Identity is a big issue today: gender identity, identity politics… I remember when our children were teenagers they could tell you which tribe/clan a teenager belonged to by the shape of their jeans. Maybe you still can.
People scramble to construct identities for themselves. But how do you know if you’ve done a good job? What are the criteria of success? Can you switch identities? Is getting a new identity like getting a new job? It’s a frightening burden to bear.
There is another way.
The Gospel reading from the lectionary for this Sunday is John 1.43-end. Jesus is gathering a band of disciples. He finds Philip and tells him “Follow me”. Philip finds his friend Nathanael and tells him they’ve found the one foretold by Moses and the prophets: he comes from Nazareth. Nathanael is dismissive: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip persists: “Come and see”. Jesus sees Nathanael coming towards him and says: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom is no deceit!” Nathanael asks where Jesus knows him from. Jesus replies: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”. Nathanael is gobsmacked. He turns from cynicism to full-blown faith in one quick move: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
The theme of the readings for this season of Epiphany is revelation: Jesus’ identity revealed to the Magi, (that is, the Gentiles), to Israel at his baptism and, in this passage, to his disciples. But this passage is also about the revelation of a disciple’s identity. Jesus tells Nathanael who he really is. As far as Nathanael himself is concerned, he is a disillusioned and disappointed cynic. Maybe he has lost hope in the God of Israel doing anything to redeem the nation’s fortunes. Perhaps he has prayed for God to act and seemingly nothing has happened. He is on course for a life of quiet bitterness and futility.
But Jesus’ words about a true Israelite penetrate below Nathanael’s surface of cynicism to the hidden self which longs for truth. Jesus knows Nathanael better than he knows himself. Nathanael finds himself known by this strange man in a way which completely upends his world.
Paul tells the Galatians:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however… you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God… (Galatians 4.8-9)
At first sight it’s a curious thing to say. Doesn’t God know everybody? What can it mean to be known by God? Eternal life, according to Jesus (see John 17.3), consists in knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ. True, but this passage suggests that it is also about being known by God. Only the Creator God can truly know his creatures. We are easily fooled about who we are. We take on false identities fed by our fears and fantasies or the imposition of other people’s expectations.
Creating one’s own identity is a precarious business. Receiving our true identity from one who truly knows us looks like a much better option. Jesus frees Nathanael from his cynicism and releases him to become the person he really is. He can discard his false self and find self-acceptance and self-worth in an identity which is given rather than constructed.
The example of Nathanael tells all of us that we can let go of the burden of trying to be somebody we’re not. Our identity is a gift from God to us which is also a gift to other people; entering fully into that identity is the gift we give back to God. On this foundation a life of faith is built. We can truly entrust ourselves to One who knows us fully, One who sees beyond our faults and flaws to our potential.
Religious people have the unfortunate reputation of seeing their role in life as sniffing out the bad in others. Jesus overturns that stereotype by focusing on the good in Nathanael – bypassing the cynicism to get to the real person underneath.
One of Jesus’ most frightening warnings (see Matthew 7.23) is that he will one day say to some who appear to have done amazing things in his name (performing miracles, casting out demons, prophesying): “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
To be a disciple is to be known by Jesus. It seems we have a part to play in that, letting ourselves be known, sharing ourselves with him and inviting him into the shaping our identity.