Who Am I?

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut on  January 13, 2013.

“One man in his life plays many parts,” according to Shakespeare: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, sage, and second childhood.  Shakespeare didn’t know about inclusive language, but if a man plays seven roles consecutively, a woman probably plays that many simultaneously: wife, mother, daughter, wage-earner, volunteer, and so on.  But who, in all these many roles, are we ourselves in our essence?  What is our true identity? I remember hearing that the cells of our body are all replaced every seven years. There’s not a single unit of my physical self that hasn’t been replaced many times. So who am I?  Who am I really? Behind all these various changes and varying roles I play, who am I really? What is my true identity

The gospel today has to do with identity:  who Jesus is, his identity.  He comes up from the water of baptism and a voice from heaven says: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is proclaimed to have an identity rooted and grounded in God, the Creator and Source of life.    That is who he is.  And that means that to know who he is we have to know who God is – or, the other way around: that to know who God is, we have to know who Jesus is. He is the fullest reflection of the true and living God.  He is identified with God.

Now, the words identify and identity and identical are very close in meaning: to establish identity is always, to some extent to identify one with another. No two human beings are identical.  Even identical twins are never completely identical but all human beings, however dissimilar in race and sex and age and intellect still have a certain likeness to each other and if I ask you to go look for a human being, you will have some idea what to look for. and you probably won’t come back with a clock or a turkey or a Christmas pudding.  We can identify a human being.

But the odd thing is that if I ask someone at a party who they are they will never tell me, “I’m a human being.”  We don’t think of that as an identity.  A stranger will never tell me who they really are.  They will probably give me a name and tell me where they are from and what they do for a living – but I still won’t know them.  Yet probably that’s the best they can do themselves because I would guess that most human beings have barely begun to think beyond that and probably do think of themselves primarily in terms of the roles they play – housewife, farmer, poet, teacher, musician, nurse, truck driver – in spite of the fact that the roles we play shift and change so that the daughter becomes a mother and the student becomes a teacher and the factory worker becomes a retired golf-player in Florida.  In those terms we have no deep and continuing identity. Nonetheless, I would guess that for many people, that’s as far as they have gotten – their identity is identical with the roles they play at the moment.

Sometimes, when people become concerned about their identity they go to a psychiatrist and they say, “I find myself more and more depressed, or unable to function properly, and I don’t       understand why I’m like that.” And then, at great cost of time and money, the psychiatrist will help that person delve into their experience of life and find out what childhood influences or life experiences have left them feeling that way – and perhaps, once they understand, they can escape from whatever role it is they have taken on unwillingly. But most often all that’s involved in that analysis has to do with roles – roles we have acquired or taken on without being aware of it – but still not with who we really are.

Who we really are is a much deeper question.  It goes beyond the roles we play to ask an ultimate question: in God’s eyes, who am 1? Why did God make me? Not only, Who am I?  But, Who should I be?  Why did God make me?  Not only, Who am I, but, Who should I be?  Who am I called to be?  And if we are willing to ask that question, it would be useful to remember how we acquired whatever roles and personality we have.

I think it is always true that we learn what we seem to be from others who call out from us a potential we had not yet realized. We learn to talk because people who know we have that potential talk to us. No human being learns to talk alone. We learn to read from readers, to do math from mathematicians, to be dentists or priests or insurance agents from others who show us how to be what we may have felt we could be, but can’t be until someone shows us how and helps us and guides us. But nonetheless we will – as Frank Sinatra said – do it my way. I will never speak exactly like those who taught me to speak or be a priest exactly like those who taught me to be a priest.  My identity will not be identical but unique – and in that uniqueness I think I am most likely to find the essence of who I am. It’s the difference not the sameness, the uniqueness not the identicalness, that has to do with my essential being.

When I learn a role something unique and unprecedented happens. I become a person unlike any other: not a bluebird building the same sort of nest all blue birds have always built or a deer scratching in the snow for acorns as deer have always done but something new and surprising – as parents are always surprised by their children. You teach them to talk and they say things no one else ever said. You teach them to walk and they go places you have never been. You teach them to think and they think thoughts that you have never thought.  They become – we become  – unique human beings who wonder what that uniqueness is and what it means.

Jesus at the Jordan was identified as the unique Son of God, one whose essential being is derived from God, bound up in God’s being. And ever since, people have been trying to avoid that and identify him in terms of others. Jaroslav Pelikan, who taught for many years at Yale, wrote a book a few years back, about the images of Christ that have dominated human thought in different eras: Jesus the prophet, Jesus the king, Jesus the judge, the suffering Christ, the man for others, the teacher, and all of them are true and all of them are incomplete and always there Is something more to surprise us and challenge us, something new and unexpected, and that’s because Jesus is who the voice said he is: God’s own Son, the Beloved, the one who reflects most fully and faithfully the unending and inexhaustible fullness of God.

So Jesus is identified at his baptism. And so we are identified at our baptism.  In the words of the old Prayer Book, we become “an heir of Christ, the child of God and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.”  The same point in the new Prayer Book is made differently: the Godparents are asked to “help this child grow into the full stature of Christ,” a frightening and impossible task.
But that is our calling and our potential.  Only one who talks can teach us to talk and only God can evoke in us, call out from us, that Christ-like, God-like potential.

Even the first book of the Bible, however, knows that we were made in the image of God and that means that we have a potential beyond anything we alone can imagine. We can’t imagine or dream or envision the fullness of our potential but we can imagine some small part of it.  We can imagine what we have never seen: a world in which human beings work together and build together a society in which no one is hungry and no one is abused and no one is fearful or insecure.  We can be creative, we can love and respond to love. We can be like God and find an identity richer and fuller and deeper than we can still imagine: an eternal identity. We can imagine all this because this is what we have already been given in our baptism. Our task is to claim that identity, to fulfill the potential God has given us and become indeed the sons and daughters of God.

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