Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Question of Identity

I started following Jesus Christ in February of 1997. That September, my roommate came in upset over the news that Rich Mullins had passed away in an auto accident. That was the first time I heard about him. He was only a year older than I am now.

Every now and then I will realize that a song living in the recesses of my mind is one of his. They aren't quite the popular sound, but they are good for crying out to God.

I especially like Rich's heart, and have been intrigued by his statements in this video for the past year. I don't know when he performed at Wheaton College's Chapel service, but the post claims it was his final year with us. The comments I am focusing on start at the 32:32 mark, and hopefully the video will begin there:

As Rich says, we often hear the call to be born again, but not so much the call to sell our possessions. I think he is right; the difference between Nicodemus and the rich young ruler was their security - their identity.

I've thought about what it would mean to sell my possessions. Reading about George Muller selling his possessions when they needed money, I think, "How much would I really get for these old books or tools?" I doubt I could feed an orphanage for a day with all my possessions. Books don't seem worth the paper they're printed on these days, and my tools weren't exactly worth much when I bought them. The truth is they have more emotional value to me than any inherent, monetary value.

Maybe that is the really insidious nature of possessions - they form my identity. Possessing these books, DVDs, tools, etc. make me a certain person. To not have my tools, for instance, means I can't perform certain tasks. I may not like performing them, I may not even be skilled to perform them, but at least I have the tools to do it if I need to.

We have so many books, more books than I can read in a year, maybe even in a decade. How many of them will I read again? How many of them have I bought and not yet read? I'm like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory - buying books to feel normal.

To give up my possessions is to give up a part of my identity. What if I didn't have these things, who would I be?

Ultimately, I think the question of identity is the main question we deal with when we come to Jesus. For Nicodemus, it was the identity of being born again. For the rich young ruler, it was the identity of being a penniless follower of a penniless Messiah. For Peter, it was becoming a fisher of men instead of a fisherman.

When we accept the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, we take on a new identity. We give up our old identity, whatever it was, and we take on the identity of a person who says they will follow Jesus. Zacchaeus and Levi no longer identify as tax collectors. Saul no longer identifies as a Pharisee.

Some people are unable to accept a new identity, or to reject their old one, and so are unable to follow Jesus. Maybe they see following Jesus as being weak, and are unwilling to accept the identity of being weak. Look at the Pharisees in John 9. The previously blind man asks them why they continue to question him about Jesus, do they want to be his disciples, too? They rebuff such a statement, willing to be Moses' disciples but not Jesus'.

It's a funny thing: how we can accept a new identity in Jesus  - say, being a sinner who needs a savior; but then, as we follow him, we want to give up that identity and get a new one - say, as a successful Christian. We want to have an identity of being righteous, not because Jesus is righteous, but because we are. We want to be well-liked and successful, and so we find ourselves fighting with the identity we have in Jesus.

It can be hard to accept a new identity and to live in it. I think of people who are chronically sick. It is one thing to have a cold or to be sick for a week, it is another to have that become your identity. You live for months, maybe years, maybe the rest of your life with cancer. You become infected with HIV or develop a chronic illness and forever have it affect what you can do and who you can be.

Rich seems to be on to this idea when he talks about how Christianity is spread. It is like a disease, spread by breath and touch. It is like a disease, separating you from other people who do not want to catch it. It limits the activities you can participate in, you start thinking about how environments might affect you because of it.

We become like the lepers and others walking up to the lepers gate to receive the bread - not healthy enough to go through the beautiful gate at the front of the church, but left outside in the hospital, at the lepers' gate they receive grace - in the midst of their identity as those in need. May we never lose our identity in Jesus; and I'm not talking about being Christians in the modern American cultural context, but about being weak, sinful people in need of salvation, who have found it in Jesus.