The Grace of Being—Matthew 3: 13-17
(January 8, 2023-Baptism of Jesus)
Early in my work life I would dread the annual ritual of the performance review. I suffered from low self-esteem and undiagnosed depression. No matter how kind the reviewer and assurances that the review was about helping me to build on strengths, looking forward and setting goals, there were always snipers hidden in the folds of my brain that would, pop-up and fire bullets of shame and self-loathing into my heart, making it impossible to believe the re-assurances I was hearing. I had a fragile identity, my sense of worthiness depended on my competence, I linked my worth as an employee to my worth as a human being. In many ways I was right though. I’d adopted the values of the world. Our consumerist, individualistic, competitive society is always trying to measure our worth by our accomplishments.
Which makes our faith story today a bit of a head spinner. God seems to give Jesus an unmerited blessing, “This is my Own, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests”. What kind of a namby-pamby performance review is this? Why is God so pleased with Jesus? Jesus hasn’t done a thing yet, no miracles, no healings, no teachings, nothing. As far as we know, up to this point in his life, Jesus has lived the life of a typical Galilean; Instructed in his father’s trade, hands calloused by hard physical labour, supporting his family, raised on the Torah, surviving day by day. It seems like an odd and premature performance review.
We are so used to having our worth as human beings defined by our accomplishments—the grades on our report cards, the teams we make, the people we date, the size of our house, the trips we can afford, the amount of our RRSP’s and on and on. There’s nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves, the problems start when they become the very basis of how we see ourselves and the measure of our worth.
Sir Edmund Hilary, along with Tenzing Norkay were the first two people to summit Mount Everest. When Hilary was asked what he felt at the moment he reached the peak, he replied, “The first sentiment was one of ecstatic accomplishment, but then there came a sense of desolation. What was there now left to do?”1 About thirty-five years later in 1996 Jon Krakauer also reached Everest’s peak, in his book he wrote, “I had been fantasizing about reaching the peak, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care. I snapped four quick photos, then turned and headed back down.”2 Accomplishments are fleeting, we work toward them
1Sir Edmund Hillary as quoted at http://www.templesinaino.org/t051803.htm
2 Jon Krakauer, True Everest: Into Thin Air , Outside Online, http://outside.away.com/outside/destinations/199609/199609_into_thin_air_1.html
and achieve them but if we base our human worth on then we’re setting ourselves up—we’re only as good as yesterday’s successes.
And what if, for whatever reason, society judges that you don’t have much to show for in life. The mental health toll of a society that measures human worth according to economic productivity and success is staggering. Perhaps that’s at least partly what we’re seeing as the rise in mental health struggles in young people is happening at the same time as the increasing precariousness of work known as the gig economy and the struggle to find and maintain housing let alone aspire to that once upon a time marker of economic success and stability—home ownership. When who we are flows from what we do, when our being flows from our doing, we will always be disillusioned.
Faith says, know who you are first and let everything flow from that core identity. In stepping into the Jordan, in setting aside John’s protestations Jesus says, “I will not be defined by what I do or fail to do. I will be defined by my relationship to God and my life will unfold according to that relationship.” Jesus’ great accomplishment in our faith story is that he stands in the waters of the Jordan and claims his identity as God’s child. He comes to see this as the very core of his identity. He can only do God’s work grounded in this identity. Otherwise, he will be subject to world’s standards of success and failure and his ego responses to those standards. For Jesus being comes before doing.
Baptism was a crucial step to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because it grounded him in an identity that sustained him, that would not fail him. It’s this identity that allows him to take up God’s call with all the uncertainty and risk that comes with putting love first in the face of entrenched power. Jesus knew well what baptism meant, but he has to be true to who he is, he has to be true to the very core of his being. To live otherwise is to deny himself. This is what God blesses. It is not a performance review at all; it is an acknowledgement and celebration of Jesus’ claiming of his core identity.
It is a gift, grace freely offered by God, grace available to us all. Much like when we behold a newborn baby and are awed not by what the child has done, the child has accomplished nothing according to the world’s standards. We are awed by the child’s simple being, a miracle of life from God. When we claim that identity for ourselves we are freed from the tyranny of accomplishment. This doesn’t mean we sit around waiting for the second coming, doing nothing.
What it does mean is that we will no longer be defined by our successes and failures. We will no longer have our self worth at the mercy of the next performance review, the next pay cheque, the next compliment, the next insult. Our self worth will rest secure in the love of the God that created us, sustains and will not abandon us. This identity holds us strong and secure when others seek to tear us down. From a place of faith and love we may do what society judges to be irresponsible, unconventional, subversive, puzzling, irrational or just plain silly and ridiculous, but it won’t affect our view of ourselves
because we are acting from that core, foundational identity as God’s beloved child. Our doing flows from our being.
Now in my experience this is not a one-time thing that we do and then life is all roses. Being open to this grace is an everyday battle. Baptism wasn’t a magic trick that made life easy for Jesus. It was a battle for him as well. Scripture tells us Jesus was tempted in the desert, that he almost gave up on God in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. Jesus shows us that the only way to win that battle is to refuse to fight it, to find a still place in the midst of the pressures of life and surrender to our true selves, to our core identity. It’s counterintuitive to our culture, but it’s the truth—be still and know that I am God scripture tells us. In stillness we shed the layers of identity that come from our accomplishments and return to our core identity, the unfailing one; a miraculous, vulnerable, beautiful child of God.
Here is a great paradoxical truth, the moment we claim our identity as God’s children and stop defining ourselves by our accomplishments, our actions actually take on more significance, because our lives are no longer centred on our egos and building ourselves up in competition with others but rather are centred on forming loving, respectful relationships and being of service to others. When our doing flows from this place of being we become agents of God’s love, peace and justice. What greater accomplishment could there be in this life? There is a spark of the Holy that resides inside of each one of us that calls us to claim our true identity as God’s children. It is not a performance review, it is a welcome home into full communion with the One who calls us “beloved”. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Joe Gaspar
The Grace of Being—Matthew 3: 13-17