Who am I?
We’ve all asked ourselves – and others – that question at one time or another. We have all lost sleep agonizing over that question—and perhaps a good deal more trying to achieve a positive response. We have all made the mistake of using the perceptions of others as the mirror to our own reality.
Leonard Sweet tells the story about four-year-old Sarah, who was thrilled that she was asked to be the “flower girl” in her cousin’s wedding. On the day of the wedding she carefully dressed in her pretty little gown, meticulously brushed her hair, pinning in her favorite barrettes on either side of her face. Inspected by her busy mother, who was herself a bridesmaid in the wedding, Sarah got a quick “thumbs up.” “You look great, dear” was all the go-ahead she needed.
The processional music started. Sarah and her ring-bearer brother started down the aisle. Everyone gasped at how adorable they looked together. Only after the little girl passed by the guests did they notice that the back of Sarah’s hair was a snarlyboodle of tangles. Decked in bed-head wonderment, her lovely little dress had somehow gotten tucked into the waistband of her underwear in the back. Sarah had also failed to actually put her party shoes all the way on, so while the front looked fine, the back of her shoes were smashed down flat like boat shoes, slapping noisily on her heels.
After the ceremony, when confronted by her embarrassed mother about her multiple `wardrobe malfunctions,’ Sarah cooly responded, “So what?! I want to look good for people when I come in and they first see me. I don’t care what they think of me from behind as I leave.”[i]
What Sarah so easily shrugged off, says Sweet, we adults have a really tough time getting past. We get so caught up in what other people think about us. We focus so much emphasis and importance on others’ perceptions of us; spend great stores of time and energy trying to manage our public image.
So, all of this begs the question: When Jesus asked his disciples “Who do others say that I am?” was he attempting to take some kind of informal public poll regarding the favorability factor of his identity and mission? Not likely.
In the weeks leading up to today’s gospel encounter, Jesus’ disciples had seen him directly confront the hypocrisy of religious leaders of that day; were probably stunned to hear Jesus discount the traditional laws on ritual purity. They had witnessed Jesus defying Sabbath law by healing a man with a deformed hand in the synagogue. On the heels of all this, Jesus saw a need to debrief his disciples. Find out where their heads were at. Sort of evaluate the situation.
So he asks them, “What have you been hearing about me out there?”
The disciples’ initial answers are no big surprise. The people had been long waiting – are still waiting – for the mysterious figure of Elijah to return (hence the Jewish tradition of pouring a cup of wine and opening the front door to invite Elijah in at the end of the Passover meal). And the notion that Jesus was yet another `voice in the wilderness’ – just another dime-a-dozen prophet akin to his late cousin John – might have been a pretty safe bet for the disciples.
But when Peter said, “You are the Messiah!” he really struck a nerve. He suddenly blurted out what they had probably all been thinking – perhaps hoping against hope – but had been afraid to voice aloud.
“Don’t tell anyone what Peter has revealed,” Jesus warns them.
Partly, perhaps, because his time to be glorified had not yet come. But mostly, I believe, because the disciples’ notion of what being the Messiah meant – while in line with Jewish tradition – was far from the new reality Jesus actually brought to bear.
Peter’s “confession” reflected the standards, expectations and perceptions of a world defined by power and success; widespread admiration and adulation. The disciples’ expectation was that the Messiah would come to liberate Israel and bring God’s people back into sovereignty and independence.[ii]
To make them, once again, one of the ancient world’s great superpowers.
But, that was not who Jesus was. And that was not what he came to accomplish.
It was my experience that many of my classmates who felt called into ministry entered seminary with a nagging sense of emptiness. So many of us had a longingness to be loved and accepted by others; sought the approval of God and others. Many of us had grown up with the role model of “The Beloved Pastor.”
Of course, most of us followed our hearts into seminary, as well, because we had a deep desire to serve God in any and every way we could; were ready to dedicate our lives to that call. We’d experienced the transforming power of Jesus Christ in our own lives and now wanted to follow him wherever he might lead us.
In fact, those who did not have such a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, generally speaking, ultimately dropped out of seminary before graduating.
And those of us who did survive the seminary experience to go on into parish ministry were eventually disabused of the notion that we would be loved by one and all.
We learned – through the trials of experience – that our primary purpose in ministry was not to be glorified people pleasers, but rather humble agents of God’s transformative power. And that such servanthood would, at times, call for great sacrifice; would require us to – in a very real sense – `pick up our cross’ and follow Jesus.
“Thou hast formed us for Thyself,” St. Augustine wrote in his book Confessions, “and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
And the longer one has journeyed the path of self-discovery, the truer St. Augustine’s words ring.
When I first met Bill Porter, we had a nice, long chat in my office. Bill is a lovely guy, and he spoke with great affection about his friend Steve Thomas. And Bill shared with me a conversation he had had with Steve upon his retirement.
“What are you going to do with your time, now, Steve?” Bill asked.
Steve surprised him a bit with his answer: “I’m going to find out who I am.”
And, I must say that, even though I’ve never met him personally, I greatly respect the honesty and integrity of Steve’s personal insight; because I think his insight reflects a profound truth that should resonate within all of us.
“And [so] all of us,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” [2 Cor. 3:18]
The `transformation’ of our hearts, our souls, our minds toward an increasingly accurate reflection of our Lord continues throughout our life journey. We never stop `finding out who we are’ in Jesus Christ. Nor is this the kind of spiritual make-over that we can affect upon ourselves.
Because, no matter how much we might try to `transform’ ourselves, we can never achieve the newness of life that God wants us to have in Christ. A person might make changes in their life, even positive changes, but they still remain essentially the same person and often will simply go from one kind of [self-inflicted] problem to another.
Sports caster Harry Kalas once introduced Philadelphia Phillies baseball player, Gary Maddox, with the following words: “He has turned his life around. He used to be depressed and miserable. Now he’s miserable and depressed.”[iii]
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in a man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries is vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” [Pascal, Pensees VII]
There’s a well-known story of a girl who was the daughter of one of the royal families in Europe, but had a big, bulbous nose that, in her eyes, destroyed her beauty. Finally, her family hired a famous plastic surgeon to change the contour of the girl’s nose. He did his work, and there came the moment when they took the bandages off and the girl could see the results. The doctor saw that operation had been a total success. All the ugly contours were gone. Her nose was different. When the incisions healed and the redness disappeared, she would be a beautiful girl. He held up a mirror for the girl to see, but so embedded was the girl’s image of herself that when she saw herself in the mirror, she couldn’t see any change. She broke into tears and cried out, “Oh, I knew it wouldn’t work!”
It took six months before the girl would accept the fact that she was indeed an attractive person, and it wasn’t until she had accepted this fact that her self-image, attitude and behavior began to change accordingly.[iv]
So it is with those of us who search for the answer to that question: Who am I?
We will not find the answer, however, reflected in the mirror; but rather as we open our hearts and minds to the transforming Spirit of God.
By the power of that Spirit, we are able to forfeit the old identity—to lose our self—in order to discover our true self in Jesus Christ.
[ii] Ibid. Sweet.
[iii] Green, Michael P., 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, Baker Books, 1989.
[iv] Ibid. Green.
(Grateful acknowledgement to Leonard Sweet for much inspiration and some content in developing this sermon.)