Today we see Jesus rise from the water following his baptism. Imagine watching each one of the water droplets as they roll individually and slowly down Jesus’ face, following the creases in his skin. Watching too, the slime and the mud from the Jordan riverbed sliding off him as the water washes him clean as he stands back up. And then we hear God’s voice: ‘This is my son, the Beloved…’. Here, water is sacred, a marking of God at work, His invisible touch of grace but a ‘spiritual power-washing’ too. Over at a road transport company, Richard Read’s, at Longhope in the Forest there is an enormous lorry washer which has the German manufacturer’s brand name, incredibly ‘Christ’ written in large blue lettering on the washer’s side – what a great advertisement for the power of baptism! The company’s owners got used to me bringing baptism families there to photograph it as a teaching aid! Cleansing, deep deep cleansing to make us the unspoilt human beings we long to be, and who God wants us to be.
But there is a special word in today’s Gospel. And that word is: ‘Beloved’. Why is it that just a single word can take you from just an onlooker to the edge of tears? ‘Beloved’ means deep, intense and intimate searing loving, a wrapping of the arms around someone – and of being embraced yourself - in a moment that seems to last and last. Jesus heard that voice as he came out of the river. Right at the heartbeat of the Christian faith is being able to hear that voice saying to you: ‘Beloved’ – or ‘Be-Loved’. The Biblical word has the meaning of a spring of love bursting and bubbling out of the ground, unstoppable love.
‘Beloved’ is the voice that says in Isaiah 49: ‘I love you with an everlasting love. I have written your name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in my embrace. You belong to me and I belong to you. You are safe where you are. Don’t be afraid.’ I remember an old lady I used to pass on the way home from school. “Hello, my love” she would say to anyone who passed her. And everyone would walk right past. But all she wanted was for someone to stop and call her “my love” back (or in the local dialect, “Alright my lover?”).
Let’s explore this. There is a priest who moved from working with the academic elite at Harvard to work with so-called ‘special needs’ people in a community in Toronto, Canada called L’Arche. His name is Jean Vanier and he knew how to claim the voice that calls us the ‘beloved’. He is in a room full of the world’s broken and distressed, men and women who might shock you with what they do and say. He writes this:
I would like to tell you a little story about our community. There is one of my friends there who is very handicapped but a wonderful, wonderful woman called Janet. She said to me: “Can you bless me?” I remember giving her a little cross on her forehead. She said: “No, it doesn’t work. No, that is not what I mean.” I was embarrassed and said:” I gave you a blessing.” She said: “No, I want to be blessed.” I kept thinking, “What does she mean?”
We had a little service and all these people were sitting there. After the service I said to them: “Janet wants a blessing”. Janet walked up and said: “I still want to be blessed.” She put her head against my chest and I spontaneously put my arms around her, held her, and looked right into her eyes and said: “Blessed are you, Janet. You know you how much we love you. You know how important you are. You know what a good woman you are.”
She looked at me and said slowly: “Yes, yes, yes, I know.” I suddenly saw all sorts of energy coming back into her and lights in her eyes. Suddenly she realised again that she was blessed. Immediately other people said: “I want that kind of blessing too.”
The people kept walking up to me and I suddenly found myself embracing people. I remember our standing there in front of each other and I said as I put my hand on shoulders: “you are blessed. You are a good person. You matter. You are important. God loves you.”
That’s where this picture of blessing picture ends, where a blessing has lifted us on a sort of holy pulley from this world into the presence of God. The weights, the loads, the burdens which have been sitting on people have been taken off and things are different now.
My prayer is that you claim that same sense of being blessed and live as blessed ones, the ‘beloved’. And everyone you know needs your blessing. No need for rationing. Remember, you are an authorised blessing-giver. Jesus has no body now but yours and yours is his body now; Jesus has no eyes now but yours and yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out; Jesus has no voice now but yours and yours is the voice that carries to another the compassion they crave; Jesus has no hands and fingers now but yours and yours are the hands and fingers with which he blesses others now.
You know, in a church in the Ukraine there is a cross from which Jesus looks down, where Jesus on purpose does not have any hands. Why not? Because you are meant to picture your hands as the hands continuing Jesus’ work in the world. Your hands take over where Jesus’ arms stop at his wrists. And you have an awesome responsibility because Jesus, loving you, has trusted you with His work – but He has also given you the power to do it. Amen.