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The Difference Identity Makes

A sermon on Matthew 16:13-20

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash]

Today’s gospel has me pondering a question:

Who do you say that you are?

I know that’s NOT the question Jesus asks in today’s reading. Jesus asks about whom the crowds and the disciples say that HE is. And, as a general rule, I try not to turn teachings about Jesus into opportunities for navel-gazing. After all, Martin Luther’s definition of “sin” is to be “curved in on oneself.” But in the way that he phrases his questions, I think that Jesus himself is drawing a connection between his identity and ours.

He doesn’t ask “who am I?” He asks “who do they/you say that I am?” He’s asking for an interpretation of his identity that says as much about the interpreter as it says about him. Our capacity to understand Jesus is mediated through our own perspectives. So, when we explore what we believe about Jesus’ identity, it raises questions about ours as well. It begs the question of why Jesus’ identity matters to us! What difference does his identity make?

To get at this point a little differently, let me tell you a story:

A few weeks ago I sent off one of those DNA analysis kits that provide information about ancestry and genetic risk factors. I already know a fair amount about my family tree, but there are still lots of holes. So, I’m interested to see my results.

Well, earlier this week, I got an e-mail from the testing company. I opened it with excitement, eager to see what revelations about my identity might be hidden in my DNA. But I was disappointed. The e-mail wasn’t about my results. It was an invitation to participate in a series of surveys about my health history, so that once my DNA is processed it can contribute to scientific learning about the links between genetics and a variety of medical and mental health conditions.

The e-mail did not provide me with any navel-gazing information about my genetic identity…but it still gave me a chance to consider my identity, just from a different perspective. It invited me to answer the question: am I the kind of person who will give my time, and some mildly personal information, to contribute to scientific knowledge, and perhaps to help develop some understanding that could help others, even if it doesn’t help me?

Or, put another way: is my identity just about Me, or is it about the way that I relate to and serve the world? Beyond my own self-focused curiosity, what difference does my identity make?

In today’s gospel, the answer that Jesus gets to his questions about who people say that he is are, in fact, about the difference his identity makes:

John, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets … these were men who committed their lives to God’s mission for the sake of others. They brought messages from God, and they called for change when the people and rulers were rejecting God, even when that costs them everything.

So to identify Jesus with these prophets was to say that the most important identifying characteristic of Jesus, was that he was a messenger of God, sent to call the people to follow God’s way.

The people who made these identifications got the details wrong – Jesus was not the return of a former prophet – but they got at least part of the essentials right. The way that Jesus calls people to God’s way, no matter what it costs him, IS essential to his identity.

Peter’s answer, that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” goes a step farther. To call him the Messiah is to link Jesus’s identity with the work of saving the world; And to link that mission with his identity as the Son of the Living God is to say that God is not remote and removed from our needs. God’s very identity is linked to saving the world.

Jesus asked “who do you say that I am?” and Peter answered “I say you are the One who has come to save, and that this mission is essential to who God is.” The very essence of Jesus’s identity is to make a difference for others.

This answer has a number of consequences.

The consequences for Peter are described in the reading. His understanding of who Jesus is re-shapes his identity as well.

Jesus gives him a new name. He is Peter, the rock. The solid truth of what he has just proclaimed will be the foundation stone for the whole community of God.

But this new identity comes with responsibilities. It’s not a once and done change. In the very next scene, which we will hear next week, Peter the foundation stone becomes a “stumbling block” to Jesus because Peter doesn’t want to hear about exactly how Jesus is going to fulfill his mission as Messiah.

That’s the thing about an identity that isn’t curved in on oneself. It calls us out of our comfort zone. We don’t get to say “I’m here for the part of the mission that looks like growing the church, but not for the part that looks like taking up the cross.” Saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, means identifying with his self-giving way of saving the world.

That brings us to the consequences of Jesus’s identity for the church as a whole.

These consequences are described in our second reading. For, if the church is the “body of Christ” then Christ’s identity is the model for the church.

And it’s a model that calls for “living sacrifice,” and for “transformed minds,” and for lives that are shaped by the understanding that gifts are given for the good of the whole, not just for the gratification or use of the one to whom they are given.

Which, finally, has consequences for my opening question: “Who do you say that you are?”

Or perhaps it would be better to ask, “who do we say that we are?” because I’m on the hook too. If I am going to stand in this pulpit and declare that the essence of who Jesus is, his core identity, is that he is the One who comes to save a broken, needy world… then I need to be willing to say two more things as well:

I need to be willing to admit that an essential part of my identity is that I need saving.

And I need to be willing to hear that the identity to which Jesus calls me, as part of his body, is to be lived out in service and love to those around me.

I need to be willing to embrace these truths, because if we say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, that has consequences. It’s not just a doctrine. It’s not a formulaic creed that we repeat because that’s what Lutherans do. It’s a statement of identity: for Jesus AND for us.

Remember, Jesus didn’t just ask “who am I?” or even “who do you think I am?” He asked “who do you say that I am?” He asked – what are you willing to confess you believe about me, because that will reveal as much about you as it reveals about me.”

If we confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who saves, that means confessing all that needs to be saved, including us. It means being willing to face the brokenness in which we live, that we cannot protect ourselves from. It means confessing that our salvation is not going to come from a vaccine, or an election, or an in-person worship service, or a return to normal life. It means admitting that we need saving at a much more fundamental level than any of these things can address.

We need saving because we are part of this broken, hurting world that resists turning toward the needs of others.

But the good news in all of this is that we HAVE a Savior. And he saves us NOT by pulling us out of the world, but by calling us into it, with a new identity that makes a difference.

We are the church. We are the body of the One gave of himself; the One who knew that the gifts he was given were given for the good of others; the One who understood that the only thing that can win against fear is love. We are the people of God who know who we are because we know Jesus.

And that means that the question of our identity is not about each of us as individuals. No DNA test can tell us the most important truth of who we are – it is our confessions and our actions that do that:

We confess that we are followers of Jesus, the Messiah;

And then we live according to his example of self-giving love.

So, who do you say that you are?

I say, that you are a broken and beloved member of the body of Christ, called to be part of God’s saving work in the world.

Thanks be to God.

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