I AM THE BELOVED
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17, NRSV)
I think about and miss him every day of my life. I absolutely adored my father. Tall, handsome Tom Conners was a New York City Homicide Detective who had more stories than anyone could ever count. He was a man of laughter and lightheartedness, despite much inner turmoil that he mostly kept hidden. Because of his easygoing manner and his grisly tales of murder (each of which grew with the telling), he was a minor celebrity in our small town of Rosedale, Queens. Nothing made me prouder than when we walked down the street together, especially when he was in uniform and holding my hand.
My mother, on the other hand, was one of three conservative McGarvey children who were raised by their immigrant parents to be more practical, more somber, and more demanding that rooms be straightened, and grades maintained. My older sister followed strongly in the McGarvey tradition, while I sat enthralled with my father’s every word and action. The Conners/McGarvey split was a defining characteristic of each member of our family.
One of the peak experiences of my life involved my father teaching me, as a very small child, the names and positions of each of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As the names, positions, and defining characteristics of Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax and their many colleagues rolled off my tongue, to the great amusement of my father’s assembled cronies, my father’s face beamed with joy. After one such recitation, when the good-natured comments and laughter had faded away, I remember the indescribable pride and joy I felt when my father looked directly in my eyes and said definitively: “You are a Conners, Moe, you are a Conners!” The lasting effects of this naming and claiming and cherishing remain with me to this day. I was clearly the beloved child in whom my father was well pleased.
Today’s Scripture reading contains a divine enactment of God the Father’s acknowledgement of His beloved Son. The time had come for Jesus to begin his public ministry of teaching and healing, and He presented Himself for baptism by John the Baptist. Ignoring John’s objections of his own unworthiness, Jesus directed that He be baptized as a demonstration of His compassion and solidarity with all suffering humanity.
As the newly baptized Jesus emerged from the waters of the River Jordan, the Spirit appeared in the form of a dove, the Heavens opened, and the Father’s voice announced: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Thus, the Divine imprimatur of Jesus and His work was publicly, officially, and lovingly proclaimed. Jesus fully accepted and integrated His Father’s words, and all his works and actions, even those which led to his death, derived from His steadfast knowledge that He was infinitely loved by God. And crucially important to humanity, Jesus was empowered to transmit this very same blessing of belovedness to his contemporaries, and to all people throughout the ages, right down to this very day. Thus, we sit here this morning the blessed and beloved children of God Himself.
This is the radical good news for every person, sinner or saint, believer or not: We are the beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased, without reference to our own merit or lack thereof.
While this may be startling and radical good news, many of us are quick to object to this pronouncement based upon our modern societal training and values. For in today’s world, when we ask the question “who am I” the most natural answers seem to be: I am what I do, I am what I have, I am my dreams, my plans, my family roles, my accomplishments, I am what people think of me.
But this is certainly not the ultimate truth of our fleeting existence. While some of these things may rightfully describe me, they do not define me. We have been named, claimed and defined by God Almighty as none other than the beloved children of God, like it or not!
A further reluctance to accepting ourselves as God’s beloved concerns our projected fear of how accepting this reality might require change in our daily life. Change is always difficult, even when it is overall change for the better. Yet we might ponder, how many unimportant things might fall away? How many exhausting worries might become insignificant? How many self-doubts might cease to control my life? How many non-sustaining behaviors might have to be abandoned? What would true intimacy with God be like?
Some possible answers to these questions may be found in the work of the late, great spiritual teacher and writer Henri Nouwen. Nouwen experienced both great love and great heartbreak in life, often struggling with deep loneliness, abandonment and anxiety. Even though he was a priest, he was not immune to the calls of the secular world and, at one point, this led him to a downward spiral of complete self-rejection and despair.
In the depths of his anguish, Nouwen made a conscious decision to spend his time in solitude seeking God. The result, he reports, was an eventual epiphany in sensing, and then knowing, that although his actions had often been self-centered and foolish, resulting in a self-imposed alienation from God, his true identity remained that of a beloved child of God. At first realization, he was barely able to hear these words about himself, and only very gradually did he learn to accept them. Nouwen ultimately discovered, as we can too, this very day, that being the Beloved involves a deep inner recognition and appreciation of God’s total gift of love to us. Nothing more, nothing less. Just remember the Good Thief who hung dying on the cross next to Jesus. It is never too late to claim our true identity.
After many years of praying and spiritually claiming his true identity as the beloved, Nouwen left us the incredible gift of these words:
“We are the beloved…We were intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends, [ever] loved or wounded us. That’s the Truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.” Listening to that Voice with great inner attentiveness, I hear at my center words that say: ‘I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knit you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and I care for you with care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch…You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me….Wherever you are, I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one….” (Henri Nouwen, an excerpt from Life of the Beloved).
And now, as we soon approach the altar to recall the promises of Baptism, let us each hear and accept God’s claim of us as his beloved. AMEN.
Dearest God who always watches over us, offering us light and hope, be with us this day as we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism. Help us to remember your healing, cleansing, and claiming love for us. Remind us again of the many ways in which you reach out to us. Bring us closer to you, loving God. Embrace us again with your love. We open our hearts with thanksgiving for your everlasting love and abundance. We pray all these things through Christ Our Lord, Amen.