Who do you say I am?, Jesus asks.
Previously, Jesus asked his disciples, Who do people say I am? I cannot help but think that Jesus already knew the answer to that question: it seems clear that he had a purpose in asking this initial question; that purpose was to set up the more important follow-up question…
But what about you? Who do you say I am?
Passionately, Peter replies, You are the Christ. There was no uncertainty; there was no hesitation; there was nothing incomplete about Peter’s description of Jesus’ true identity. He said it clearly: You are the Christ.
I don’t know about you but I never knew myself more clearly and completely than when I surrendered my life to Christ and said in my own way, You are the Christ. That day changed my life forever. To be sure, I remain a sinful man. But I was forever changed that day: my true identity was revealed by God at the exact moment I identified Jesus for who he is: the Christ.
In that fresh moment of whole-life surrender, there was nothing and no one more important than Jesus; there was no greater peace and joy than the peace and joy He radiated through me; there was no greater love than His love that filled me; and there has never been a day like that one – that was the day I discovered my true identity in God. I lost my life, yet I gained the truest sense of who I am on the day that I found new life in Christ.
Consider this very critical point: when we truly find the Christ knocking at the door of our hearts and we open that door and let Him in, we necessarily must let go of any shred of the self in order to dive fully into the arms of Jesus. There is no holding on: everything must go. We lose our life. But in losing our life, we are filled to the full with the Holy Spirit and His identity reshapes every fiber of our being. No wonder it is such a refreshing surprise to discover our truest selves only when we wholly lose ourselves in Him.
We lose our whole life by surrendering (turning over, letting go of) our whole life and in doing so we find true life. Jesus puts it this way: For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me (in me) will find it. (Matthew 16:25)
My problem – our problem – is that we do not stay in that place of fresh surrender. We start taking things back. We start moving from surrender to self-will. We start to experience the battle with our old nature and it seems to often win. Is it any wonder that when this happens, I lose a sense of who Jesus is. And when I do that, I lose the truest sense of my own identity.
Oh sure, my mind can easily tell you who Jesus is. But at times, it’s just my head talking and saying all the right things I know I should say. That is why it is so critical to keep returning to Jesus to nurture our willingness to remain in the place of surrender where we know Him at the deepest depths of our hearts.
When I keep returning to Jesus, I answer these three questions rightly: (1) Who is my neighbor? All that you love and all who suffer and all who need your love; (2) Who is my enemy? I have no enemy, Jesus; and (3) Who do you say that I am? You are the Christ!
But oh how easy it is to start playing religion. How easy it is to reclaim my own will. How easy it is to slip back into self-effort. How easy it is to start seeing sinful people as my enemies (as if I am no longer sinful!). How easy it is to start wanting to fix others. How easy it is to lose a glorious evangelistic zeal that sheds tears for those outside of Christ. How easy it is to position myself against others who don’t yet know the Father. How easy it is to condemn sons and daughters who know the Father and yet persist in their prodigal journeys far from Him. How easy it is for me to hold others accountable when even I cannot keep myself from sin. In effect, I say with holy contempt, How dare they do what they do!
From heaven’s view, God must whisper to himself, How soon you forget that you do the same things! (Romans 2:1-4) You see, when we’re surrendered at the Cross looking into the eyes of Jesus, it is impossible for us to spiritually stack the deck against others. But when we depart from that holy place, we tend to quickly start the game of classifying others. In fact, we likely do this to medicate the spiritual pain of losing our identity in Christ: we lose ourselves and we want to blame someone. Anyone but ourselves. Sinners – the really bad ones – will do just fine! We align ourselves against them. It’s all one big Culture War…
If we do not do these things when we are looking into His eyes but then turn around and do such things so easily when we’re doing our own thing, then by definition we can conclude that we often lose our vision for Jesus and HIS true identity. When we do this, we by definition lose our own true identity. We, to one degree or another, lose ourselves in our selves and in this world. We lose who Jesus is and we lose who we are. When this happens, Jesus rebukes us:
Jesus the Good Shepherd: Who do you say I am?
You and Me: You know we know who you are.
Jesus the Good Shepherd: Feed my lambs. Who do you say I am?
You and Me: Lord, you know we know who you are.
Jesus the Good Shepherd: Take care of my sheep. Who do you say I am?
You and Me: Lord, you know all things; you know that we know who you are.
Jesus the Good Shepherd: Feed my sheep.
(See John 21:15-17)
If we are to feed lambs and take care of sheep, this implies that we are called to be shepherds: shepherds of the Good Shepherd. He’s good. If we are to follow Him, then we will be good too. We will offer the good things to others that Jesus offers us. We will not be distracted by the false identities others claim because we will be so certain of who Jesus is and who we are in Him.
I cannot feed lambs and take care of sheep when I play the role of what Dr. Boyd calls Moral Guardian. I am fully immersed in Kingdom Culture when I am feeding lambs and taking care of sheep; when I am caring for the fatherless and comforting widows; when I am giving the hungry something to eat; the thirsty something to drink; the stranger a place of refuge; the naked clothes to wear; the sick medicine to heal; and the prisoner a visit to encourage. The more I play the role of Moral Guardian, the less time and energy and commitment I have to be a shepherd; the less time and energy and commitment I have to offer this world Kingdom Culture.
Culture Wars distract me from Kingdom Culture. Moral Guardianship distracts me from shepherding. Self-righteousness distracts me from feeding lambs. Judgment distracts me from taking care of sheep. And so often, I lose who Jesus is and in the process lose who I am.
How striking it is then that we are so shocked when others define their identity in seemingly incomplete terms. This concept of identity is very popular in our culture in this generation. I suppose it should not surprise us that the first generation that raised themselves as both parents worked outside the home and 50% of all marriages ended in divorce is the exact generation that is so obsessed with identity: Who am I.
No wonder they are searching for identity: they don’t know who they are. So why should we be so shocked when they attach to identities that are narrow and incomplete? How easy we forget that we only found our true identity once we found the Christ: people need Jesus, not our shock. We all, like sheep, have fallen short. We all stray. We all wrongly define ourselves. We all do these same things.
As Christians, we know what – or rather, Who – the prodigals around us are searching for. Yet instead of reflecting the image of the Christ who calls us to take care of His sheep so that they might find Him, we project the image of our own self-righteousness and end up scattering sheep in all directions. We have what – or rather, Who – they are looking for; but we’ve lost our identity and thus we fail to reflect HIS truest identity to those who most need to know Him. When this happens, we see lost sheep differently than Jesus sees them:
The Sheep: I was spiritually hungry.
You and Me: No, you were hungry for wickedness.
The Sheep: I was spiritually thirsty.
You and Me: No, you were thirsty for destruction.
The Sheep: I was spiritually a stranger at the gate.
You and Me: No, you were promoting sexual immorality.
The Sheep: I was spiritually naked.
You and Me: Yes, you were naked alright, exposed in all your sin.
The Sheep: I was spiritually sick.
You and Me: No, you sickened us.
The Sheep: I was spiritually in prison.
You and Me: Yes, right where you belong.
(See Matthew 25:31-46, Matthew 7:1-5)
We fail to see others clearly when we depart from the surrendered role of shepherd in order to play Moral Guardian. In this respect, we fail to notice when we exchange our truest identity for other identities that are incomplete, inaccurate and ineffective. Sadly, though, we all too easily see when others do the same thing.
We make all kinds of arguments about how others cling to false identities when what we should be doing is projecting the image of the Good Shepherd who dwells inside us such that others can see their truest identity in Christ. Instead, the sheep scatter when all they see in us are reflections of self-righteousness. Is it any wonder that Jesus once said:
Remain (abide) in me, and I will remain in you. NO branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to by my disciples. (John 15)
When I remain in the place of surrender, accepting my role as disciple or shepherd, then it is to God’s glory that HE displays HIS reflection through HIS branches – through you and me. But if I try to play the role of the vine or the gardener or the moral guardian, I reflect only myself and I steal the glory of God that bears fruit through me. When I do this, I lose my identity because I lose who Christ really is and the end result is that I bear NO fruit.
We must – deep in our hearts – get this question right: Who do you say I am? For if we get this question wrong (in our hearts), we fail to truly remain in Christ; we steal God’s glory; we project our self-righteousness; and we bear no fruit.
You are the Christ, Peter said. John would say, You are the Vine. Jesus said, I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me. (John 10:11-15)
When we truly know Christ – when we get His identity right – we display Kingdom Culture through which God brings glory to Himself by working in and through us to bear fruit for the sake of His Kingdom. When we lose Christ’s identity and thus lose our own identity, we lose Kingdom Culture and often get lost venturing into the many Culture Wars of our day. The more we invest in Culture Wars, the less energy, time and vision we have to invest in God’s Kingdom.
Jesus asks us, Who do you say I am? If we let that question penetrate us to the core of our being, we will not only find out who HE is; we will find out who we are. We will find our truest identity when we find His truest identity.
This leads to my next question: If Jesus is the Christ, then Who am I?
Join me next time as we continue to consider this issue of identity.
May His Kingdom Come on Earth as it is in Heaven,
Click here to easily navigate to Part 4.
This series on Kingdom Culture is not an attack on Christians involved in political processes. Rather, it seeks to cultivate a ‘voice’ of the Gospel that is unencumbered by political identities and initiatives so that Christ’s Kingdom Culture can shine brightly into our world.