March 8, 2009

Third Sunday in Lent

Who's Whose?

Mark 8: 27-38

Have you ever wondered how you got to be the person you are? Perhaps it is the result of experience anchored in your family, your genetic background, the places you have lived, the opportunities you have had, your friends, your physical ability. If we are blank slates when we are born,that doesn’t seem to last very long. Each passing day etches into our lives some piece of our identity. Gradually but inevitably we become who we are and after awhile it seems all but impossible to imagine ourselves other than what we have become.

But there are some milestones along the way where it seems we can reinvent ourselves; for example, moving to a city where you don’t know anyone, changing careers, entering retirement, going off to college, getting married, getting divorced. In situations like these that are totally strange and new, the markers of the past that told us who we were are missing. It is not so easy to take for granted our own sense of identity. Essential assumptions become questioned: Do I believe what I believe because it is true or do I believe what I believe because my parents believed it? If I don’t have a job, how do I define myself? Will I pursue those activities where I have already succeeded so I can be a star or will I risk failure on something more interesting and challenging? Am I interested in particular work because it will pay the bills or because it will fully engage my intellect and ability?

Now it is true I suppose that most mornings we don’t wake up asking deeply existential questions like “who am I?” But in the midst of radical transition, whether we are aware of it or not, the questions are there.

Jesus himself faced these questions. When he asked the disciples “who do people say that I am” maybe he was quizzing them for a right answer but maybe he was also seeking reassurance for himself. I guess I don’t think it is much of a stretch to consider that he was looking for a confirmation of his calling. It was becoming increasingly clear to him where his path would eventually lead. His own sense of identity, even at this point in his ministry, was bound up with the cross. He would explain this again and again to his disciples but they would not understand until it was too late.

And even though Peter gave the right answer to Jesus’ question, he had no understanding of what it meant. But Jesus knew. At the very beginning of his ministry, he had confronted the issue in the desert place with only the voice of the tempter to keep him company. In the wilderness, the temptation that Jesus faced was whether to subvert his own identity in the service of power, whether to take the shortcut, the easy way out.

As Matthew and Luke tell it, three different times he faced a choice – turn stones into bread for his own well-being, fling himself off the temple to prove God’s care and rescue, bow down and worship Satan in order to have power over the world. Henri Nouwen has described these choices as the temptation to be relevant, to be spectacular, and to be powerful.

And let me tell you -- if you don’t already know it -- it is not only Jesus who faces these temptations. Each one of us will encounter at some point along the way that same voice that Jesus heard in the wilderness, a voice that urges us to do whatever it takes to fit in, to be a big success, to be important.

So look at how Jesus responded. In each situation, he refused to act in ways not wholly consistent with his own calling. Later on, of course, he would multiply the loaves, not to satisfy his own hunger, but rather to feed the multitudes. And he would willingly go into mortal danger, not from the pinnacle of the temple but the pinnacle of a hill with a cross. And in the end he would have power over all the earth, but it would not be earthly power; it would be spiritual power. And it would be a gift from God not the result of a corruption of worship.

In the course of his ministry, he would say yes to some version of all the things the Satan presented to him in the wilderness. But he would not take the easy way out. Instead he would take the faithful way. So when Jesus asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”, it was not an unfamiliar question to him. He had wrestled with it before. And it seems that he was wrestling with it again.

He told the disciples about the path of sorrow and suffering that he would walk,
and when Peter said, “no, no, no don’t do this” it must have sounded just like that other voice in the wilderness, urging Jesus to take the easy way rather than the true way. He was again confronted by temptation. Once again he was being tested on the question of who he was and whose he was.

It was another test of what it meant to be true to his identity, faithful to his calling, obedient to his Creator. It was for him another wilderness, another transition that empowered him to claim publicly for the first time where God’s path for him would lead, and who he was meant to be.

And then he told his disciples that if they would follow him, they must also take God’s way. The words are difficult: “Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.”

What did he meant by this? Did he mean to say to them that they should forget whom they were, that they should seek out a life of suffering? And does he mean to say that to us?

I don’t think so. I think what Jesus means when he tells his disciples, then and now, to deny themselves, is to set aside their own ideas of who they will be, to let go of the kind of ambitions that can consume, to turn away from that which is other than what God intends. He is telling us to resist the easy way, if it is not God’s way. He is telling us to put behind us the temptation to be other than who God calls us to be, to deny our own view of ourselves when it interferes with our belonging to God.

Jesus tells us to follow him, not to copy his life. We have our own identity to live out. I think that is what he means when he says that we should take up our cross. For Jesus, the cross is the sign of ultimate faithfulness to his own calling, his own identity. To take up our cross, then, is to bear our own calling, and to carry that blessed burden wherever God leads.

But how do we know what that means? How do we sort out our God-given identity? It isn’t a matter of reinventing ourselves. Rather, what Jesus is calling us to do is engage in the life-long task of listening for the voice of God. That is how our true identity is revealed. Yes, certainly we are influenced and affected and shaped by our own personal experiences. But there is a deeper kind of creating that makes us who we are.

This has been described as the idea of “sealed orders” given by God. The term comes from the orders given the commanding officer of a ship that are sealed up, which he is not allowed to open until he has proceeded a certain distance into the high seas. So it is with God’s orders to us. We all have our own sealed envelope, whether we know it or not. We carry it with us as we travel into the depths of our own lives. It contains God’s instructions to us about how to live; it directs our journey; it explains our own identity.

The task of finding out whom we are, then, is not a matter of reinvention, but rather a matter of discernment. Every person is made in the image of God, every one of us belongs to God, and so we all have a holy purpose for our lives. Some of us listen for the ways God calls us to that purpose, and gradually become the person God intends us to be. And some of us miss the mark, and never understand or accept our God-given identity.

Where are you in this process? Can you do what Jesus commands – deny yourself, take up your cross, follow him? That is how you find out who you truly are – and whose you truly are.

But if you are expecting easy answers to those questions, I am afraid you will be disappointed. You won’t find them – not from the church, not from other people, certainly not from the Bible. But if you are willing to set your face, to go where God guides, to join your own journey with that of Jesus, then maybe the choice will become clear, and you will find – if not an easy answer – then at least your own response to the overwhelming love of God. You will find your life.

And in the end, there are only two questions you have to answer: Who do you say that he is? And whose does he say that you are?

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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