A Matter of Identity

Matthew 3:13-17

Who are you?

I just asked you about your identity. You can answer the question in lots of ways. For example, I might answer by saying my name is “Chuck,” or if the setting is very formal, “Charles William Griffin III.” I also might identify myself by one of the many roles I fill: father, husband or pastor, for example.

But what about your ultimate identity? Is there something about your identity that is unchanging and eternal?

Certainly, it was an unchanging, eternal identity that Jesus established by submitting to baptism. After Jesus underwent this ritual, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Those words were all about identity. To the Jewish audience surrounding Jesus, the words brought to mind two passages of Scripture, Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. The psalm’s  “Son” reference was understood by Jews to be a reference to the promised Messiah; the expression of God’s pleasure in Isaiah was tied to the figure known as the “suffering servant” of prophecy.

So, in his baptism, Jesus gained a public identity as the suffering Christ, the one who would restore humanity to our Creator.

Jesus’ baptism also was an act of solidarity with humanity. Being both fully God and fully human, Jesus was sinless, like Adam and Eve before the fall. Undergoing baptism signaled God’s intention to save us from our deserved eternal deaths—Jesus’ baptism was in many ways his first step toward the cross.

And because of Jesus’ work, our own baptisms establish our eternal, unchanging identities as children of God. Like Jesus, we are pleasing to God when we symbolically claim the identity God offers us. We ride our older brother’s linen coattails into the kingdom of heaven.

All we’re left to do in this world is live out who we are.

It is a truly beautiful thing when we gather as children of God, remember who we are, and behave accordingly. We remain individuals, of course—I remain recognizable as Chuck, Child of God, while each of you remain recognizable as David or Margaret or Whoever, Child of God—but we find joyous unity as inheritors of perfect healing, peace, love and joy.

The word for such a gathering of God’s children is “church,” by the way. I know, church is seldom as ideal as I’ve just described it. Too often, we let our temporal identities get in the way. But the potential in any gathering of God’s children still amazes me.

Occasionally in such a setting, something truly mysterious happens. Sometimes, we’re allowed to represent God to each other in ways where our individual differences vanish, and there is nothing left visible but God’s Spirit at work.

Let me share a story, an example that might help.

In a previous appointment, I had a parishioner I’ll call Scott. He had a well-deserved reputation for knowing his Bible, and had served for decades as a deeply respected Sunday school teacher. Early on, we enjoyed each other’s company, having lively, friendly discussions about sermons and Bible lessons.

Scott’s demeanor changed suddenly. He stopped talking to me and became angry, focusing his wrath on me in particular when he spoke to others. It soon got back to me that Scott was telling people my sermons made no sense, that I was preaching subjects not in the Bible, that I might even be dangerous. He stopped attending church; his wife told me that because of the way Scott felt, I had best not visit him.

It became quite the talk of the congregation, of course. What had Pastor Chuck done to Scott? I for one was simply perplexed, worriedly second-guessing everything I had said or done in recent months.

The answer became clear in less than a year. Scott had developed a form of dementia, declining very quickly. Throughout his decline, this terrible disease caused him to lash out in fits of anger.

Toward the end, I did go to visit him in the hospital. By this time, he was usually groggy and disoriented. At some point during the visit, someone in the room said my name.

Scott roused slightly, furrowed his face and said, “Chuck Griffin? I hate Chuck Griffin.” I was sitting on the edge of his bed facing him. His wife, a polite and gentle woman, heard what he had muttered and looked as if she wanted to melt into the floor.

Scott then opened his eyes and looked me right in the face, studying me for a moment. His face relaxed, resuming a familiar cheeriness I had missed. He looked at my shirt, which had on it an embroidered Methodist cross. He then took my hand and asked me a question: “But you’ll be my pastor, right?”

The two of us sat there for just a moment, his disease stripping away both our identities, leaving us clinging only to our titles, “Children of God.” It was good—it was pure. Nothing remained between us but God’s grace.

“Of course I’ll be your pastor,” I replied. And we prayed.

We do not want to lose our individual identities through disease to have such a moment. But God’s Spirit can push aside differences, real or imagined. When we let God work, our unity as brothers and sisters in the family of God comes to the front, and we gain a glimpse of heaven.

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