May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
‘Je suis Charlie.’ If I’d said this a week ago, you’d have thought that I was either mad, or helping my children with their French homework. To be honest, this time last week, I had never even heard of Charlie Hebdo. The news of the deaths of twelve cartoonists from Paris, closely followed by an attack on a kosher supermarket just north of Paris has shaken and chilled people deeply. The brother of one of those killed, Malek Merabet said this at a press conference: ‘My brother was a Muslim, and he was killed by people pretending to be Muslims. They are terrorists, that is all.’ A Muslim friend of mine posted a cartoon on social media which depicted gunmen shooting through the open doors of the Charlie Hebdo offices, straight through the open back doors to a mosque behind the cartoon offices, with bullet marks hitting the mosque and a stream of blood running through the office door. We are all victims of terrorism, the cartoon seemed to say, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
I don’t know how you felt as you watched the news unfold this week, whether you felt outrage and fear, disgust or maybe even repulsion at the cartoons for which this satirical magazine was notorious.
Sometimes what is needed is for all of these overwhelming, unsettling and chaotic emotions to be scooped up and gathered together into one phrase that speaks of redemption and meaning in the midst of pain and panic. ‘Je suis Charlie’ started appearing on Twitter feeds just hours after the attcak, and by Friday, the Arc de Triomphe was lit up by the slogan ‘Paris est Charlie.’ Variations started to appear; ‘je suis Ahmed’, and then, after Friday’s attack, ‘Je suis Juif.’ I am a Jew. The desire to stand together found expression in a statement of identity – I am Charlie, I am Ahmed, I am a Jew.
This is so insightful, this instant response to tragic brutality which realises, straight away, that what is at stake here is the articulation of identity. It’s about the articulation of a Muslim identity, which, in the strongest language says that the acts carried out by the terrorists this week are not Islam. And it’s about a western liberal pluralistic identity, which in the strongest language possible says that for freedom to be real, cartons like those drawn by the Charlie Hebdo artists must be allowed to be published.
What this says to me, and there is so much more that could be said of it, is that we live in a world that is deeply ill at ease with identity, both at an individual human level and at the level of defining groups and societies. We live in a world in which the word ‘Muslim’ is fought over and contested. Who is a real Muslim, and who is someone pretending to be a Muslim? Who gets to decide who is and who isn’t a real Muslim? I don’t know if any of you have ever been on the receiving end of similar unease within our Christian community, whether any of you has ever been told that you are not a real Christian, because of some belief, conviction or association. It happens, believe me. In this way, the events of the last week are symptoms of a much wider spread disease which affects so many in our world. Who are we? What is our identity?
This isn’t just some abstract introspection for those who have time and luxury to ask philosophical questions that are unrelated to the everyday world. As we’ve seen this week, lives are at stake. People die in identity wars. And as I say, this is not just a problem with people who would call themselves Muslims. Last month we read about the tragic suicide of Lizzie Lowe, a 14 year old girl from Manchester who took her own life out of fear that her family would not accept her emerging homosexuality. If only she had told us, her family said, she would have received a wealth of love and acceptance. Sadly, this story was followed by the death of another teenager, the American transgender girl, Leelah Alcorn, whose suicide note makes harrowing reading. You might well know of other areas in which identity wars are being played out with sever casualties. The question of who we are is not a hobbyist exercise for those who enjoy a bit of naval gazing, it is intrinsic to life itself. As I say, people die in identity wars.
This is why I am so cheered that this week, after such awful news from France, the church celebrates the baptism of Christ. Jesus emerges from the waters, and the voice from heaven sounds out ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ It is in baptism that we hear, clearly and definitively, who we are. Whatever other identities we inhabit, whatever other words we might use to describe ourselves, we hear, undeniably and irrevocably, that we are the beloved children of God, and that he delights in us. No other identity can compete with that, or can eradicate it. Christ claims us as his own in baptism, as our liturgical words affirm. We are his, and because we his, only because we are his, we can be ourselves, too. We are his, and because we are his, no-one else can have the final say on who we are. Christ claims us and names us as his own; our reading from the opening chapter of Genesis reminds us that it is God who names his creation. God called it day and God called it night and so on. Just one of many reasons who no person can have the final say on who anyone else is; why no person can judge, finally, another. It is God alone who names us and claims us as his beloved children, in whom he delights.
There’s a lovely story about Martin Luther, the great sixteenth century Reformer, who, when he was holed up in Wartburg Castle translating the New Testament into German, was assailed by doubts and dark moods. I guess these days we would say that Martin Luther suffered from some sort of mental illness. (This book certainly bears out that statement.) His response to this was to shout, so that his shouts echoed through the castle turrets, ‘I am baptised!’ He saw it as defying the demons, asserting to them in the strongest terms possible that the darkness had no claim on him, because Christ had already claimed him as his own. Luther was a great one for saying not ‘I was baptised’, but rather ‘I am baptied.’Baptism, he saw, is an ongoing reality in the lives of the baptised. Maybe some of you might see a parallel with marriage, not saying ‘I was married on this particular day however many years ago’, but rather, I am married, and that reality defines and shapes my life daily.
For Christians to live as beloved children of God, whose baptism shapes the daily reality of the lives
– I can think of nothing more powerful in our world.
In baptism, we know who we are. We are told, once and forever, that we are the beloved children of God, that God is deeply pleased with us. Jesus hears this from heaven, and we hear it with him. As Gregory of Nazianzus said in the fourth century, ‘Christ rises from the waters of baptism, and a drowned world rises with him.’ I love that: a world drowning in violence and pain and insecurity rises with Jesus as he takes up his destiny to save this world by living, every moment of his life on earth to heal, to love, to teach and ultimately to sacrifice his life for each person in this drowning world.
So I’d like to suggest that the final word for us Christians this morning is not ‘Je suis Charlie’, or any of the other variations that have been coined this week. Rather, ‘je suis baptisé’ – I am baptised. Here we are claimed by Christ. Here we know who we really are. ‘And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
I am baptised. Amen.