Self-Identity

Self-knowledge. It’s really the issue at the bottom of a host of questions we ask concerning our place in the world. Who are you? We’re usually comfortable answering only so far as the giving of our name. Depending on the context and the person asking, we might without too much anxiety offer a few other pieces of information. Sometimes, however, we may even find ourselves saying internally words like “You tell me; I’ve wondered the same thing.” Think about this when reading the gospel text for today.

John 1:35-42 (ESV)
35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

There are many ways in which this passage has been used in sermons and lessons. I’m not about to suggest any particular uses have been wrong, though I’m sure some of them have been head-scratchers. And what I have to say here has undoubtedly been said before. But I’m struck by a couple of things about what Jesus had to say to Peter and to those who similarly seek him. And themselves.

It began with a man curious to find whether the report he had heard about Jesus was true. A bit beyond the norm, no doubt, to be told that a messiah had arrived after a few hundred years’ wait–yet that’s what Cephas’s brother told him, and he was intrigued enough to go and find out for himself; and he was determined to probe deeply enough, for he wanted Jesus to know this would take a while. The investigation was met with an invitation: come and see. At my place. Jesus was very willing to be found, as he continues to be; but he must be sought truthfully, not casually and on our terms. It’s not the preset ideas that will guide the honest search, neither for Cephas nor for anyone today.

Then the apparently unsolicited announcement from Jesus: you are Cephas; you will be Peter. How odd. He just met him.

What Jesus knows of Cephas is what Christ knows of each of us. He knows who we are. He knows our names, our circumstances, our joys and sorrows, strengths and weaknesses, wins and losses, heroics and failures, likes and dislikes, rebellions and loyalties, certainties and doubts—all the things that combine to make us who we are. When we think about and add to the list, it’s no wonder that we often question what the sum of it all might be. When we try to do the math we inevitably leave out some of the pieces; and it’s not always the negative things we overlook. “Know thyself” becomes an impossible task, for most of the time we can’t handle the truth.

God knows who we are, far better than we do ourselves, and tells us so by calling us by name. “I know who you are.” And he also knows who we can be, in spite of anything and everything implied in who we truly are at this time. “You will be Peter.” It’s what you were made for.

Perhaps it is time to give up defining ourselves in ways that either serve us, defend us, position us, soothe us, or excuse us. It’s never who we are that surprises or limits God. He gives us a new name, new possibilities, new purpose, new energies for the tasks individually given. Is that what it means to be “in Christ”? Let’s be content to be found there.

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