Humbly embracing our identity

Proper 16 (August 24, 2008)
Common Lectionary Texts:
Is. 51:1-6; Ps. 138; Rom. 12:1-8; Matt. 16:13-20

This week we welcomed three new SALT (Service and Learning Together)workers to the region. Justine King will volunteer at the Arab Episcopal School in Irbid, Jordan. Kim MacVaugh will work as a teacher assistant in Palestine and Peter Miller will be a research assistant at an agency in East Jerusalem. We are impressed with the clear sense of identity and purpose that these three young adults bring to their assignments.

Justine King, from Albany, NY, will be a teacher assistant at the Arab Episcopal School in Irbid, Jordan

We spent a delightful evening with a delegation of Japanese Christians who are in Jordan for a conference with the Anglican Church. It was a rich opportunity to share faith stories, laugh, sing and eat together. One woman spoke emotionally of how a particular Japanese song sustained her when she was stranded far from home.

In the region this week, 40 peace activists from 14 countries set sail from Cyprus in an attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel imposed an economic blockade in June 2007 after Hamas won the elections. In addition to their symbolic gesture, the international group is carrying hearing aids for 200 children in Gaza.

Peace activists set sail from Cyprus on Friday in two boats bound for Gaza (photo by AFP)

The Common Lectionary texts this week are about identity.

The prophet Isaiah urges his readers to remember their roots. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (Is. 51:1b-2). Just as God was faithful to their ancestors, in the future God will comfort those in exile (v.3), send justice as a light to the peoples (v.4) and grant deliverance and salvation to the peoples (vv. 5-6).

In Psalm 138, David casts his identity with the God who: shows steadfast love and faithfulness (v.2); answers and gives strength when David calls (v.3); is high but regards the lowly (v.6); preserves David against his enemies (v.7) and fulfills his purpose for David (v.8).

In the Epistle reading, Paul challenges his readers to “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” (Rom. 12:2). We are not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but rather with sober judgment (v.3). All are to recognize their unique function in the body of Christ, and use their gifts accordingly for the benefit of the whole (vv. 4-8).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13). “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets,” they respond (v.14). “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus presses (v.15). “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter blurts (v.16). Jesus commends Peter for this response and says that this rock — this declaration — will be the foundation upon which Jesus will build his indestructible church (v.18).

In the Middle East, as in many places around the world, identity is often a source of conflict. One group makes a claim of superiority based on ethnic, national or religious identity, and then disparages or even oppresses those in another group. Christians sometimes fall into this trap.

How is it possible to fully embrace the truth claims of Jesus, without becoming arrogant or exclusivist?

The limitation is not with the clarity of God’s revelation in Jesus but with our capacity to see, listen, understand and put into practice. Too often we read Scripture in self-serving ways. Too often our practices in the church are feeble, narrow and tepid expressions of the reign of God that Jesus announced with such boldness and power.

In his essay, “A Theology of Interfaith Bridge Building” in Borders & Bridges, Peter Dula writes, “The revelation of God in Christ is total and complete. It doesn’t need a supplement – Christ doesn’t need help. (But we do.)”

Indeed we need those “outside” the church to help us see and understand God’s light more clearly. Scripture frequently holds up “outsiders” as those who most clearly demonstrate faith and understanding.

This week’s Lectionary readings encourage us to embrace our identity. Indeed, it is good to enjoy the songs, foods and traditions that feed our souls. It is good to celebrate when our country does well in the Olympics. But ultimately, our identity is not about our accomplishments — or about something that makes us better than others. Rather, our identity is rooted in who God is and what God is doing to shape a faithful family out of all nations. We do well to “look to the rock from which we were hewn” and to remember that there is but one rock upon which God is building.

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