This is the transcript of a talk I gave at my parish in St. Louis, Sts. Clare and Francis, as part of our parish retreat, Feb. 2, 2018. I was asked to reflect on a passage in Matthew, Chapter 3, verse 17. The scripture reads:
“With that, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Own, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests.”
I was asked to speak tonight on this word and idea of being “chosen.” When I first hear this word, “chosen” I have to admit I think of it in our cultural context. If someone is chosen, that means someone else is not, right? This cultural conditioning starts from the time we’re little. You get picked for that team in gym class and I do not. I get the job, you do not. In our super compare contrast compete control culture, if one person is chosen, someone else is not. You’re chosen if you are white. If you’re male. If you’re hetero-normative or cis-gendered. You’re chosen if you make a lot of money, if you’re educated. In a global context, you’re chosen if you live in the U. S of A.
When the gospels, when Jesus talks about being chosen its in a very different, counter-cultural, almost upside down context. It’s so different from our cultural norm, from what we’ve been conditioned with since we were little, that it’s hard to accept, much less embody and really believe with our entire being.
Let’s look directly at this passage we’re focusing on tonight: Jesus’ baptism, this moment that Jesus is named as God’s beloved. In all four of the canonical gospels it’s the very first thing that happens in the story of Jesus as an adult. In every gospel there is some version of this— Matthew, Mark and Luke all have the baptism and this anointing of Jesus by the Spirit, this claiming and naming of him as God’s beloved one. In John the baptism is not there, but the naming is. The consistency tells us that this is important, that we are to pay attention.
In my Bible’s translation of this passage, when the skies opened or the dove comes down or the voice is heard, the phrase is something like, “You are my Own, my Beloved.” I love this particular wording because it speaks of intimacy….of belonging… of utter love.
Let’s imagine into this scene for a moment. I don’t know about you but I’ve always kind of skipped through this in my reading and study of scripture—yeah, of course Jesus was beloved, he’s God! But something new struck me this time, reading and praying these words. What leaps out at me is that Jesus has not done a thing yet. The only thing he has “done” is wait around 30 years to get on with his life and ministry. In fact, in this moment, he’s merely one of the crowd of groupies headed to see the hot act in town—John the Baptizer.
He has done nothing—no miracles and healings. He has gathered no following. We don’t know if or how much he has studied. We assume he has learned his father’s trade, but that’s not very remarkable.
He is an ordinary person who has done nothing. And he is named and claimed as God’s beloved One.
This is so important in how we understand God and our own identity as baptized into Christ:
Before Jesus had done a thing, God called him beloved.
He hadn’t earned it or proven it or followed a certain number of rules to make it so. He simply was it—beloved.
It reminds me of my freshman year in college. I had gone to school to be pre-med and to run competitive cross country and track. I remember months in, really having a rough time. I hated my chemistry classes, was getting terrible grades, and couldn’t imagine putting up with 4 years of this. I was running so much more than I was used to that I got injured a few months in. I missed home and all the familiarity of high school. Plus, I was used to succeeding at whatever I tried—this failure thing was new. At some point after months of unhappiness I decided to make a change, which involved both quitting the running team and switching my major. In a moment, two central pieces of my identity and my future shifted. In my head, I WAS a runner, and I was going to be a doctor! While I knew I had to make a change, I was having a tough time accepting that it really was ok to let go of these pieces – these things I did—that I thought defined me. Without them, who was I? I remember getting a letter in the mail from my dad. I still have this letter, because I read one line in it over and over again. For an overachieving young person it was balm to my soul. It said simply, “Er, we love you for who you are, not for what you do.”
We love you for who you ARE, not for what you DO.
Imagine if we all heard those words in the depths of our soul at the moment of our baptism, or better, at the moment of our birth. I see birth as truly the first baptism, the moment our mothers push us into the world in water and blood, literally encoding in us the message, “This is my body, this is my blood.” What if in that moment of awakening, in that moment of opening to this human life, to this incarnation, we too, knew, that we were loved simply because we exist.
“This is my beloved one, in whom I am well pleased.”
What if we didn’t have to DO anything to please the one who Loved Us Into Being? What if that Love, for us, in particular, simply was?
Imagine if we all continued to hear those words, whispered over and over inside of our inner being, our entire life through. Imagine we heard them no matter what we looked like, no matter what job we got or didn’t get, no matter how much money we made, no matter who we fell in love with, no matter if we fit the mold or not. Imagine if those words, and that knowing, was simply there, in the core of us, a shining light and a throbbing certainty we could keep coming back to, no matter what.
Imagine if we knew we couldn’t do it wrong. That our BEING could never be wrong. Imagine if such a love at the core of our identity could never change. What might life be like lived from a place of such utter belovedness, such total belonging? What might you be like? What might our world be like?
I believe that’s what it means to be CHOSEN by God, to be birthed and baptized into love.
I know this is sadly not how the world so often is. Children are often not raised to know unconditional love. Utter belovedness is not something many people would name as their core identity. The games of earning love, games of power, prosperity, privilege and position are everywhere. In many ways, we forget the God who is only love, who chooses us in every moment and with every breath, who plays no games and asks us only to be who we were born to be, in great love.
Tonight I want to propose that we lean into the possibility that we can, indeed, be Church like this. That we can hear this whisper of belonging from the Living God, and we can whisper it to one another—in our words, in our actions, in the way we behold each other. Rooting into love, we can’t help but become an outpouring of that love for others, an ever-renewing stream.
I believe this is the significance of Jesus’ baptism and these words of Spirit claiming him as beloved. What Christ initiated into the world continues to be made true through each of us and especially, all of us together. It’s why we baptize. It’s why we celebrate Eucharist. At the heart of our faith is this whisper of being chosen, of belovedness. It wasn’t just about Jesus being named beloved, but about God’s constant naming of OUR belovedness. And it’s an all-inclusive belovedness, a catholic—or universal—belovedness. In this way, it’s so unlike our culture, that says some can earn it and some will not. God’s choosing of us is for ALL, NO EXCEPTIONS.
Jesus lived from the center of being so chosen, like this love was his name, his birthright, his core identity. And he tells us over and over—it’s your identity too. It’s your true name. I know this name. It is the same as mine—it is Love.