9/23/2012: Our true identity

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Mark 9:30-37
Proper 20, Year B

Our true identity

There are all kinds of ways to discover our true identity. And discovering our true identity is some of the work that we will be doing—that we ARE doing—in our interim period. We are discovering who we are and where we are headed, so that we can discover who best should lead us.

Our three-week Sunday-morning Forum series that begins on October 28, for example, will help us figure out our “type,” in three ways. We will discover our personality type, our prayer type, and our spirituality type. Each of us will figure out our individual versions of these types, and then we will plot them all together to see our corporate “type,” to discover our true identity as a congregation. I hope that you will plan on joining us.

Now, you may think my plug for this particular series of Forums is just a creative way to advertise a pet program. Mostly not. I’m wondering if perhaps our Forum planning group has overlooked one of the most basic ways that we today use to discern our “true identity.” That way is simple; are we a Macintosh user, or a PC user?


I remember vividly a few years ago, sitting with all six of my adult siblings around my parents’ dining room table, each at our own laptops, texting each other. We were arguing—silently, so as not to upset Mom—about the virtues of Macs versus PCs.

We humans like to divide ourselves, don’t we? To so distinguish ourselves that we, having discovered our true identity, draw a circle and elevate ourselves on that basis. Oh, we don’t step up alone; that would be egotistical and selfish. Instead we choose a few of our friends and acquaintances who look and sound and think and worship like us, and we all step up together.

This is exactly what’s going on in our gospel lesson today. Jesus and his disciples are about to set out on a trip to Jerusalem. And this will not be just any old trip. This will be their last trip with Jesus, their Rabbi, their friend, their teacher.

Jesus had taken great pains to be alone with his disciples. He had a lot to teach them, to be sure that they knew, before they set out on that last journey with him. And his efforts at secrecy had succeeded. So the disciples were alone when Jesus told them the details of his coming betrayal, death, and resurrection. Jesus told them:

The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.

There you have THE most important sentence in ALL of human history. This is a sentence so packed with meaning that we STILL, some 2,000-plus years later, are coming to understand all of the nuances of these words.

Mark was not ignorant of the profound reality that he managed, somehow, with God’s help, to pack into this one sentence. New Testament scholars have shown that Mark built his whole gospel around these words. Everything that comes before this one sentence leads directly here, and everything that comes after in some way explicates, explains, what has come before.

For Mark, these words are the ground-zero of everything that needs to be said about Jesus of Nazareth. For us, these words are the ground-zero, the essence of reality: God became human and we rejected him with a capital “R” and tried to obliterate our creator, but after three days he rose again to establish a new reality, a new creation that his life and death and new life had created. THIS is all the identity we need; our true identity is wrapped up in this one life, this one revelation to us of and from God.

And what was the disciples’ reaction? What is our reaction, often? We do not understand, and are afraid to ask. So we change the subject to distract ourselves from the need to understand. And what subject do we turn to? We all argue among ourselves about who is the greatest. We say, “God loves only me, and people who are like me.” This is the cosmic equivalent of our more earthly claim, “Mom loves me best.”

So what did Jesus do? I think he did a palm smack directly to the forehead, although our scripture doesn’t say this. What our lesson DOES say is that Jesus sat down—there’s that teaching pose again—and called disciple-class back into session. Remedial session. And what Jesus told them is arguably the most important lesson that all disciples, everywhere and in all time, need to learn. The lesson is this:

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

What a paradox! The essence of greatness is living for others, instead of for ourselves. This is the essence of the gospel, said in another way: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

In our epistle lesson James tells us exactly what living for others looks like:

  • Pure of envy
  • Lacking selfish ambition
  • Peaceable
  • Gentle
  • Willing to yield
  • Full of mercy
  • Doing good
  • Loving ALL

How many ways must Jesus tell us? How many times do we need to learn this all-important lesson? Our true identity is as disciples of Jesus, and to be Jesus’ disciples we must serve others.

To illustrate this all-important truth, Jesus took a small child, raised that child up, and told all who had ears to hear:

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

And we humans, we Christians, are so slow to understand that we often think that Jesus was literally talking about small, young human beings. We particularize the message to that specific child, when our true identity rests on being one with each other, ALL others, as Jesus is one with the Father and the Spirit.

I want to put a marker out here, to tell you that this lesson is to be continued next week. I have no idea what message Carol will be given to preach next week. She may not even preach on the gospel lesson. But I want you to listen next Sunday to the gospel lesson, and to hear that lesson as a continuation of this week’s lesson—when Jesus’ disciples catch someone not from their denomination doing a work of power in Jesus’ Name. We will see then whether Jesus’ first disciples had learned this all-important lesson of inclusion—it will help us to reflect on whether WE have learned this lesson.

For today, I want you to envision Macintosh lovers and PC users alike, all drawing on the One source of power and light and life. Young and old; rich and poor; ; left-handed and right-handed; male and female; Black and White; gay and straight; Episcopalians and Pentecostals; Northern and Southern; Republican and Democrat… Whatever duality that we have created and everything in between:

Whoever welcomes one such child in MY name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.

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