Spirit of God, rest on these words and open our hearts to receive them.  Amen.

Who are You?

SO OFTEN we go through the motions in our spiritual lives. We sing, we pray, we worship, we give the impression that we know that we are God’s beloved. But often in the deep places of our hearts, the assurance is not there; and we know it. We need to come home and let the Spirit of God whisper, “You are God’s beloved.” I cannot tell you who you are. Others cannot tell you who you are. Only the Spirit of God can. ---Trevor Hudson and Stephen D. Bryant

Last week, we began our discipleship series with the question, "Who is Your Lord?"  This question marks the first disciple-making relationship in Glenn McDonald’s book, The Disciple Making Church.  “Who is Your Lord?” is the essential life question that Christ invites us to answer every single day.  Whom are we allowing each day to set the agenda for our lives?   We heard some tough words from Jesus, words meant to wake us up and get our attention, but let’s understand that those same words are not intended to make us feel guilty, unworthy, or ashamed.

McDonald writes, “I know that every time I challenge our flock concerning the six marks of a disciple, there is a certain percentage of the crowd that sighs, ‘Well, thank you very much.  Now I have a half dozen more reasons to feel like a failure’” (51).  Hoping we will feel like failures is not McDonald’s intention or mine, nor, do I believe, was it our Lord’s intention.  Yet too often we come away from church wondering what else we possibly have to do to be “good enough” disciples.

I have been in one church or another since infancy and, even in my college and young adult years, I did not take the common church-going sabbatical.  However, despite five decades of church presence, it was not until a few years ago that I began to experience that whole “grace” concept, the belief that Jesus loves and accepts me just as I am, and that just as I am, I am still his much-loved child.  From time to time, I continue to struggle with this concept, yet it is in the assurance that we are unconditionally loved that we are able to love in return, to claim Jesus as our Lord, and to live as his disciples--not out of fear, but out of gratitude.  One of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth, summed it up this way:  “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  

That kind of certainty brings us to the second disciple-making question, “Who are you?”  First and foremost, you are beloved children and disciples of the Lord you serve.  Living in a secular world, we tend to forget that fundamental identity and instead answer the question of who we are with a title:  "Government employee."  "Teacher."  "Assistant Principal."  "Engineer."  “Lawyer.”  "Homemaker."  "Student."  "Pastor."  "Elder."  And on and on.  We label ourselves with our achievements and positions, with what we do, and those labels become our I.D. badges.

We need not feel badly because the Apostle Paul did the same thing.  Listen to his "names" from this morning’s reading:  "Circumcised male."  "Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin."  "Hebrew."  "Pharisee."  "Zealot."  "Blameless."  Paul had his credentials that he wore to identify himself as a law-abiding, respectable, devout Jew.  He had his family heritage, his training, and his zeal working for him on his way to securing a place as a top Jewish leader.  He ended up, instead, beheaded in Rome.

What happened?

Paul relinquished all those names and all those titles, considering them useless after he gave himself another name, a name that had real meaning because it reflected who he was.  He began his influential Letter to the Romans announcing his new title:  “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1).  Paul defined himself as a "doulos” of Christ which is the Greek word for both servant and slave.  Paul, a proud Roman citizen, introduced himself to fellow Romans as a slave of Christ.  

No one in our culture wants to bear the label "slave."  We are the captains of our own ships, not galley slaves on someone else's.  Paul was right there with us, proud of his Hebrew heritage and his independence as a Roman citizen, until something happened, until Paul had a personal experience with Jesus Christ that quite literally knocked him off his feet, and off his horse.  Once blinded by the dazzle of all his credentials, he suddenly could see that, face to face with Christ, his resume did nothing for him.  In fact, his human, worldly achievements became “rubbish” to him in comparison to being able to call himself a slave of Christ.

Paul's definition of himself is hard for us achievement-driven 21st century Christians to fathom, unless we understand what being a slave meant in Paul's time.  It had little to do with being the human chattel we have come to associate with the New World.  In Paul's time, approximately 1/3 of the population were slaves and another 1/3 were freed slaves (McDonald, 41).  Many of these people actually chose to be slaves because slavery was an opportunity to advance their own interests, if they could get in the right household.  Honor and status were associated with being the slave of an honorable master.

Paul would never have given up his credentials to be just anyone's slave-and neither should we--but conviction filled his heart when he could state, "I know who I am.  I can answer that question.  I am a slave--a slave of Christ."

Who are you?  To whom, or what, do you really belong and whom do you really serve?   
Being a slave of Christ does not lead us into a life of drudgery but a life of focus, conviction, and passion because of who owns us.  Don't listen to me.  Listen to Paul.  Once he understood who he was, it did not matter where he found himself--in front of authorities, in a storm-tossed ship, in a local church, in a dirty prison--because he was a person filled with the knowledge of the love of Jesus Christ.

Someone else in our readings this morning also had a name change in regard to  the question “Who are You?”  His name was Peter.  I have always been impressed that the story of Peter's denial of Jesus is in every gospel, beginning with the earliest, Mark, supposedly written by a disciple of Peter.  I doubt many of us would be willing to admit that on the night our friend and teacher was taken away, we followed him "at a distance.”  I doubt we would be humble enough to stand in front of a room of our equals and confess that we betrayed knowing this friend and teacher, not once, not twice, but three times.

When we, like Peter, forget that we, like Peter, are slaves of Christ, we too drop back and follow "at a distance."  We too give our time and attention to people and places that do not reinforce our relationship with Christ, and we too betray Jesus by the selfish decisions we make.  If we are willing to raise our eyes, we see that Jesus is looking straight at us, also, and straight into our hearts.

Peter loved Jesus, and Peter failed Jesus.  If anyone deserved to wallow in shame and to be cast out of Jesus' circle, it was Peter.  

•    Or James and John, who, on the way to Jerusalem with Jesus, argued over who would sit at his right hand after he died.

•    Or Thomas, who didn't believe in the words of resurrection.

•    Or Matthew, who was the professional thief.

•    Or Simon the Zealot, one of the Twelve's resident terrorists.

•    Or Nicodemus, who, in order to protect his reputation, came under cover of darkness to interview Jesus.

•    Or Paul, who assisted in the stoning death of the young believer Stephen.

•    Or . . . you and me.

But here is the Good News.  "Peter wept bitterly," and in that realization, that confession, that he was not as strong, not as good, not as faithful as he thought he should be, Peter experienced the grace of Jesus Christ who looked straight at him--not to condemn him, but to love him back to wholeness.  Jesus Christ entrusted Peter, of all people, with his flock.  Then Peter knew who he was:  a slave of Jesus Christ and his much-loved child.  Forgiven.  Redeemed.  No other names needed.

Yes, we are servants, but love is the other half of who we are.  Love is the most important common noun in the New Testament, and John uses it to define God:  "God is love."  Love is also the most important verb in the New Testament.  "For God so loved the world" . . .that God the Son came to live among us and to rescue us not from the Romans and the church leaders and our culture, but from ourselves, our false selves, our unloved selves, in order that we might find our true identity:  God’s beloved.

 

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