In his semi-autobiographical novels, Ferrol Sams speaks of being raised poor on the red soil of Georgia. When he finally makes it to college to become a doctor, he often makes use of his grandmother’s adage, “Just remember who you are.” After church last Sunday I went to visit a young woman, a member of our congregation. In hospital once again after an unrelenting, two-year struggle with a rare and virulent form of cancer, she had believed herself to be in remission when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor was growing quickly and lodged deep in her brain. Martha had fought her illness with rare courage and determination. She said little, except that she would beat her illness and return to the life she had left off. “I have much to do,” she would announce valiantly. I never heard her complain. She worked very hard at getting better.
But this time was different. Scheduled for surgery last Tuesday, she was afraid–afraid of waking up to discover that she would no longer know who she was. Afraid of no longer being Martha. And being very like the Martha of our gospel stories, she told the truth about that fear. She confessed that she was indeed tired of this fight. Twelve hours later she was dead.
Of course Martha’s death is a tragedy–life is a gift, and we can each hope to live long and well. Martha did not get the chance to live long but she did live well and, in the end, wisely. For Martha understood something some of us find harder to keep faith with. Martha knew who she was and would not settle for less. In fact, when she thought that life in this world might deprive her of being Martha, she immediately gave herself up to our Father in heaven that she might go to eternal life intact. That’s how important it was for Martha to be who she was.
I am amazed how casually we talk about being created by God. “God made us,” we say, ” and that is good”–but not so good that we are not always trying to loose weight, look better, be an achiever at work and school in order to prove it. We say God made us and that is good–but do we believe it?
Isaiah, speaking to his people exiled in a far land, tells them not to forget who they are: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were dug.” Identity is rock: it is enduring, formed. You can build a life on rock.
I run across this solidity sometimes in my own life. As a priest of the church who also happens to be a woman, I still encounter, despite what we want to believe, those who would deny my identity as a priest. “I don’t agree with women being priests,” they might say or “I could never receive communion from a priest who is a woman.” Something very important is going on in those statements. We can face them purely as issues of doctrine or personal choices on the part of a religious person, or we can look deeper and try to understand what is happening. On the one hand, the church lays hands on me and makes me a priest. I present myself for that office and I understand myself to be a priest. Then there are those who would deny it. It is, of course, painful personally to have my identity as a priest denied. But what I discover in that is that identity is a shared activity. I may know who I am, but without others seeing and acknowledging that identity the identity has no life of its own. And to have identity is to have life–as Martha so wisely understood. The question “Who am I” has to be confirmed and nurtured through the response to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
We can see this dynamic at work in Matthew’s account of Peter’s confession about Jesus. Immediately prior to that event, Jesus had been having a very difficult time. Misunderstood, resented, even hated by many religious people and dealing with lack of faith and understanding of those closest to him, he must have been frustrated. It is hard to imagine how isolated and lonely Jesus must have felt at times. Given this almost impossible task of transforming his people and the world through the power of love, it was no easy assignment. Dealing with human frailty and confusion on a day-to-day basis was hardly the most hope-producing activity of all time.
So it’s not surprising he should seek out those closest to him to see if anything was being communicated beyond the beauty and splendor of his words and actions. Jesus himself was discovering that identity is a shared activity. If the gospel was to have life, the disciples had to grasp and confirm who he was.
First he asks who other people say he might be. It’s interesting that all the named options are “less than” rather than “more than.” In our world of media hyperbole, we are always elevating people to virtues and stature beyond their reach. Currently, I believe we are into million-dollar wrestlers. But those who encountered Jesus did the opposite. They named great roles for him–a reincarnation of John the Baptist; Elijah, the prophet whom the people believed would return to herald the coming of the Messiah; Jeremiah, one of the greatest prophets in scripture–but no one saw more than that.
Now Jesus asks those who have come to know him best: “Who do you say that I am?”
And there isn’t exactly a chorus. Instead, Peter’s voice rings out alone to speak the words no one had dared to speak: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” You can feel those words hanging alone and terrifying. They are creating words. They are like God’s Word which is spoken and, in its speaking, creates. “You,” says Peter, “are the One whom God has promised, you really are love in flesh and blood, in this frail flesh before us is disclosed God.”
No wonder Jesus calls Peter blessed. In fact, it is in this moment that he receives the name Peter. Bumbling Simon is created anew. He becomes Peter–rock. In Aramaic, the language Jesus most likely spoke, kepha is the same word. The same word for Peter and for rock. Now there could be life. Now the gospel was in the world. It had been seen, named, created in at least one other person besides Jesus. It was beginning. You can build upon the rock of truth, and Peter had just laid the first stone.
In identifying Jesus, Peter is, of course, identified. It wasn’t just Jesus who was confirmed, empowered, and nurtured in this naming. Simon became Peter. He discovered more about his own identity. It didn’t take away his mistakes. His identity included his failures as well as his successes, but now he didn’t need to try to be anyone else. He was Peter. God had made him, and it was good. It was this identity which would carry him through the agony of his betrayal and abandonment of Jesus, this identity which would allow him to submit to Jesus’ forgiveness and commandment to take care of God’s people, this identity that would sustain him through his own crucifixion, and this identity that has lived beyond his death to be alive in the church two thousand years later. His identity turned out to be quite something.
Being who you are is a divine gift. It is important not only for you, but also for the future of the world. For some reason, buried deep in the mystery of God, God has chosen to disclose God’s love through you and me. Being yourself is an expression of that love and therefore an expression of who God is. And when God is allowed into human affairs things happen. Your identity is important not only because of whom God has made you to be, but because, in being yourself, God’s work in the world will be done. So stick with who you are. It is quite enough.
“My salvation,” says God, “will be forever, my deliverance will never be ended.” You never know–you may turn out to be quite something.