8/24/2014 sermon: “Identity issues”

Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Matthew 16:13-20
11Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A

Identity issues

Listen to me, all you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord. We have identity issues to deal with. Those issues all stem from one simple truth, “We are who we are so that God might be glorified.”

A woman named Barbara shared this with me. Barbara declared HER identity when we were talking about a man from John 9 who was blind from his birth, a man about whom Jesus’ disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Do you remember Jesus’ answer? Jesus told them, “Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

Barbara summed up this passage by pointing to herself and saying, “I am who I am that God might be glorified.” Now Barbara is younger than most of us here, wheelchair bound now after a whole life of congenital physical challenges. So her declaration of identity is very powerful. Barbara gave me permission to share her testimony with you: “I am who I am so that God might be glorified.”

Barbara’s “confession,” (so to speak), her naming and claiming of her own identity, has given me the insight and the words to claim my own identity. Apparently God wants a middle-aged … round … person to show up here at Resurrection and point herself and others to Jesus the Christ. “I am who I am so that God might be glorified.”

So, “Who are you?”
This is a rhetorical question. I KNOW who you are. You work hard at following Jesus, most of the time. You persevere in your faith, despite increasing physical difficulties or (in some cases) new babies. You have less money than you want—and in many cases much less money than you need. You are incredibly generous, though; just look here on the altar at these 300 backpacks stuffed with school supplies. You are either beginning to think about end-of-life issues, or trying hard to NOT think about such things. You hang in there with folks who are supposed to have your best interests at heart but who do you wrong. You are Christ-filled, applying your brains to your faith without claiming to have all the answers. You have been baptized, through which you have been adopted by God as his child and made members of Christ’s Body, the Church.

Yes, I know you: Ultimately, you are a person of hope! But, more importantly, I testify here today, “You are who you are so that God might be glorified.”

Which brings me to our gospel lesson for today. In our reading Jesus quizzed his disciples about his identity. Did you notice that Jesus didn’t first ask, “Who am I?” He started out by asking, “Who do PEOPLE say that the Son of Man is?” (Jesus referred to himself as “the Son of Man,” except in John’s gospel, where Jesus boldly calls himself by God’s full first and last name: “I am”). Here in Matthew’s gospel Jesus was being a bit more cryptic, “Who do PEOPLE say that the Son of Man is?” This is where the disciples reported other people’s guesses about who Jesus is: “John the Baptist,” and “Elijah,” and “Jeremiah.” These people knew their scripture and there were good reasons for their guesses. But they were all wrong.

Now if the disciples had known Jesus’ identity fully, they would have replied, “You are who you are so that God might be glorified.” Had any or all of the disciples responded this way, I think Jesus would have blessed them all, right then and there on the spot. Instead, their leader piped up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And so, Peter got the blessing. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!”

We think that this is the ultimate answer, “Jesus is the Messiah.” But this answer puts too much focus on Jesus of Nazareth. A more complete answer would focus on who he is in relation to God, “Jesus is who he is so that God might be glorified.”

Nevertheless, Jesus’ identity is made crystal clear here: Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God. But you knew that when you got here. YOU know who Jesus is because Peter said this first, right?

Wrong! Jesus himself goes on to say, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” In other words, we ourselves cannot by ourselves come to God. In our epistle lesson today Paul said something similar. Paul said that we each have “the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Even our faith doesn’t come from us; our faith in God comes from God, in the amount that God chooses.

Paul made clear what we are to do with this faith that God has given us. We are to discern the will of God, to figure out what God wants us to do, so that we know how to use the identity that we have been given. Jesus-the-Christ is the Son of Man, whose identity was to die for us so that we might have eternal life. If we were to continue reading in our gospel lesson, this is what comes next, Jesus’ declaration that his God-given purpose was to die on the cross.

Paul also made clear how we are to discern our own identity: we are to be transformed—which is to say transfigured, re-visioned, changed from the inside out—into the mind of God. We can go through life using our God-given identities to glorify God all by ourselves. But Paul insists that we are best able to do Christ’s work in the world by getting our egos out of the way. Whatever our identity, the way that God can be glorified through us is to work together so closely, living out our very God-given identities, that we function in unison as well as our own body functions. “I am who I am so that God might be glorified,” is really a corporate work.

We have spent the past 20 months discerning what this community is being called to do. As a community, we are being changed from the inside out. Are you the hand, the foot, the brain, the heart in this body of ours called Resurrection? You are not here by accident. We need each and every one of you because without you we are not complete. We know who we are, and we have work to do. “We are who we are so that God might be glorified.”

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