God says to everybody who has ever existed: you are my belovèd child

Liz Stuart, 9 January 2022

Isaiah 43: 1–7; Acts 8: 14–17; Luke 3: 15–17, 21–22

Funerals have changed a lot during my lifetime. They have become much more personal, much more focused on celebrating the life, personality and achievements of the deceased. It was a bit of a shock then when I attended my friend Iris’s funeral some years ago, which was conducted according to the rite of the Book of Common Prayer, and the only place her name was mentioned was in the sermon. There was no eulogy, no recitation of her achievements, no attempt to capture her personality. She was simply ‘our dear sister here departed’. Or contrast the beautifully solemn and sparse funeral of Prince Philip – also conducted according to the Book of Common Prayer, which did not even have a sermon – with the deeply personal and emotional funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Why were our foreparents in faith not as interested in personalising funerals as we are? Perhaps the answer to that lies in their understanding of where our identity is located. We tend to define ourselves by things like our jobs or our relationships or by our race, our gender, our sexual orientation. Earlier generations, or people in other parts of the world even now, define themselves by their religion or the denomination within their religion. But for the people who wrote the Book of Common Prayer there was only one identity that mattered and that was baptismal identity. The only thing you needed to know about the deceased was that they were a brother or sister in the glorious redemption wrought by Christ.

When St Paul states in Galatians 3: 28, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’, he is believed by scholars to be quoting a baptismal formula – something that was said during the rite of baptism in the early church. In the ancient world in which Paul lived, your identity was vested in whether you were a slave or a free person, whether you were male or female, whether you were Jew or Gentile. In baptism all these identities are rendered non-ultimate: they do not define who people are in relation to God. And the same is true for us and the identities we put so much store on today – our jobs, our relationships and so on. They do not define who we are in relation to God. Only the identity that is affirmed at our baptism matters.

If you think about it, there’s much that we don’t know about Jesus. We don’t know what he looked like, we don’t know whether he was in a relationship or not, we don’t know how he spent most of his life. But we know all we need to know because of his baptism, because at his baptism God declares, ‘You are my Son, the Belovèd, with you I am well pleased’.

Baptism tells the truth of who he is and it tells the truth of who we are. And the truth of who we are is that we are all belovèd children of God in whom he is well pleased, and that is all that ultimately matters. That is all that will survive time; it is all that will survive our death. So it’s all that’s worth investing in now.

To be baptised is to know that all the other identities that our culture writes on our bodies are secondary and non-ultimate. They may be very important – indeed they are very important – to how we navigate our world, but they play no part in determining our relationship with God. And the Church as the community of the baptised, I believe, should be a place in which those secondary identities are not determinative of who we welcome, who can be involved, who can be ordained or who can minister. ‘Inclusive church’ should be an oxymoron. I read something this week that said how easy it would be to love everybody if we but knew their stories. Well, we do know their stories. We know that everybody is a belovèd child of God, in whom he is well pleased.

The Church should be a place in which secondary identities are not determinative of who we welcome, who can be involved, who can be ordained or who can minister. ‘Inclusive church’ should be an oxymoron.

But what of the non-baptised? Well, just as Jesus had been belovèd of God from before time, and this was declared at his baptism, so I believe that absolutely everybody who has ever existed or who will ever exist is been caught up in Christ’s redeeming work, whether they are conscious of it or not. God says to them exactly as he says to us: you are my belovèd child, in whom I am well pleased.

We lay hold to this, we celebrate it, we’re conscious of it, and therefore the way we live in and outside of this building should be radically different. And perhaps it’s right even that our funerals should be different. We come to life with a different perspective: the only thing that matters is that we are belovèd children of God, and nothing and no one can erase that identity. Nothing and no one can erase his delight in us. What freedom, what joy, lies in that realisation and what love it should engender for others, equally belovèd in his sight!