This idea or principal that we are the beloved of God is nonetheless a deeply challenging truth to live into because being the beloved is not just what we are, rather it is who we are. This is our deepest sense of identity and yet for some reason, or many reasons I should say while it is our deepest and truest identity it is the most challenging for us to live into. We so often do exactly what the great Henri Nouwen said we do which is to believe three great lies that
We are what have
We are what we do
We are what others say about us.
This manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some of the more obvious ways I believe I have commented on before but they are for example the ways in which we find our primary identity in our work. How many of you when you retired, or when you have witnessed a person retire have suddenly found yourselves or witnessed that one struggling to understand themselves without the prior occupation? I am sure that all of us at one time or another find ourselves trapped into responding to or believing what others say about us. As a clergy person I find myself at times wrapped up in the not so well hidden perception of others who discover that I am a clergy person.
I can recall countless encounters with strangers at a social function or a party who upon discovering that I am a pastor suddenly begin to apologize to me. I can see the look in their eyes as they try to quickly remember everything they said to me. If they are holding a beer in their hands they hide it quickly behind their back and then they promptly tell me they’ll be in worship on Sunday. We could be California and they would say,
“Where’s your church?”
“Great, I’ll try to make it real soon.”
I have to confess that I live my public life aware of how uncomfortable my title can make a person.
What was remarkable about Jesus was his ability to separate all of the identifying factors of himself such as carpenter, resident of Nazareth, Rabbi, Son of Mary and Joseph, the words and accusations of the Pharisees and his accusers; to separate these things from his truest identity that was given him in his baptism. I am coming to realize that a key to the work of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is Jesus’s profound understanding that he is in fact a beloved child of God because Jesus’s ability to love in Mark’s gospel is a reflection of the degree to which he knows he himself is loved. That truth that made Jesus’s own ministry possible is I believe a deep spiritual truth for us as well that our ability to love in a Christ like manner is a reflection of the degree to which we know we are loved by God. This is where Christianity begins, with this awareness or discovery, this profound understanding that we are God’s beloved children. It begins with this awareness that as God tore open the heavens to proclaim this truth to Jesus God is always tearing open the heavens and making that same proclamation over us until that day when we finally hear it and respond to it.
The language that the late Thomas Merton used to talk about this was the language of inner self. There is an inner self, the Spirit of God within us and that is our belovedness. Push aside all of the lies about you, you know the lies - you are what you do / you are what you have / you are what people say about you – push those to the side until all there is, is you in isolation from everything else and you are a beloved child of God. This is precisely why Jesus went straight from his baptism into isolation in the wilderness because in that place he learned how to live in the light of his belovedness, not his abilities. It was in the wilderness with everything striped away that Jesus learned to live in relationship with his inner self, with the Spirit of God in him.
Now Merton in his work “The Inner Experience” wrote that a person in touch with their inner self is or aware that they bear the image of God is
“…able to go out from his or her own loneliness to find God in other people…he has no need to identify them with their sins and condemn them for their actions, for he is able in them also, to see below the surface and to guess at the presence of the inner and innocent self that is the image of God.”
This was the work that Jesus did in Mark’s gospel. On the surface this work looked like speaking truth to powers and casting out demons and healing blind folks and people who couldn’t walk and people who couldn’t speak. But those actions were only secondary to what Jesus was really doing which was seeing past whatever those persons presented on the surface and into their inner selves; the image of God in them. He was seeing that they, like him, were beloved children of God and he was bringing that truth to the surface into the light.
Now think about this for a moment. I want to talk about evangelism for a bit. I am going to do a whole series this fall on Evangelism but think about it this way for a moment. What if our primary Christian vocation were to help those whom we encounter to discover their own belovedness? To bring that inner self, that image of God hidden within each one to the surface. That’s a very different thing than saying, “Hey come to my church!” Or “Do you know Jesus?” That is a very different thing because when we are living in the light of our own belovedness it just has a way of drawing it out to the surface of others as well.
I think this is why people responded so quickly to Jesus because he looked at them and he spoke to them in a way that just drew their belovedness to the surface. Think about how quickly Philip got up from his tax collector’s table. And then there was the woman who was hemorrhaging; she wasn’t just healed of her sickness but she was made well and whole. The darkness of countless demons was just lifted off of so many until that image of God within them burst forth. He gave the women the courage to come visit his tomb though it was forbidden. There are the myriad ways he has touched your hearts and transformed your lives. Do you remember that time when you realized that you were created in the image of God? Do you remember that time when you became aware of your own belovedness? Do you know this to be true about yourself? It is.
Maybe had John understood this to be his ministry then he never would have made the comments he made. “Teacher we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” Maybe he wouldn’t have been so hung up on what others were doing because he would have recognized them in the light of their belovedness and not in light of what they were doing that he wasn’t sure was ok. What was going on in John that he was so concerned about what others were doing? Especially when those others were doing a good work in the name of Jesus? The irony of the whole thing is that this mysterious man was doing something that John himself couldn’t even do. Just look back a few verses and in the same chapter we see this instance where the disciples are attempting to cast an evil spirit from a young boy and they cannot do. There is an argument between the disciples and the boy’s father. We don’t know what they were discussing but I can only imagine.
“I thought you said you could heal him.”
“We can, we can. Just let us try one more time.”
“No, don’t touch him.”
“Hey does anyone know where Jesus is?”
These “others” were casting demons out in Jesus’s name and they weren’t even following him while those who were following him couldn’t get it done. This is the irony in John’s complaint. “Teacher we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” So you have to be curious as to what’s actually happening within John. What is going on within John that he is so concerned about this other man following the rules that he cannot see the image of God within him? What is going on in us when we can only see the supposed sins of others and not see them for their belovedness?
You may have heard that the minister at Cassopolis United Methodist Church was forced to resign this week from his position because it was discovered that he is a practicing homosexual. It was common knowledge that Rev. Hutchinson is gay. The prior DS and our Bishop knew this when he was hired. The sticking point was the discovery that he was in a relationship. And so he was forced to resign. Rev. Hutchinson is arguably one of the most effective ministers in the West Michigan Conference. He was sent to his church in January 2013, a small town struggling congregation of about 30 members. By spring time of that same year he grew the church to about a 140 people. I’m not making this up. He’s got something special.
His congregation is full of people who found themselves quickly surprised that the new gay minister in town would actually be such a phenomenal pastor and now that church is crushed, heartbroken, grieving. They had a minister whose awareness of his own belovedness drew that same awareness out from their inner depths in ways they never imagined possible and yet The United Methodist Church looks at him like John and says, “Someone is casting out demons in Jesus’ name but we must stop him because he is not one of us.”
And I can hear the words of Jesus ringing in the background – “Judge not lest you be judged.” Well the eyes of a nation who just passed marriage equality are passing strong judgment on The United Methodist Church this week.
I wonder when John looked to Jesus with his accusation what was going on within him? I’m curious about this. I’m curious about what is happening within all of us when we look at another person and see them not for their belovedness, not for the image of God within them but we see them for their sins to use Merton’s words? (or at least what we think are their sins). Is it possible that even though John was intimately close to Jesus, within an arms length of him at all times he had become so entrenched with what he had been called to do that he had forgotten in that moment why he was called to do it? Is it possible that in the shadow of his own failures he had suppressed that inner belovedness even though Jesus was right there? And then in his own lack of awareness of how deeply God loved him he failed to see that same deep love in the others? I think it is possible and I draw this conclusion from my own experience.
I know that within myself those times when I fail to see the love of God within others those are precisely the times when I am failing to recognize it even in myself. The truth is we are all beloved children of God and our ability to love is a reflection of the degree to which we know we are loved. And so the gospel begins with our belovedness. Like the gospel journey began for Jesus with his own belovedness it begins for us with our belovedness. Do you know that you are loved? Do you know that you bear the image of God? My prayer for you each Sunday morning as I touch each pew is “Oh God show them they are loved and let me lead so that they know I love them.”
Do you know they you are loved? Do you know that the one seated next to you is loved? Do you know we are all beloved children of God each one bearing God’s image, the very image from which we were created? It might be deep deep down in there but it’s there. And Jesus comes to you and to each one and draws it to the surface. You are loved.