Posted on by The Rev. Dr. Frank G. Kirkpatrick
Year A - The Second Sunday After Christmas
January 5, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Frank Kirkpatrick
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
There may be nothing more important to us than claiming our identity as the unique individuals we are. It defines us as the particular persons we are: it distinguishes us as having a personality or individuality that is different, in some crucial and irreducible ways, from the personalities of others. One of the most frightening things that can occur to us is having our identity stolen or even having our identity erased from the arenas in which we live and act. A person with no identity is virtually no one at all.
But what constitutes the heart or core of our identity is often not clear. There are multiple and varied ways of constituting and representing our identity to ourselves and to others. I used to teach a class introducing students to the meaning of ‘religion. I began by asking the following hypothetical question: suppose an extra-terrestrial being (who understands the English language) asks you who you are. Most students said they would respond to the question by first giving their name. Then they would add, in some rough order, their nationality, their place of residence or home town. Down the list they would include their race and gender and age. I then asked them to figure out what was common to all these markers of identity. Eventually, they would notice that none of them were the result of their deliberate decisions or choices. They were marks of identity given to them by others or by external circumstances over which they had no control. We don’t come from the womb having decided what name to give ourselves, nor did we choose our nationality, the town in which we lived with our parents, nor our race or our age. There is some controversy today over how to consider our gender, with some people insisting that gender identity is fluid and not entirely given at birth. And race is also considered by some more as a social construct than a biological given. But even the debate over gender and race are a sign of how important identity has become to us in this country. There has been in recent years the rise of what is called identity politics in which one’s political identity is determined more by one’s class, economic status, political party, race or gender than by values that transcend these categories. Unfortunately, once one succumbs to identity politics the things that really should define us are set aside as trivial or unimportant. And this leads us to ask the question: what are those essential defining characteristics that give us our core identity, which make us the unique persons we hope to be: and the answer has to be: nothing less than the values or principles we choose to live by and the decisions we make on the basis of those values.
Ultimately, it is not our social or biological circumstances or inheritances that give us our core identity but rather the choices we make about how to respond to or deal with those circumstances. Our core identity is constructed by what we do with our circumstances, not how we are defined by them and by others. We need to remember that Jesus and his family were subject to and partially defined by their situation in Judea in the first century. They were, up to a point, defined by their circumstances as Jewish, as residents of a backwater town called Nazareth and therefore as Nazarenes. For a time they were defined as refugees as they fled Israel to escape Herod. Later they returned as immigrants from a foreign land. Later still Jesus was defined as a carpenter and still later as a teacher and healer. And yet today we don’t see Jesus’ identity as completely encapsulated in being a refugee, a Nazarene, a carpenter, a teacher, or a healer. He was all of these things but none of them completely defined who he was. He was not a prisoner of these defining circumstances. Instead his identity was forged through the choices he made with respect to the circumstances in which he lived. He chose what to do with those circumstances to manifest his basic or underlying personal character: to reflect his core or inner values. And those values led him to choose to do God’s will on earth: to live as God’s son, to incarnate God’s intention for him; to work, through his teaching and healing (and ultimately through his choice to die on a cross for the sake of others) to help bring to fruition the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus’ core identity was the result of living by the values of God for the redemption and flourishing of humankind. He grew into this identity over the course of his life. It was an identity forged by his personal moral and spiritual development as he chose, consciously, to follow what he believed to be the will of God for him and, through him, for all others. This core identity for Jesus didn’t abolish or annul the other defining characteristics into which he was born: he remained a Jew living and working in a small geographical space in ancient Israel. But he transformed those inherited traits into a vessel of redemption, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing of others.
The significance of all this is that we, too, are born into certain and defining conditions and circumstances. We are born into our gender, race, nationality, sexuality, and social position. But while these are external defining conditions, they don’t fully define us within, at our core. We retain a degree of freedom to use these conditions to define what kind of moral and spiritual character we will become. We are responsible for determining much of our essential identity.
And what makes that responsibility possible is that it is grounded in the power of God. The great good news of the Gospel is that our identity derives from our relationship with God and God’s intention for the fulfillment and flourishing of our lives and through us, for others. The Gospel tells us that our essential identity, which no politics of identity can take from us, is that we are essentially children of God, loved by God for all eternity no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in. God finds us and loves us no matter how complicated or complex our life conditions might be. Our task is to personalize and individualize the opportunities God gives us to choose the values of the Kingdom of God. And at the heart of those values is the eradication of structures and practices, both personal and institutional, that demean, dishonor, and deny the unique value of every other soul: that segregate others by walls and divisions based on secondary and ultimately insignificant labels of identity and privilege such as gender, race, nationality, sexuality, or economic class. Our true identity, rooted in the love of God, is grounded and empowered by claiming ownership of God’s gift to us as being children of God. If we try to live out that ownership our core identity will remain forever protected by God’s grace and never subject to identity theft.