At the heart of all of our readings for today are stories of identity. These readings tell us about the identity of God and of God’s people, and how God called them into relationship and into the full use of their gifts. It’s fitting that we read these readings during Epiphany, the season in which Christ is made manifest to us, his identity as the son of God and the savior of the world revealed. But what do we do with these questions of identity? Why are they important?
The reading in Isaiah comes at a specific moment in time for the prophet Isaiah and the people of Israel. The people have been in exile in Babylon; this reading is bookended on both sides by the word of God calling them to return to their land. But in the middle, in this reading, we learn something of the identity of God and the identity of the people.
The relationship between God and the people is a covenant relationship that stretches all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, to the days when God spoke to Abraham and said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2-3) But that relationship has changed over time, as the people of Israel have turned away from God and then repented, turning back to God. This has happened over and over, even to the time of this passage: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity, yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward is with God.”
The people, being what people are, convinced themselves along the way that they did not need to rely on God, instead following their own path. But what came of this was being overrun by empire after empire, culminating in exile to a foreign land. But God, being who God is, remains steadfast and faithful to the people.
As they prepare to return to the land God gave them, God reminds them of the promises God made to Abraham and Sarah and to all of their descendants. God keeps God’s word, calling them back to the land, calling them back into the covenant, and into the identity they find in their relationship with God. They find this identity in the God who calls them by name and redeems them from sin, slavery, and exile. They find their identity in being called by God beyond the restoration of Israel, to be a light to the nations and to bring salvation to the earth.
Identity is also central to the reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul, who is well-known to the church in Corinth, identifies himself as an apostle of Christ – not one of the twelve, but an apostle nonetheless: one who has been sent by God. He begins by reminding the Corinthians of their own identity as the saints of Christ, together with the all the saints of every place. He goes on to remind them that their identity is found in Christ: they have received grace and spiritual gifts from Jesus. And if anyone should know, it would be Paul – he founded the church in Corinth, and led it for a year and a half before moving on to plant his next church.
He wants to remind them of their identity, because the Corinthians are having something of an identity crisis. If we were to continue reading Paul’s letter, we would discover that the church in Corinth was divided over things such as who was baptized by whom, whether it was acceptable to speak in tongues, and whether having different spiritual gifts created any sort of hierarchy within the church.
But in this morning’s reading, Paul opens his letter by reminding them of the importance of all spiritual gifts: namely, the presence of Christ is stronger among them because they have a plethora of gifts. In fact, Paul reminds them, they are not lacking in any spiritual gift.
Stop and think about that for a moment. What would it take for a community not to be lacking in any spiritual gift? Hang onto that for a few minutes; we’ll come back.
Their identity as the body of Christ has been fractured by their factionalism. Through his letter, Paul seeks to remind them of their identity as saints in Christ. He reminds them that they are spiritual heirs to the covenant God made with Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, and renewed with the Israelites as they prepared to re-enter their land after years in exile. “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Identity is central to our Gospel reading for today, as well. John the Baptist names Jesus the Lamb of God, who has come to take away the sin of the world. He claims his own identity in Christ as the one who was sent before him to prepare the way, so that Christ might be revealed. He, too, references the promises God made to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, when he testifies that he came before Jesus so that Jesus could be revealed to Israel as the Messiah, the Chosen One, the one sent by God: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” He goes on to claim his identity as a prophet, foretelling the coming of Christ, by proclaiming that God had told him that he would know the Christ when the Spirit of the Lord descended and remained.
By this declaration, he identifies not only himself as a prophet of God, but Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One, the Son of God, come to earth to take away our sin, that which separates us from God – that which causes us to turn away from our relationship with God, as the people of Israel had done and as the church in Corinth would do with their factionalism and their infighting. In other words, John the Baptist’s words were an echo of what Isaiah proclaimed to Israel as they prepared to return from exile; Paul would later echo John’s words in his letter to the Corinthians. In all of these proclamations, age to age, the message is the same: God’s identity is revealed as the one who keeps promises, who holds fast to the covenant even when God’s people turn away, who seeks to restore right relationship.
And we see right away this desire to be in relationship with us, to hold fast to the covenant, as Jesus invites Andrew and another disciple of John to “come and see”; he calls them out of their identity as John’s disciples and into a new identity as his apostles, As he then calls Peter and the others, to be sent by him into the world to preach forgiveness of sin and the new covenant in Christ’s blood.
Do you think that, before they were called by Christ into their new identity as his apostles, any of them would have identified preaching, teaching, or leading others as among their spiritual gifts? Possibly. But it’s also possible that these gifts were not innate to them, but that it was through relationship with Christ and the empowering work of the Holy Spirit that they were able to nurture these gifts. It’s possible that between the gifts God created them to have, the gifts Jesus nurtured in them through relationship and the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, and the gifts the Spirit empowered them to seek out in themselves and develop, they were able to grow into the identity Jesus called them into.
Let’s come back to where we started: why are these questions of identity important? What do they have to say to us today? We know these stories. We’re familiar with the covenant God made with the Israelites. We’re familiar with Paul’s work as an apostle and a church planter around the Roman Empire. We’re especially familiar with the story of Jesus’ baptism and claiming by God.
So how do these readings shed light on our understanding of our own identity as people of God? How do we understand ourselves as heirs to the promise made to Abraham and Sarah?
Because we are heirs to the covenant – the new covenant, the expanded covenant, the covenant that was shed for all people for the forgiveness of sins. We, too, along with the members of the church in Corinth, the apostles, and the saints of every time and place have been brought into relationship with God, given new identities in our baptisms in Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
So what do these identities mean, anyway? Is this just one more piece of identification to carry around in our purses or wallets, a card to pull out and show off if someone asks if we’ve “found Jesus” or “been saved”? Is this just our get out of jail free card for these awkward conversations with the missionaries of whatever sect happen to knock on our door? Or does having this identity mean something more?
Think back to Paul’s comment about the church in Corinth not lacking in any spiritual gift. Think back to the followers of Jesus and the gifts they may have developed after being called to be apostles. When you think about your own identity and what spiritual gifts you possess, how do you make that list? Do you just think about what comes naturally – a head for business, say, or the ability to talk easily with visitors on Sunday morning? Do you just think about the gifts that God created you to have?
What gifts come from your salvation in Christ? How has your faith grown, stretched, shaped you over your lifetime? What do you understand now about yourself that maybe you didn’t when you were younger, in light of your baptismal relationship with Christ?
What about the Spirit? Do you ever get glimpses of “I really would like to…” or “I wish I could…” or “if only…” How is the Spirit pushing you, guiding you, empowering you, to see yourself in a new light, to find a growing edge and explore it? If you give yourself time and imagination to think about these things, how does that impact your understanding of your identity?
How are you called beyond yourself, as the Israelites were called to be a light to the nations, as the Corinthians were called out of their factionalism and into new relationship with Christ, as John was called to be a prophet and Andrew and Peter to be apostles?
Who is God calling you to be? What is your identity in Christ?