions – harkening back to the first chapter of Genesis – in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. The Word was God and became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory as of the Father’s only son.Prologue to John’s gospel
Yet, there’s a fourth origin story most strongly echoed in the writings of the Apostle Paul. It’s this story that Mark begins his gospel with, and which Matthew repeats in the Gospel reading for this Sunday. With the story of Jesus’ baptism the Church concludes the Christmas cycle.
For centuries we thought that the beginning of Mark’s Gospel had been lost because he omits Jesus birth story – opening instead with the adult Jesus striding out of the wilderness to receive baptism from John in the Jordan.
Mark is the evangelist writing towards the end of Paul’s ministry. Paul preached a revolutionary connection between Jesus’ birth and our status as followers of Jesus. Paul is not concerned only with Jesus’ biography as Son of God. His more pressing concern is the make plain the connection binding Jesus Son of God with those who follow him.
Paul proclaims: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.Galatians 4:4-5
Stories of identity through birth sit alongside a stories of identity by adoption. For most of us life is shaped not by the story we are born into, British Royalty aside for a moment -but by the story that we are adopted into; by the story that adopts us.
You and I do not aspire to the status of children of God through the accident of our birth. Neither is our claim to be children of God a product of some pre-existent cosmic status. We are adopted into becoming the children of God. This adoption is expressed through our baptism. At his baptism, God adopted Jesus as his son – this is my son on whom my favor rests. Likewise at our baptism, we too became adopted as those upon whom God’s favor rests.
Adoption takes us to the heart of what it means to have faith. Faith is not an accident of birth, but something deliberately chosen. For Christians, faith is the story of our adoption through baptism as children of a loving God.
Birth is an accident from which we can take neither credit nor bear blame. Adoption, now this is another matter. For adoption is always about a conscious choice, a deliberate decision made, a clear direction chosen.
If the central meaning of the birth of Jesus is that to be fully human is to become most like God, then the central meaning of his baptism is to take this truth one stage further. Our humanity not only accords us God-like potential. Our baptism is a choice taken to live in the conscious knowledge and self-awareness that to be fully human is to be most like God.
We are God’s daughters and God’s sons and upon us God’s favor rests. As it was for Jesus, the gift of identity through adoption was a costly one. The tricky question is – will we risk the cost of living into the promise of our adoption and allow ourselves to become the people God intends us to be?
I guess at a more mundane level, Harry and Meghan are about to find out what identity through adoption rather than birth or marriage might cost them.