Like aristocrats, our identity from God can never be taken away
Sermon by Andy Wurm, 12th January 2020, for the Celebration of the Baptism of Jesus
This week the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) announced they would be stepping back as senior royals. Today I invite you to do something like the opposite, which is to imagine yourself as an aristocrat.
This suggestion is based on a proposal by Catholic theologian James Alison, who suggests it as a way of coping with the flaws and failures of the church. It provides a way of remaining a faithful member of the church, without its imperfection getting in the way.
The suggestion is that you imagine the church as a restaurant which serves top class meals, and you are an aristocrat who dines there. The chefs in the kitchen keep creating the meals, while the waiting staff manage the dining room. The waiting staff, however, get carried away with their power and self-importance, believing they should control where customers sit; their level of service depends on whether they judge the customers worthwhile or not; and they compete over which of them attends to which customers. The waiting staff engage in these petty games, but as an aristocrat, you remain totally unaffected, because you are not one of them, you’re on a different level to them, above their world. You’re just there to enjoy the food.
If we approach our belonging to the church to be like being an aristocrat in the imaginary exercise, we can belong in order to enjoy the spiritual nourishment that is available, without being affected by the games that go on. Such games involve who’s allowed to do what, who’s included and who’s excluded, and so on. We might even choose to try to influence how things work in the church, but remain ‘above’ the games, in other words, not be run by them or have our belonging to the church determined by them. In this way, we are also free of resentment towards those engaged in the petty games.
This imaginary exercise can also help us to live in the world, without having our lives determined by the ways of the world. What can help with that is our baptism. To understand how that can be so, we must look to Jesus’ baptism, which helps us understand the significance of our own. The significance of Jesus’ baptism is conveyed by the voice from heaven, saying ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’, which can be translated as This is my Son, who I love. Love, here means ‘approve of’ or ‘value as worthwhile’. It is not God patting Jesus on the back for doing a good job, as Jesus has yet to begin to begin his ministry. It is God’s unconditional validation of Jesus’ worth, which became the foundation upon which his ministry was based. It was the most defining thing about Jesus, driving what he did and what he said, and keeping him unaffected by what others said about him or did to him.
Like Jesus’ baptism, our baptism, is our being told that we are loved by God. The psalms tell us God knew us in the womb, but at our baptism, we are given a sign of this truth: that our deepest identity is we are loved by God. Our worth is given to us from God as an eternal gift. Like aristocratic status then, regardless of what others think of us, or even what we think of ourselves, no-one and nothing can take away our God-given status. Aristocrats can be odd, obnoxious or crazy, and yet none of that impinges of their status. The same applies with God’s love for us: it has nothing to do with what kind of person we are.
Our awareness of this makes all the difference – like the aristocrats who know they are not like the waiting staff at the restaurant, and therefore unaffected by, not involved in, their petty games. It means we are not part of the games which involve our worth as a person coming from what we
achieve, or our worth as a person being given to us (or withheld from us) by others.
We all need some sort of affirmation, to feel that we are worth something. Either we receive it as a gift from God with no strings attached, or we spend our lives chasing it. Chasing a sense of being worth something can require a big effort, for example, striving to win the approval of a parent might take a lifetime. On the other hand, we might pursue approval within the short time we spend with a stranger at a party – even though we may never meet them again.
Basing our lives upon the foundation of God’s love for us, allows us to be free of the effects of the games people play involving the giving or withholding of worth. This applies to the past, present and future. It means we can stop holding on to any hurt we may still feel from being rejected in the past, or the ways we weren’t considered. It means we don’t have to worry about others failing to acknowledge our importance now. And it means that it’s not the end of the world if we make mistakes, for our value comes from God, not from our achievements or our failures. That frees us from resentment too, because resentment comes from a sense of missing out what we think we should have been given, such as recognition and respect, and as we are given our worth by God, we don’t have to resent human beings who didn’t give it us. Freedom from resentment can enable us to forgive others, and to let go of our demands for them to give us what they are not capable of giving us.
Of course, it is not only the baptised who are loved by God. Everyone is. Baptism is just a sign of God’s love which is given to us, and a way that God’s love is given to us. That means everyone can be aristocratic-like, in the sense of living above, or being unaffected by the dynamics of giving or withholding worth, which is present in most interactions between people. The is the main gift that Jesus offers every person. The most basic form of faith therefore, involves receiving that gift of God’s love and trusting in it.
There are some who would not even mention the word God, yet for all intents and purposes, receive their identity as loved by God, because they refuse to receive their worth from other people. They may not define it as such, but in a way, they too, live by faith.
As Christians, we sometimes forget that God’s love for us is the foundation of our lives. Confessing our sins is our way of acknowledging that and letting it be so once more. It is only us who sometimes forget about God’s love, or sometimes withdraw from it. It is never God who forgets to love us, or who sometimes withdraws his love from us, for what God gives, God gives eternally and never takes back.