I remember my first day of confirmation class. It was the beginning of three years of instruction before being confirmed as a full member of the church. We had a curriculum to follow and the title of the first chapter was, “Who Am I?” Now, as a seventh-grade boy, I thought this was the dumbest question in the world. Who am I? Easy! I’m Scott Kramer, son of Lyle and Eloise. D-uh!
But over time I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of that question. Long before I was a confirmation student a man named Moses climbed a mountain, and there he received from God the Ten Commandments. But before he heads back down the mountain Moses says, Nobody is going to believe this. When people ask, who should I say sent me? And God replies, I am who I am. Tell them, “I AM has sent you.”
It’s a strange answer! It’s a mysterious reply. But the words “I am” point to the very identity of God. Later, Jesus himself uses these words to describe his relationship to his Father: I am…the bread of life/the true vine/the resurrection and the life/the good shepherd/the light of the world, etc. Like Moses before him, Jesus was saying, “I AM has sent me.”
But in today’s reading, early in his ministry, Jesus doesn’t seem quite as confident. He seems to be searching, exploring, experimenting with different identities, like a seventh-grade confirmation student moving into adolescence: Who do people say that the Son of Man is? He seems to be trying to figure out who he is not by himself but by learning about the perceptions of others, and there are many perceptions! Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
It’s one thing to talk about other people’s perceptions. It’s another thing to take responsibility for our own answer. Jesus makes it personal and asks his disciples, Who do you say that I am? And Simon Peter pipes up, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”
I wonder if Peter was taking his cue from what he’d heard before. Remember the voice that was heard at Jesus’ baptism? This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him. “Baptized child of God” is a really good answer to the question, “Who am I?” It was true for Jesus. It is just as true for you and me. But baptized or not, all people can say with confidence, “I am God’s beloved.”
The truth is, not all people know or believe that they are God’s beloved. The man who shot dead two other men in a Kent gas station this past week—do you think he believes that he’s God’s beloved? Such crimes are never justified but they can often be explained. Imagine hearing day after day, year after year, this message: You’re no good. The tragedies that make headline news often are the consequence of someone who answers the question “Who am I?” with this answer: “I’m worthless. I’m not worthy of love.”
Our Christian mission to the world fundamentally is to proclaim a very different answer: You are God’s beloved. To be beloved means to have God-given gifts to accomplish that mission. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that all of us have gifts: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, and serving with compassion. To be God’s beloved is to be equipped with one or more of these gifts, and many others besides.
It’s been my joy to see you exercise these gifts. These past weeks, for example, you have used gifts of compassion for people in need. Pat Tanaka has entered hospice. She has maybe days, weeks, months left in this life, but however long she has she knows that she is beloved. Another member of our congregation that you have reached out to is Don Williams. Don had open-heart surgery this past week. I met with him for prayer before surgery, and asked, “Don, what should we pray for? What would be most helpful right now?” And the first thing he said was…forgiveness.
Don’s answer reminds us that to be God’s beloved means that we can embrace our full humanity, warts and all. We don’t have to pretend. If we know who we are—if we know that we are beloved—we are bold to say, “I am a sinner, in need of God’s grace!” And before we ask, whether or not we know we need it, whether or not we even want it, forgiveness is God’s free gift of grace.
Who am I? As a seventh grade confirmation student I thought it was the dumbest question in the world. Now I believe that it’s one of the most important questions we can ask. “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. And then, the more important question to each of us, Who do you say that I am? We are God’s beloved, equipped and gifted to be God’s love to all the world.