A Question of Identity: A Reflection on Matthew 16.13-20 and Romans 12.1-8

‘Who am I?’

It’s one of the most fundamental questions of the human experience. As children we learn to differentiate ourselves from our parents, families, and friend groups. Through trial and error, we figure out what we’re good at (and where we struggle), what we value, what we believe, and who and how we want to be in the world. In an increasingly complicated world where we have more options than ever and more freedom to pursue them, we can really become anything we might want to be. All this is given further centrality in our present moment, as increasingly diverse and nuanced ways of identifying our cultural and genetic heritage, gender, sexuality, and relationships, have profoundly changed the way we talk about who we are. And so, ‘Who am I?’ is perhaps the question of our age.

This question of identity is front and centre in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus asks his disciples what the crowds that follow them think about him: “Who do they say that I am?” Then, after they shout out a few of the rumours — the prophet Elijah returned, the reincarnation of John the Baptist, and so on — he turns it on them: “Who do you say that I am? Peter, of course, gets it right: “You are the Christ,” that is, the Messiah, God’s Anointed.

In every generation, the same question is put to us: Who do you say that I am? Living in a culture with a choose-your-own-adventure approach to faith and religion, the question is more real that it has been for a long time. Who do we think Jesus is? Is he a prophet? A teacher? A healer? A magician? A fraud? God Incarnate? The answer has consequences, for his way is not an easy way. If we agree with Peter and say that he is God’s Anointed, then this changes everything.

The disciples don’t need to wait long to find this out. The very next line after the end of today’s portion reads, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Mt. 16.21). While we Christians read all that we know about Jesus into this word, ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’, at the time of Jesus, it was a poorly defined title. Many different kinds of Jews hoped for a Messiah, but they believed wildly different things about him. Some were awaiting a Warrior King who would finally free Israel from foreign domination; others were awaiting a Prophet, who would set Israel’s moral and ethical life to rights; others were awaiting a Great High Priest, who would purify Israel’s religious and liturgical life; still others thought he would be some combination of the above. But suffice it to say, they were not expecting the kind of Christ that Jesus was.

For him, being the Christ did not mean being welcomed as a champion, hero, prophet, priest, and king. It meant rejection, as God’s ways are always rejected, and facing the worst that the world always throws at its best. It meant being set on course no one can even comprehend — Indeed, throughout the Gospels Jesus keeps on telling the disciples that he will die and rise again and they don’t understand any of it.

When the disciples struggle with this unexpected Messianic way of being (“Never Lord, this shall never happen to you!”), Jesus tells them that following him means that they too must follow the way of the cross (16.24-26): If his identity as the Christ has consequences, so too does their identity and our identity as his followers, as Christians, which means “little christs” or “christlings”. His way becomes our way because we’re following him down the same road. We carry his brand and must live in accountability to who we are in him.

And this brings us to today’s Epistle reading, taken from Romans 12:

Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, on account of God’s compassion, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The reading starts with a big “therefore.” It refers less to what has directly preceded it than it does to the whole of Paul’s argument from chapter 1-11, which has been to convince the Roman Christians that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reveal God’s justice and faithfulness. With this ‘therefore’, Paul is saying: ‘If all this is true, here are the the implications.’ If Jesus is who he says he is, then two paths are presented to us: following the way of Jesus with our whole selves — body, mind, soul, and spirit — our whole life becoming an act of worship; or the way of the world (the way of Empire), with all its selfish ambition, greed, and blindness to others as ends in themselves and not as means to our own ends. We can either be conformed to this world, he says, or be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can’t do both.

Paul continues:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

Here, Paul is exhorting us to reject our self-styled superiority complexes, whether personal (like the disciples bickering over who would get the best seats at the heavenly table) or collective (like the wrangling between Jewish and Gentile Christians Paul has been addressing throughout Romans). Instead, we are called to express a greater understanding: sophrosyne, that much-misunderstood Queen of all Virtues that has often been translated as ‘prudence,’ ‘chastity’ or ‘sobriety,’ but which really refers to the wise administration of our character in our lives. It’s the virtue that allows us to understand what is needed in the moment: when to say yes and when to say no, the right thing to say and do.

This is to be done “each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned,” which is also a misleading translation. At first glance in English it sounds like Paul is saying we are to exercise sound judgment only to the degree the ‘amount of faith’ we have been assigned allows us. This would be a very strange thing for Paul to say, as though he’d say “Okay, well you only need to live faithfully at a 3 because God only gave you a level-3 faith; but you need level-8 faithfulness because God have you level-8 faith.” That’s absurd and not at all what Paul is arguing. Rather, as the next verses make clear, Paul isn’t talking about comparing the measures of faith each of us has been given, but about being faithful in the diverse and unique ways God calls us each of us to use our gifts. It’s not about how big the measuring cup is, but about what the substance of our lives is being measured out to do:

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

This is an interesting move, because it weds the question “Who am I?” to the question “Who are we?” Our identity in Christ — our identity as Christians, christlings — ties us to others, like parts of the same body. This doesn’t subsume our personal identity, but paradoxically is what allows us to truly express it. If you have the gift of seeing what God is up to in your community’s circumstances, then you are to prophesy — not for your own gain or honour but so that the community can hear what it needs to hear. If you have gifts of compassion and empathy, then it is your duty to minister to those in need. If you have gifts of teaching, teach for the edification of the whole body. Of encouragement, encourage. Of leadership, then by all means, please lead. The difference is that, in Christ, we understand that our gifts are not our own to use for our own benefit or self-aggrandizement, but to use for the benefit of the whole community.

And so, today’s readings ask us some big questions. Who is this man Jesus? Who am I in relation to him? And what consequences do these answers have for how I live my life and how I relate to the world around me?

Big questions indeed. I hope we all take some time this week to give them the space they deserve.

7 thoughts on “A Question of Identity: A Reflection on Matthew 16.13-20 and Romans 12.1-8

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