Who Does God Say That We Are?

In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, we are continually reminded that our words have power and influence. What do our words say about us? What do the words that come forth from our lips uncover about our hearts? And, most importantly, how do our words honor or dishonor God and one another?

In today’s Gospel, words take on another meaning. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Questions have a way of marking important moments and events, and this one was a turning point in Jesus’ mission and ministry. Up until now, not everyone was sure of Jesus’ identity, with some believing he was a version of John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. Many Jewish people anticipated the return of Elijah and other prophets like Baruch.

But viewing Jesus in such terms only served to fit him into categories that already existed. This question, “Who do you say that I am?” cuts through all of that and allows Jesus to redefine people’s categories using his true identity. Peter is the one who jumps out ahead of the crowd with the gold star answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

In Isaiah 43, verses 18-19 we read:

 18 Do not remember the former things,

or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

Peter’s response to Jesus’ question pointed to the “new thing” God was doing in Jesus Christ. And, as Jesus explained, human insight and understanding did not disclose this truth to Peter, but it was God alone who was the author of this foundational revelation. Yet, even though it was such a wonderful revelation, Jesus admonished his disciples to keep his identity secret at that time.

Jesus knew that confusion and misunderstanding would continue to increase regarding his identity; the Jewish leaders of the day would continue to feel threatened by him. But he also tells the disciples to keep quiet because he was keenly aware that it wouldn’t be until after the resurrection (17:9) when the disciples themselves would be prepared to understand the fullness of the cross; and apart from the cross they would not be able to understand the real nature of Jesus being the messiah (16:21-28).

It seems to me, then, that Jesus held identity in high regard. It wasn’t something to be tossed around lightly, but instead considered thoughtfully. Since Jesus says that the knowledge of his identity could only have been given to Peter by God, one can draw the conclusion, then, that one’s identity is God-given. We tend to find and root our own identity in myriad entities—in our careers, in our families, in our gender, in causes that are close to our hearts, in our ethnicity, in what others say we are and their expectations of us—the list is endless.

But if one’s identity is God-given, as we see in the interchange between the Peter and Jesus, then who does God say that we are?

There is a lot of discussion these days about self-concept or self-identity. How do we view ourselves? That’s an important question. More pointedly, what is Christian identity? Judging from Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s response, Christian identity can be defined in terms of what God does to us and the relationship God creates with us and the purpose God appoints for us. In other words as Christians we cannot truly talk about our identity without talking about the action of God on us, the relationship of God with us, and the purpose of God for us. The biblical understanding of human self-identity is radically God-centered and is at the core of understanding the purpose for our existence.

God made us who we are so we could make known who God is. Our identity is for the sake of making known God’s identity to the world.

Therefore, being a Christian and making the excellence of God known are almost identical. We can make the excellence of God known when we stand against injustice in any form. We can make the excellence of God known in church services with preaching, singing, playing the organ, praying and reading; being acolytes or on the Altar guild. We can do so in small groups of conversation and fellowship as we tell each other what God has been for us. We made the excellence of God known through the backpack drive as we supplied much-needed materials for students. We do so through eucharistic minister visits to the homebound and through our FishPlay program with children. We can make the excellence of God known in a thousand different ways of love that suit our situation and our own personality. There are as many unique ways to show God’s love and faithfulness as there are people to receive it.

God made us who we are so we could make known who God is. Our identity is at the heart of that.

One of the difficult lessons that I continue to grapple with is learning how to fully embrace my true spiritual identity–how God sees me through the lens of Jesus. This is a daily exercise, because when I screw up, I don’t feel particularly embraceable. But it would do all of us well to remember –and this is what I have to remember each day–that our core identity is found in Jesus Christ and it is divinely given. It is rooted in Christ’s freedom-giving mercy and not dependent upon us. Our identity is that of a child of God, and as a joint-heir with Jesus. This identity is not something we only receive “when we get our act together” or “when we finally accomplish this or that” or “when we feel like we’ve been forgiven enough” or …well…you can fill in the blank. Our spiritual inheritance in Christ right now at this very moment is one of forgiveness, it is a relationship with Jesus, and it is the sustaining hope of eternal fellowship with God by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is this truth that gives us unconditional love, intimacy, and security. And it is not contingent upon our filling in the blank, but solely determined by what God has already accomplished at the cross.

Yes, words have power and influence. The words of scripture say, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, [he or she] is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV). Don’t let the enemy steal your true spiritual identity. God’s word says that you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14] and that nothing can separate you from His love (Romans 8:35).

Will you dare to believe it?

The Reverend Deborah Lee

Proper 16, Year A

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

August 27, 2017

Matthew 16:13-20

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