The reading for this the second Sunday in Lent very much keeps the theme going that we looked at last week and the week before. The idea of this covenant relationship. So we begin with the story from Genesis where Abram has his named changed to Abraham.
There’s a couple of things that can be lifted out of that narrative. One is the change of names and the other is the age of Abraham and Sarah when all of this is occurring. Name changes are very significant and the significance of the name change that we have here is to again emphasize the idea of covenant the covenant that is made between God and Abram. The covenant speaks of a new relationship that is so different that it occasions the change of identity.
Now we can glimpse that in everyday life. You may find that some people know you almost by a certain name and others will know you by a different name. It becomes fantastically clear when people retire, when they leave their work, because in the modern world quite often our identity is linked more to what we do than to who we are. So quite often in the modern world, we’re actually known by what we do. When we retire, there’s a phenomenon whereby people lose their sense of identity. They move into a space that has been lost and it’s a place quite often that causes despair and depression, because with the loss of identity goes the loss of our sense of power. And quite often in the modern world, it’s our doing, our profession, our jobs, that also feed the sense of power. We actually get a sense of self-worth and empowerment from the position we hold rather than from the place within ourselves that we can stand.
The identity that comes out in the new covenant is so clear to Abraham that he is immediately renamed. When it’s that renaming, that knowing truly who I am, that gives us our authority as well. If I know who I am, I can then be the author of things, I hold authority. The other thing that’s clear from that first reading is that these things occur outside of our expectations. You can sit back and try to figure out the numbers and it looks impossible to think that Abraham and Sarah are about to start a family when he’s a hundred and she has been barren all her life and into old age. In fact it is so far beyond expectations that they themselves laugh at the suggestion.
The news for us in there though is that our true empowerment, our coming across a covenant with God, the discovery of another, a new relationship that will be empowering of us, will occur outside of our expectations. And quite often there is an expectation that that will occur within the church. And quite often the discovery occurs outside of the church. It’s about being open and it is also about seeking. Seeking the true source of who we are. Who am I? There’s that wonderful voice of God at the burning bush when the question is thrown the other way around: Well who shall I say that you are? And the answer is, I am who I am. I often think the importance of that text is that God’s the only one who can utter that sentence in truth because if we say “I am who I am”, and we start to strip that back, you discover there’s parts of ourselves, there’s parts of myself that I’m unclear about, that I don’t know, that are still forming, that I wonder about. But the voice of God says in all truth, I am who I am. And so the relationship that God seeks with us is a relationship born in all truth. The relationship that we seek with God, what does that look like? Where does that come from?
Paul makes it fantastically clear that the relationship that we have with God need not, in fact should not, come from following a pious set of practices and rules. The promise that he would inherit the world did not come through Abraham or his descendants through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For Paul, it’s clearly about being and not doing. Now we’ve got to be careful here because there’s a couple of opportunities to let ourselves completely off the hook. It can sound like if I be right with God, the fact that I do nothing about it is OK because Paul said so. And that’s where we have the [navel?] contemplative Christian, the one who can sit back, see God in her own [navel?] and do nothing. That’s not what Paul’s saying at all.
We can then go the other side and say, “Well, so long as I do the right thing, go to church on Sunday, don’t swear, eat fish on Fridays and all of that, then I’m right with God. And that’s all I need to do.” Paul’s saying, no that’s not the way to go at all. And somewhere inside us I’m sure that we know. We’ll often take one of those two paths to let us off the hook, but I think that we do know that it is about faith and not about the law, not about a set of rules. It is about being and not doing. However, there’s that lovely line that says, “By their proofs they will be known”. If we can find ourselves, even if we can find ourselves seeking a covenant relationship with God, and we focus on that, then our doing will look different anyway. “Tell me to what you attend and I will tell you who you are.” That’s really what Paul is laying the groundwork for. If we attend to the relationship in the way that God attends to relationship with us, then our true identity will be released. So we may well find ourselves discovering another name. One thing that I think is clear, we do need to discover ourselves with another name. Collectively as the church, we’re so busy hanging onto names. “Are you Anglican or Catholic?” We hang onto them as if they have some power in their own right, rather than ourselves seeking to discover the true relationship that we may have with God.
When we get to the Gospel reading today, it’s as if those things are brought together and we get Easter told in miniature. Jesus now asks the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Clearly the Gospel package is also about identity. We are the second week into Lent, so we’re moving towards Easter. The liturgical year assumes that we know where we’re going. We don’t have to pretend that this is before Easter and we don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s an assumption that we know what’s going to happen there. So we’ve got this story with the backdrop of Easter rapidly coming towards us over the horizon. Jesus asks the question, “Who do you say that I am?” He then talks about where he will be traveling, what is going to happen. And he tells very quickly the story of Easter. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, the scribes, killed and after three days rise again.” He speaks of his identity in terms of Easter, in terms of the cross, the crucifixion and the resurrection. He’s seeking to speak his truth, from his truth, with his disciples.
Immediately, we have the next part of the Easter story, the cock crowing. We have Peter’s denial. Peter takes him aside and says, “No, no, no, that’s not who you are. You’re the Messiah. The Messiah isn’t the one that is rejected and is killed. That’s not what it’s about.” And it’s that dialogue there that then opens up the teaching of Easter. Jesus says to Peter, “???…not on Divine things but on human things.” You’re actually attending to things the way that you would want them to be. If you want to become my followers, if you want to be fully who you’re called to be, then you need to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.
If we deny ourselves, what it’s talking about is that name that is attached to and born out of our ego. The ‘what I want’ to be seen as, known as. The ‘what I want’ as my name in this world. That’s the life that Jesus says we need to lose. Lose that life and you will save your life. Move away from identifying and creating my identity out of worldly things. What I have, what I do, what I want, what I watch, what I like, what I dislike. Move beyond that to see yourself and your truth as a part of a truth that is the whole of creation responding to God in love.
For the remainder of Lent we’ll have the opportunity to take up our cross, to take those things that weigh on us, those things perhaps that it’s time to let go of, to free ourselves of: our prejudices, our biases, those things that we just accepted because it was so easy to accept them. Take all of those things, look at them again and come to Easter ready to let go of those so that our hands can be free. There will be great fear, for to be empty-handed is always a fearful thing to be. It suggests that we’ve gone without something. But if we can empty our hands, then we can hold hands with others, we can embrace life, we can receive.
May we continue to make this a holy season, to follow the journey through Lent, that we may encounter ourselves and our Christ this Easter. Amen.