In today’s Gospel reading, Christ miraculously feeds a crowd of hungry people. The people recognize him as a prophet, and gather to bring him to Jerusalem to proclaim him king. Jesus responds by fleeing to the solitude of the mountains.
Let’s rephrase this telling. A crowd of people, living in a country beset by political strife, gather to march on the capital. They are eager to replace their corrupt, ineffectual, incompetent ruling classes, who spend more time arguing about the minutiae of law than they do responding to the hunger of the people for bread and for justice. They have just seen a man whom they regard as a leader, one with power and legitimate claim to authority, and they long for him to lead their movement, to lead them in their resistance to the evils of their day.
Perhaps this telling hits close to home. Gazing out on the political landscape of this country, how many of us long for justice in the face of leaders embroiled in cruelty, corruption, self-importance, and outright malice? How many of us locate in Christ the supreme example of leadership, and, comparing him to the afflictions of our country now, how many of us channel Jesus in our protestations of this state of affairs? Before I came here, I used to want to work in politics. I even ran for public office. The political environment we face at present has awakened a long-held desire of mine to enter the fray, and the convictions of my faith highlight to me just how much injustice, just how much falsehood, we currently face. If the opportunity presented itself, I too would long to crown Christ.
Who is Jesus Christ? This is a question that as Christians we must ask ourselves continuously. Who is this figure that stands at the heart of our faith? There is a tendency, a perfectly natural tendency, to focus on the humanity of Jesus, to see him, as it were, merely as a better version of ourselves. Jesus the good man. Jesus the wise teacher. Jesus the political activist. The one who hates to see injustice. Whilst none of these ideas are necessarily untrue, indeed they’re all right, by their very nature they only tell half the story. They only unveil half the picture.
Our Gospel reading today helps to shine light, perhaps give us some insights, into how the divinity of Jesus is manifested in his humanity. We hear of Jesus the healer. The miracle worker. The one who in raising the sick, and elsewhere in the Gospel of raising the dead, prefigures his own resurrection with the salvific importance that event has for all of creation. We hear of Jesus the cosmic warrior who, in casting out demons, is fighting a sort of proxy war on Earth in the constant, cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. We hear of Jesus Christ seated on his throne of judgment, looking forward to the end of all things when those who will dine at the heavenly banquet will be separated from those who will be cast into the outer darkness where we hear there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth. We hear of Jesus the dynamic fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The Messiah. The Christ. The one in whom all the hopes and expectations of Israel are met.
“Who do you claim to be?”
“Before Abraham was, I am.”
I find myself routinely struck by John’s almost continual emphasis on who Jesus is—a matter of identity so central not only to Jesus’ earthly ministry, teaching, and subsequent rejection, but also to our very lives and identities as people of God. And our pilgrimage of conversion, I think it’s fair to say, ultimately depends on this question of identity—of our identity, not as defined for us by the worldly clamor for competing creaturely goodness, or our traditions, our nationalities, or our social standing, but as a reflection of the image of the One who desires for us nothing less than a share of the Divine Wholeness.
From In the beginning was the Word, to the final admission that the author cannot possibly contain the importance of Jesus’ appearance in one volume, John’s Gospel narrates us into a salvation that depends upon our truthful recognition of who Jesus—and, ultimately, the One whom he calls “Father”—is.
I know this comes three days late, but welcome to Epiphanytide, the season during which we recognize the revelation of God to us through Jesus Christ. As part of our celebration we’re offering this sermon series on following God’s call. It’s called Gifts for the Journey, and over the following weeks, we’ll explore five ways God reveals Godself to us, five gifts we might expect along our spiritual journey in Christ, which as they’re revealed to us in the fullness time help us discern God’s call. Tonight, we’ll be looking at the gift of identity, asking the question “Who am I, really?”
First, we’ll begin with a story. It’s a very ancient story, and I first encountered it as told by Anthony de Mello in his book The Song of the Bird. Once upon a time there lived a doll made from salt. This salt doll, infused with a curious restlessness, searched far and wide for something it couldn’t quite name. It wandered all across the land, for so long it very often forgot it was searching for anything at all. But still, the salt doll went on, travelling far and wide, fueled by this hidden desire.
If someone were to come up to you and ask, “Do you consider yourself concentric or eccentric,” what would you say? This question might take us a little by surprise and I somehow imagine most of us would reply, “Come again?” I don’t imagine any of us would expect this question upon meeting someone for the first time or that we would see it on an eHarmony dating questionnaire. We know that a person who is eccentric is someone who is perhaps a little unique or odd, someone who marches to the beat of a different drummer, and not necessarily in a way that we want to emulate. I doubt any of my brothers would ever characterize me that way. I’m completely normal in that aspect. But am I concentric? Merriam Webster defines concentric as: having a common center or axis. To be honest that definition does not really help me in identifying with any certitude if I am a concentric person. Perhaps a better question would be: am I egocentric? Most of us would probably not admit to being egocentric, although we all have an ego and personally, truth be told, my ego can on occasion get me into trouble! Perhaps you can relate. But could any of us really be defined as egocentric? In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowds surrounding them about relationship, especially in regards to centricity: the center. He is in effect asking them “Who or what is at the center of your life? Where is your focus?”
Isaiah 45:1-7 & Matthew 22:15-22
We sing to God:
You alone are the Holy One.
You alone are the Lord.
You alone are the Most High.
And God sings to us:
Ezekiel 33: 7 – 11
Psalm 119: 33 – 40,
Romans 13: 8 – 14
Matthew 18: 15 – 20
Our confessor was here yesterday, to hear the confessions of the Brothers. I was at Emery House for the day and so I missed the opportunity to make my confession, so I’ll confess to you …… I’ve never really been terribly interested in clothes. (You thought you were going to get something juicy, didn’t you?) It was my older brothers, Charlie and Chris who were the clothes horses in my family. In fact, in high school both of them got jobs in a men’s clothing store, and for a while after high school, my brother Chris was the manager of the store. My family recognized that I wasn’t all that interested in clothes. On one occasion Brother Jonathan and I happened to be in Toronto at the same time as my parents. The four of us arranged to meet somewhere for dinner one evening. When we got to the restaurant my Dad took one look at Jonathan and one look at me, and turned to my Mum and said I told you that we could at least count on Jonathan to be properly dressed! As I said, I’m not terribly interested in clothes. I hate shopping for clothes and usually buy the first thing that I think will fit.
It’s probably a good thing that I am a monk then. I don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about what I am going to wear on any given day. Even before I went to bed last night, I knew what I would wear today, and I know what I’ll be wearing five years from now. I bet you can’t say that!
Perhaps we can better understand this unnamed woman’s outburst if we recall that in Jesus’ time there would have been far fewer opportunities for a woman to distinguish herself from among her peers than there are today. To have given birth to and raised a “successful” son might have given a woman a sense of pride and accomplishment. Her peers, as evidenced in this story, might have admired her and thought her “blessed.”
It is not uncommon for us, too, to want to distinguish ourselves among our peers. For many of us, our accomplishments not only give us pleasure and satisfaction, they also offer a sense that our lives have been meaningful and worthwhile. Our identity is often wrapped up in these achievements. We learn to value ourselves, and others, based on what we have done. We may gain respect in the eyes of others by our academic or professional accomplishments, or by the fact that we have been able to build wealth or raise our social status. Even if we restrain from bragging openly about our accomplishments, we may savor a hidden sense of pride that we have made a mark on the world and distinguished ourselves in the eyes of others.
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”
I can’t help imagining Jesus suppressing a little smile at this response. He’s just finished a string of parables about the Kingdom of God: the sower, the weeds among the wheat, the treasure found in a field, the pearl of great price, the net cast into the sea catching fish of every kind.
Have you understood all this? Yes, they say, without hesitation. Well, hardly. The whole point of parables is that they are open-ended and give fresh meanings over time, as we bring life experience to bear on them. We can’t say we’ve ever completely understood a parable, because it’s not meant to be understood, in the sense of complete comprehension. But, because we don’t know what we don’t know, we can think we understand.
When I was growing up I remember really liking my Uncle Michael – we used to call him Uncle Mickey. I didn’t get to see him very often, but I so looked forward to his visits. I only found out much later why he didn’t come to visit us more. He felt ashamed, he thought we wouldn’t want to see him, he believed he wasn’t worth seeing. You could say he felt “unclean.”
The notion of uncleanness was a very important one in ancient Jewish culture, and it was applied to both food and people. Reasons for such laws included, for example, concerns over hygiene or the creation of a unique Jewish identity. Originally, they were never meant to indicate a person’s state of sin or social worth, but by the time of Jesus being pronounced “unclean” could put you in the category of moral failure and social outcast.