The New Testament and Jesus in particular have a remarkable way of addressing contemporary issues.
Take the quest for identity. The question “Who am I?” seems to occupy more of our time and energy than ever before. And the question itself is much more complex than it used to be. Is your identity something you’re given, something you have to discover or something you’re free to construct? Or a mixture of all three?
We define ourselves in so many different ways. You can look inside and seeing what’s there. How do I feel? What do I want? What do I want to achieve? What are my gifts or talents? What is my sexuality? You can look to the personality tests such as Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram. You can look to the stars and the planets for light on who you are. You can look at where you belong – your tribe, your town or village, your sports club, your old school, your profession. You can look at the key relationships in your life and define yourself by how you fit into a family or a community. You can look at what you do, your job, your calling, your career. The range of choice is bewildering.
Jesus asks his disciples to reflect on his identity. What is the word on the street about who he is? And who do they think he is? The question is addressed to us too. Who do we think Jesus is? Once we’ve got that straight then the way is open for us to be told who we are. This is explicit in Matthew’s version of this episode, where Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is immediately followed by Jesus telling him:
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…Matthew 16.18)
We are who we are in relation to our Creator and Redeemer. When you think about it, this makes good sense and cuts through a lot of potential confusion and frustration. How else should we be defined but by the One who made us in the first place? Not only that, but the One who loved us enough to give his life for our life.
Knowing the identity of Jesus is the first step. But there is more to come. This is the half-way point in Jesus’ ministry. From now on the journey to the cross begins. Now that they know who Jesus is, the disciples can begin to get their heads round his call to die for the sins of the world and what that will mean for them. Jesus is very clear about that:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it.Mark 8.34-35
The word “life” here is the Greek word psychē, meaning “soul” or “life”. I reckon it could equally be translated “self” or “identity”. Jesus is telling us that we can only find who we really are when we commit ourselves to following him and are prepared to deny ourselves. The only way to life is through death, through letting go of whatever distorted sense of self we have acquired and allowing God to shape us into the person he always intended we should be. We only have one life/soul and left to ourselves we will make a mess of it (even if we become rich, famous and powerful along the way).
What does it mean to deny yourself? Here is one example: Paul urged the Christians in Rome to learn
…not to please [themselves]. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself…Romans 15.2f
In denying ourselves we follow in the footsteps of Jesus himself. And in so doing we begin to find ourselves in a new way.
Oliver O’Donovan, formerly Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, wrote:
If Christianity has a saving message to speak to human beings, it must surely be, ‘You may be free from the constraints of your identities.’quoted in David Bennett, A War of Loves