Identity and the new humanity


Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost  

St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly  

Sunday 23 August 2020  

 Identity and the new humanity ©Suzanne Grimmett  

Who do you say that I am? I wonder what answer we would get from one another if we were to ask each other that question?  

I think we all know we wouldn’t come up with the answer by navel  gazing. Our identity, after all, is always a product of our social  context. It is the reason why so many in their short bio will include  the titles of mother, or husband or grandparent. It should not  surprise us therefore, that Peter’s insight about Jesus is similarly  relational. His declaration of who Jesus is reveals the identity and  mission of the new humanity made possible because of the  relationship of Jesus to the source of all being.  

Hugh Mackay comments on the ultimate paradox of selfhood in his  book, The Inner Self saying, “When we get to the core of who we  are, we find that, just like everyone else, our essence is love- and  what can love be about except connection and community?”1 

Yet connection and community do not seem to be how we  understands ourselves and society. Media and popular culture  supports a cult of individualism that sees us competing for everything from money to power to status, whilst at the same time  applying pressure to behave and think just like everyone else.  

This is why diversity should be the keynote of the church. We  should stand out. As we grow in love for one another that very love  will be what draws out individual gifts and reveals our unique  personhood. The true self tends to only emerge when it is safe to  do so, so that our inner light is allowed to burn without judgement.  

One thing we can know is that Jesus was not one to blend into a  crowd. He may not have had anything spectacular in his  appearance to recommend him, but he stood out, so much so that  there were many varied opinions and judgements about him.  

‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’  

And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and  still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’  

For someone who has drawn so much attention, notice the very  ordinary title Jesus takes for himself: the Son of Man. Son of the  human. The human one.  

Yet Peter’s insight shows he is anything but ordinary.  ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’  

The liberating spiritual authority of Jesus has its source in his  relationship to the living God. Jesus applauds this insight of Peter,  recognising that in that moment he is influenced by the Spirit to  have eyes to see and ears to hear. Such epiphanies in our lives are so often beginnings rather than endings, momentary windows of  clear understanding rather than final achievements. If we worry  ever that we have trouble sustaining a life lived in the presence and  knowledge of God we should take heart from Peter who goes from  being the rock on which the church is built this week to being called  out by Jesus as the Satan next week. (Stay tuned)  

It is critical in this passage that we do not become distracted by the  keys of the kingdom phrase with all of its cultural overlay of the  pearly gates which can apparently be locked against us by St Peter  standing as sentry. What we are to see here is Peter’s recognition of  who Jesus is and the new possibilities for our human identity and  mission that have been revealed in the Messiah. The power of love  multiplied in the world by the Church brings transformation through  people of compassion and forgiveness, working for justice and  bringing peace. And this is the foundation on which the Church is  built: that Jesus is the Holy One of God come to us, united with us  in our fragile humanity. Jesus did not hand down to us a text and  say study this carefully, but gave us himself and said, “Follow me.”  

If we are to follow, then this question of identity is at the heart of  everything. But even this question must be heard not just in its  social context but in its geographical one. Jesus had led his  disciples to a city called Caesarea Philippi, a regional centre of the  Roman Empire and an ancient place of worship of Greek and Roman  gods. The name came from the son of Herod the Great- Philip, who  was given control of the whole region and renamed the city for  himself and in honour of Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor. 

This was the heart of an empire, which may have had a similar  effect on those Galilean disciples as taking a Jewish leader to  Auschwitz or a Palestinian leader to the wall of separation. There, 2 in this seat of power that ruled with violence, Jesus asks them who  they believe he is.  

While when we hear, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living  God’ we tend to hear a statement of theological identity, but for the  disciples in that setting it was much more a political one. ‘Messiah’  means ‘the one anointed as liberating king’. You don’t need to be a  historian to know that to bandy around words like “liberating king”  in the heart of Roman occupation would not generally have been  thought wise. Similarly, “Son of God” was a term used by the  Caesars who invoked a shared divinity with the gods worshipped in  stone niches in the cliffs at Caesarea Philippi. To declare Jesus 3 “Son of the living God” was to assert that these claims were invalid  because there was only one God whose vital living Spirit permeated  the universe and whose incarnate presence was revealed in the  man Jesus standing under those same cliffs. This was a moment  when Jesus allowed his closest followers to see that the power of  Empire could not stand against the new kingdom being  inaugurated; a realm made up of a new humanity whose identity is  defined by relationships of love, mercy and compassion.  

Our true identity is not always transparent. It can be bolstered by  power, hidden behind masks or culturally acceptable personas, subjugated by abuse or buried under anxiety. A culture of  individualism can mean that we have trouble discerning who we  actually are because we have forgotten that this is a truth only  revealed in relationship. As Iris Murdoch says, we can only learn to  love by loving. Sometimes we hide because facing the truth that  individualism is a lie and that we all belong to one another means  that we would have to change the way we live and work together.  

The work of love is difficult, and requires our whole selves to be  surrendered to the searching light of the Spirit, both on an  individual and communal level. While empires rule in their love of  power, Jesus, the son of the living God, came to rule with the power  of love, and has been calling disciples ever since to follow this  demanding way. It is a way that reveals individualism for the lie  that it is, and the self-made man or woman as a dangerous and  idolatrous fiction. The only way we can become who we truly are, is  to recognise that our lives are inextricably connected and all have  their source in the God who is love.  

The reading from Romans tells us “so we, who are many, are one  body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” I  wonder how it would change the way we lived together if we all  truly believed this; that we are all one body, one people. Of course  it is hard to sustain this vision, just as it was hard for Peter. But we  do get glimpses. As we gathered on Friday for Rodney Potger’s  funeral that love was tangible, and the unity and beauty for me  could be heard and felt as the choir sang for the first time in six  months. 

It is a strange paradox that perhaps we will only ever know who we  are when we find ourselves in loving relationships with others. The  good news that we hear this week, is that Jesus calls us to do as he  has done, embracing the sacredness of life, loving one another and  living into the identity of the Church which holds a power stronger  than any empire, because it releases the unlimited potential of  forgiveness and grace.  


 Hugh Mackay, The Inner Self: The joy of discovering who we really are (Pan Macmillan Australia: 1 2020) p 30

2 Brian McLaren We Make the Road by Walking (Hodder and Stoughton, London: 2014) p 142 3 Ibid, p143

Leave a comment