Identity and action in the gospel

In today’s gospel reading, John the Baptist is approached by religious leaders who are trying to understand his identity. They ask whether he is the Christ, Elijah, or a prophet, and he denies these identifications. Then he gives a different answer: “”I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:26).

John’s answer to the question of identity is to describe his own actions. He baptizes. That is what John does. (Today we call him “John the baptist,” but surely John did not think of himself in terms of such lofty labels.) He contrasts himself to Jesus, whose sandals he is not even worthy to untie. (The author of gospel wants to make sure that we do not mistake John for the Christ, and so emphasizes the contrast between John and Jesus frequently.) John’s identity is given by his actions: what he does is central to who he is. His actions will become his name in history.

To this extent, we can also ask: what kinds of actions identify who Jesus is?

The gospel offers a kind of a twist on John’s words about Jesus’ identity. For Jesus asks to be baptized by John, even though he is sinless and needs no forgiveness or repentance. Later, Jesus will wash the feet of others in the Passover scene: the one whose sandals John thinks he is unworthy to untie will not only untie the sandals on the disciples’ feet, but will also wash the dirt off of them. Jesus’ identity is defined by his humble actions. And he tells the disciples, too, to be defined by these actions: “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 35).

Our identities are also defined by our actions: If each one of us were to be defined by our actions today, what name and identity might others give to us?

In particular, do we love and is love our identity? Do we, like John, welcome others who are repentant and give them a fresh start, so that new and not old actions define their identity? Do we, like Jesus, wash the feet of others and dispose ourselves to serve them?