The message this Sunday, as it often is, was about identity. We ended by reciting a lengthy list of attributes that should describe us, each starting with the proclamation, “I am….” Each “I am” had a Bible verse attached, and it was somehow linked, in some way, to something God had done, but it was all about me.
After the first few “I am’s” I fell silent. I couldn’t join in. God does not always want our ease, or our power. Actually, much of the Christian tradition is about learning to suborn our will to His, to accept what He wants, and not infrequently, that involves suffering. Milton went blind, William Cowper went mad, and the martyrs went home. Being uniquely loved by God doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of this.
We seem much too obsessed with our identity, and too little with God’s. It’s a fine distinction I know, but much of our preaching and teaching sounds like sanctified self-help, with a concordance attached. We miss the point of Ephesians 2:5-11. Christ was so sure of His identity that He didn’t think about it at all. He was about His Father’s business, and so should we.
Such messages look Christian, feel Christian, but somehow fall short. There is quite a history to such messages in this country.
In 1925, Bruce Barton, a son of the manse, wrote The Man Nobody Knows, the best-selling non-fiction book in America of that decade. Barton was very clear about why he wrote the book. He took issue with the image of Jesus presented to him in Sunday School and from the pulpit. As Barton told it, Jesus was a man’s man. He was a winner, and by following Him, we could become winners too.
This marked a subtle shift. Yes, the Gospel was about serving God and helping others, but as a component of self-fulfillment. The Gospel becomes just another miracle cure. One that just happens to be 50% more effective, and without a nasty aftertaste. Who wouldn’t want that?
All of this begs a question, what is the purpose of our lives? The Bible is rich in words of comfort and assurance, because we need them. It is also filled with admonitions to self-denial and sacrifice. We are told to take up our Cross and follow Him who did see equality with God as something to be clutched like a miser, but was willing to die.
A gnawing disconnect gripped me, especially after we received Communion. It didn’t feel quite right. When confronted with the reality of Jesus, John the Baptist told his followers, “He must become greater; I must become less.” John 3:30.
May it be so, O Lord, may it be so.