Claiming Self, Giving Self

Bob was going through a rough time. His wife had moved out; his marriage was over. His career was in crisis; termination seemed imminent. His kids were young adults out of control. There he was mid-life at what he expected would be the best years, and everything was falling apart. He was facing the second half of life and he wouldn’t be Susan’s husband; he wouldn’t be the respected businessman in town; he wouldn’t be the proud father cheering from the sidelines. The question loomed large. Who was he anyway? If he wasn’t Susan’s husband, if he wasn’t the boss, if he wasn’t the devoted dad, if he wasn’t even sure he had a faith, who was he? He was in his 40’s, and he lost his identity (nothing to do with credit card theft). He lost his sense of SELF.

It’s important to know who we are. It’s important to know the difference between what Richard Rohr calls our “true self” from our ‘false self.” It’s important to know who we are when all the outward layers are peeled away, and we come face to face with what’s left.

The world is ready to tell us who we are. Consumer America will tell us we are what we buy and buying lots of stuff makes us. Corporate America will tell us we are what we achieve and climbing the ladder of success makes us. Some have mothers or fathers, sons or daughters, spouses or friends wanting us to be who they want us to be.

Who am I? It’s a question we hear in scripture: 27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

It can sound to us like Jesus is asking about his identity. This exchange can sound like a political campaigner taking a poll, pausing on the campaign trail and asking a focus group, what are the people saying? Do they get me? Do they like me? Will they follow me? Will they vote for me?

Then Jesus asks his disciples, the ones closest to him, who have sacrificed to follow him already: “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks, do my own people, my closest circle, do they get me? Will they follow me?

Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

We expect Peter to get an attaboy gold star for his answer. (After all, he does in Matthew—Matthew’s Jesus says, right answer and I’ll build my church on you. Wow! Good job Peter!) But this is Mark, not Matthew. Peter says you are the Messiah and in a few short verses later, Peter reveals that he and Jesus have very different understandings of what that means.

When Jesus teaches that who he is means he will undergo suffering and even death to live out his beliefs, Peter has, what my mother would call, a hissy fit. Mark says Peter “rebukes” Jesus. “Rebuke” is a strong word in scripture. It is equivalent to an exorcism. Peter thinks Jesus has come under an evil spell to think that he will suffer and die. Peter wants a leader—a political leader—a military leader—a liberator who will free the people of Israel from the tyranny of Roman oppression! A dead Jesus is of no use to Peter. Peter wants Jesus to be who Peter wants Jesus to be.

Jesus won’t have any of it. He doesn’t let Peter define him. Jesus doesn’t give Peter a high five, or promise to build a church upon Peter’s notion of Messiah. In response to Peter’s campaign pep talk to the boss, Jesus turns the tables and “rebukes” Peter. Mark is quite literally saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to Peter that he is the one talking as if an evil spirit has taken ahold of you. You clearly don’t get me. You don’t know me at all.

Jesus asks, who do the people say that I am? Jesus asks those who had been on the road with him for some time, who do you say that I am? Jesus isn’t asking others to define him. Jesus knows who he is. Jesus knows his purpose. He knows the risk and the cost of what he is doing. Jesus is what some psychologists might call “self-actualized” in a sense. He is not dependent on anyone else giving him his identity. He knows his identity comes from within—from the Divine, which lies within all of us. He is secure in the knowledge that he is connected to the Creator and Source of being. He will follow the Divine leading even when that means he will anger the powers that be; even when that means he will fight to the end—nonviolently, of course, but he will resist the powers who try to contain and control him even knowing that will ultimately cost him his physical life. He will fight for others—nonviolently of course; fight for others to be treated fairly, justly, and compassionately.

Jesus is clear. He is not a victim. He has a clear sense of self and personhood. No one takes it from him; because he knows who he is, he can fight for justice and mercy. Because he knows who he is, he can fight against the powers that be who take advantage of and oppress the poor and marginalized. Because he knows who he is, he can serve others and teach his followers to do so when they recognize their worth and do not let the world define them by status, wealth, possessions, or military victory.

Jesus lives by the values of God’s vision of justice and compassion for all, particularly the least and last—different from the way of the world that caters to the strong and powerful. If we would follow Jesus, we must do the same. We must realize who we are—beloved sons and daughters of God, bearers of Holy Love. We have to find ourselves—to know ourselves as God’s. We have to be strong against a world that would tell us who we are and consume us. We have to take back our life from those who tell us we aren’t good enough, thin enough, smart enough, or rich enough. We have to take back our life from all that would distract us or redefine us. We have to take back our life and find our true selves in God as God’s beloved.

Our baptism names us and claims us the world does not. We sometimes forget. We fight to remember.

Bob knew he was in trouble when he didn’t know who he was anymore. When career, family, or community no longer gave him identity, he knew he needed help. He began seeing a professional. After many months of visits with his counselor, Bob believed he had a breakthrough. He said to his counselor one day, “I finally think I have found myself again. I feel strong. I can claim my Self with confidence once more.” His counselor replied, “Great! Now that you have claimed a Self again, we can begin our work on letting it go.”

When we know our self, not as the world would define us, but as God has created us, as beloved people united with all others in One God then we can give our self in love and in service in compassion. Then we can be strong in our fight for truth, honor, peace, and justice.

May it be so.