Who am I?
The television programme ‘Who do you think you are?’ in which people learn more about their ancestors and thereby, it is suggested, more about themselves, has been a big success on both sides of the Atlantic.
The success of this show reflects the fact that a proper understanding of who we are is essential to our ability to function effectively as human beings. Those who lose their knowledge of who they are through either accident or disease suffer acute disorientation which prevents them from living normal lives or relating properly to those around them.
It follows from this that we need to know who we are, but this in turn is something that can be defined in a whole variety of different ways. For example, people understand themselves in terms of their family relationships (‘I am a mother or a son’), their ethnicity (‘I am English or Chinese’), their age ( ‘I am a teenager or a senior citizen’ ) sexuality (‘I am straight or gay’) or their employment (‘I am a hairdresser or a brain surgeon’).
However, what I want to look at in this blog is what it means to understand our personal identity in Christian terms. In order to do this I shall draw on material from the Catechism in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. This catechism begins in the following way:
‘Question. What is your Name?
Answer. N. or M.
Question. Who gave you this Name?
Answer. My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’
In this section the catechism is using ‘name’ in the biblical sense of a name that expresses someone’s true identity. Thus in Genesis 17:5 Abram receives the name Abraham (‘father of a multitude’) in recognition of his appointment by God as the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Similarly in Matthew 1:21 Joseph is told to give his son the name Jesus (‘God saves’) ‘for he will save his people from their sins.’
By using the term ‘name’ in this way the catechism is telling us that it is in our baptism that we receive our true identity. In the baptism service the minister addresses the candidate by their name (in the case of the Prayer Book service for the baptism of infants the name supplied to the minister by the Godparents) and then, in accordance with Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19, baptises them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Because ‘name’ is being used in the baptism service to refer to our true identity, who we really are, by baptising the candidate in his or her name into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit the minister is declaring that from henceforth the one who has been baptised shares the identity of God Himself. As 2 Peter 1:4 puts it they come to ‘share the divine nature.’ One of the Early Church Fathers, St Athanasius, said that ‘God became Man that we might become God,’ and baptism is where this miracle happens.
The catechism uses three pictures drawn from the Bible to describe this miracle.
First, it says that when we were baptised we were ‘made a member of Christ.’ This picture is taken from 1 Corinthians 12:13 and it tells us that through the Spirit we are as much part of Christ as a part of our body is part of us. Since Christ is God it follows that we share in God’s own life.
Secondly, it says we became ‘the child of God.’ This picture is taken from what St Paul says in Galatians 3:1-4:7 and the idea it conveys is one of adoption. From all eternity God the Son who became incarnate as Jesus Christ has related as a son to God the Father through the Spirit. At our baptism, through becoming members of Christ, we were adopted into that eternal relationship and so we can call out to God ‘Abba! Father!’ (Galatians 4:6).
Thirdly, it says we became an ‘an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’ This picture too is derived from St Paul’s teaching in Galatians and from other New Testament passages such as Luke 12:32, Romans 8:17 and Colossians 1:12-13. The idea here is that God the Son has received from the Father the promise of rule over the new creation that God will bring in at the end of time (see Psalm 2) and as God’s children through Christ that inheritance is ours as well. We shall reign with Christ in the world that is to come (2 Timothy 2:12) thus fulfilling the calling to exercise dominion over the created order given to the first human beings (Genesis 1:28).
The overall message that we are presented with by these pictures is helpfully summarised by C S Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. In a chapter entitled ‘Good infection’ he writes:
‘Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share a life which was begotten not made, which has always existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has – by what I call ‘good infection.’ Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.’
What all this means is that from a Christian perspective those who have been baptised into Christ have an identity that can no longer be defined by all the normal categories of family, ethnicity, sexuality, employment and so forth. That is why St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27-28: ‘For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ The Apostle is not denying that the Christians in Galatia were Jews or Greeks, men or women, slaves or freemen. What he is saying is that all these are now secondary characteristics. What defines them is the common identity that they have in Christ as members of Christ, sons and daughters of God and inheritors of God’s coming kingdom.
The answer every baptised Christian can therefore give to the question ‘who do you think you are?’ is ‘I am a miracle. God became Man than I might become God and through the grace of God given to me at my baptism I was adopted by God, made part of the life of God and given a new existence that will last forever. ‘