So you’re at a party or social engagement of some sort. You don’t know everybody there. Whether introvert or extrovert, at some point in the evening you inevitably encounter someone you don’t know. You make eye contact.
Let the social awkwardness begin!
You: Hello. I’m _________
Person: Nice to meet you, I’m _______
You: Nice to meet you.
Cue more awkwardness. You wait for something distracting to happen. Quick! Someone spill a drink or break a plate. Where’s that random squirrel when you need it? No such luck.
You: So, how do you know _____?
Person: Ah, we used to work together.
And then it comes.
Person: So, how about you? Tell me about yourself.
Tell me about yourself.
And it begins. The conversation moves to “What do you do exactly?” and “Where are you from?” which really, is to ask “Who are you?” You’re coerced, so it seems, into revealing your true identity in a few seconds by stating what you do for your job and where you were born/grew up. If you were given a choice, would this really be how you would identify yourself? I mean, what if you are in between jobs or out of work, what if you’re not sure what you do for a living, and what if you don’t really call any particular place home?
Regardless of how that conversation goes, eventually you will leave the room. You’ll go home and so will everyone else. And the people who have met you [and even some who haven’t] will tell others a story about you. The question, then, shifts to
“Who do other people say I am?”
Inevitably, when we’re not in the room, people talk about us. And they make identity claims about us. Take me for example. Maybe people say, when I’m not there: Josh is a minister. Josh is an actor. Josh is from Iowa and Indiana. Josh is insane. Josh is weird. Josh is…
We do this all the time. We say who other people are. And sometimes, we don’t have any clue who they are. Sometimes we don’t realize how harmful our words can be—when we say who someone is without really knowing them.
In this Gospel story about Jesus of Nazareth, we are looking at identity, but in two ways. First, personal identity—how you see yourself and express yourself. Second, community identity—how others see you and how you express yourself within community.
Jesus, throughout the Gospel narrative, seems to be involved in an identity crisis—at least others make it appear so. Jesus spends a lot of time asking the same question of those who followed and those who he encountered: “Who do you say I am?” It wasn’t a literal question, i.e. to be answered: well, Jesus, you are the son of Joseph and Mary, you’re from Nazareth, you are a Rabbi, etc. Instead, it was a bigger question for those who sought to follow Jesus on the way of love and compassion and justice. Because the follow-up questions to “Who do you say I am” include:
What and who will you stand up for? What is important to you? When are you loud? When are you silent? Who do you choose to spend your time with? Who do you avoid?
See, those questions get to the heart of it, do they not? This question of who do you say Jesus is exposes you, puts you out there. There’s no hiding behind theology, religion, the church—if you answer this question honestly. You don’t have to be religious to answer it either. In fact, those who called themselves “religious” in the 1st and 2nd Century were the ones who struggled the most to answer it honestly. It’s a big question, to be sure, but it’s also a simple one that exposes us. For if we answer who do you say Jesus is with cookie cutter responses that we’ve memorized or simply regurgitate, we make it clear that we don’t have our own answer to the question. If we scoff at the question and say things like duh, obviously, I mean Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah, the Savior, duh, isn’t it obvious then we show our inability to grasp concepts beyond absolutism and we display our fear of uncertainty and nuance. In either of these cases, we open ourselves up to silence and hypocrisy—two things that Jesus of Nazareth clearly taught against.
The silence of Christians when Black and Brown people are targeted by racists and white supremacists. The inaction of Christians when transgender people are victimized and scapegoated. The non-commitment comments like “there is trouble on both sides” or “I don’t see color, I’m colorblind; why can’t everyone else be?” Or “I have nothing against LGBT people, but can’t they just use another bathroom and stop causing so much division?” or “shame on those NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem; can’t they just be quiet and do their job; they make so much money anyway…” The pardoning of those who oppress and the victimizing of those who are marginalized. And the silence…
Yes, it is true that our silence and inaction as they pertain to social justice are rooted in our identities. Who do we say we are? But also, if you are a Christian [again, identity!] who do you say Jesus is, because if you limit Jesus to a religious icon, figure, personal savior, then this Jesus won’t move you to stand with those who are on the margins. This Jesus won’t light a fire under you, make you uncomfortable, even tick you off and challenge your assumptions. Your Jesus will just be the nice god-figure that makes you feel comfortable and safe when the world around you is not. By no means am I against feeling comfortable and safe when everything around you is uncomfortable and scary, but we all know that those feelings of security are fleeting. Eventually, that kind of safe Jesus fades in reality and can even isolate us from others.
So what if we seek to answer these identity questions honestly? I’ll do my best, though I’ll fail. To me, Jesus of Nazareth was and is a teacher and activist for the embracing of wholeness in all of humanity. Jesus wanted people to be their whole selves—whatever that meant—and then to take those whole selves out into the world to love people, to help them heal, to show compassion to those who were victimized, and well, to help others be their whole selves. And Jesus was the opposite of silent when it came to calling out injustice against the truly marginalized.
Because, friends, as with Jesus, people [and the world] will try to tell you who you are. If they hear you express your true identity, they may not like it. And so, they may try to pray it away, to fix you, so your identity fits into their categories and makes them less uncomfortable. Others will flat out reject your true self because you scare them—you expose their prejudice, you challenge so-called norms of society. So they may call you names.
Shame on them!
For however you identity yourself, that is your beauty, your uniqueness, your wholeness. They don’t know you. And they are afraid. And in God, in this Jesus, there is no fear of being yourself. There is encouragement to be yourself fully, to be known as a child of God, as you are.
And collectively, community-wise, we don’t have to agree on theology or the Bible or other religious stuff. But we do have to come clean about how we identify Jesus. It’s a lot easier to be neutral about controversial issues and to hide behind hymns and prayers when things are divisive and chaotic. But isn’t that exactly what Jesus taught and lived for those who followed, that this crap called evil and injustice and hate is real? That we are made to join together to work for justice and peace? So wherever you are today, embrace yourself as you are. Don’t let any false narratives that others tell you about your identity stick. You are unique and beautiful. And also, may that identity wholeness move you to embrace others as they are, and to stand up against anyone or anything that calls people names or strips away identity. May it be so.