When I was ordained to the ministry at First Baptist Austin, the pastor, Roger Paynter, gave me some advice that has stuck me with and I have returned to often. He said, to paraphrase, “When the going gets rough, and the burdens and challenges of ministry threaten to overwhelm you and bury your soul, remember your first love—the reasons why you went into ministry in the first place.”
First love. It’s the language of passion and romance. It is language that we often associate with youth, sometimes dismissively. Because many first loves don’t last, and hormones can be deceptive. But first loves are formative. They let us know that it is possible to get swept up in something larger than ourselves, something more powerful and more beautiful than the drudgery that so much daily life can bring.
I love baptism Sundays because they are a chance for us to get back to basics and remember why we come here in the first place, why we came to faith in the first place.
Do you remember your first experiences of divine love? Moments when you felt an awareness of something larger than yourself, of being buoyed up by an inexplicable grace, of sensing that your life had meaning and purpose…do you remember what those felt like? Was there a warm in your belly, a lightness in your head, a quickening of your spirit?
I wonder if Jesus looked back on his own baptism as one of those moments. It was, indeed, an experience of first love—both in the sense that it was filled with mystery and wonder AND in the sense that it was an experience of love. First.
Jesus is baptized at the very beginning of his ministry. First.
Before he ventures into the wilderness and encounters the Devil,
before his assembles his apostles,
before he heals a sick person
or preaches a sermon.
Before he musters up the courage to turn the tables in the Temple
or ride triumphantly into Jerusalem, like a King.
Before he has to face a Cross.
Jesus must come face to face with what is most true about himself—that he is a Beloved child of God. First.
Before he has done anything to earn it, or prove it, and perform it.
I wonder if Jesus kept coming back to his memory of this day, whenever he started to forget his purpose in the world or feel confused or lonely or angry or sad.
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” he could recall, “I am the Beloved.”
Henri Nouwen says that “the great spiritual battle begins—and never ends—with the reclaiming of our chosenness…How do we get in touch with our chosenness when we are surrounded by rejections? First of all, you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive…Secondly, you have to keep looking for people and places where your truth is spoken and where you are reminded of your deepest identity as the chosen one….”
Nouwen goes on to say, “You are the Beloved,” and I hope that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold…Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper.” (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved)
I do not have a lot of words for you today, because the sermon was already preached in the baptistery and in the testimonies of Ariel and Felicia. May this water and their words remind us of the deep well of our Belovedness. May we learn to swim in these waters, daily.