One day a gorilla escaped from the zoo, prompting a huge search of the district and appeals on radio, television and in the newspapers.
A few days later they found him in the city library sitting at a desk with two books spread out in front of him.
The gorilla was deep in concentration. One book was the Bible; the other was written by Charles Darwin.
The zoo keepers asked the gorilla what he was doing. The gorilla replied: “I’m trying to figure out whether I am my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”
Who am I? The question of identity lies at the heart of films like the Bourne trilogy and plenty of books too. Many people spend their lives in search of a secure identity, others decide on an off the shelf identity to adopt, like the teenager who suddenly becomes a goth. Many of us devote a lot of time and effort to creating an identity for ourselves and projecting it for others – how many Facebook profiles do you think give a real impression of their owners’ lives?
If we take our identity from others and allow the world around us to define who we are, we end up confused and often disappointed. But if we listen to what God tells us about our identity, we find security. As we continue our sermon series on the Eucharist, we’ll reflect today on what Holy Communion tells us about who we are. What is our identity in the sight of God? The answer is truthful, at times challenging, and always full of glorious hope.
If we look at our Luke reading, Chapter 22 verses 14-20 we find that our identity is rooted in Christ’s death for us. The reading takes place at the Last Supper – it’s the Thursday before Easter and Jesus has come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the traditional Passover meal. He gathers with his disciples in an upper room, and as the meal reaches its climax Jesus does something unexpected.
He knows that he will shortly be arrested and condemned to death the next day. So he takes the bread and says ‘This is my body, given for you’. Then he takes the cup of wine, saying ‘This cup poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’.
In doing this he began the tradition that became Holy Communion, and we say those same words as we gather round the table even today. For centuries Christians have debated their precise meaning: do the bread and wine actually mysteriously become the body and blood of Jesus? Or do they represent his body and blood, symbols reminding us of his death on the cross? Or is the answer somewhere in between? We’re not going to resolve four centuries of argument in one sermon, so let’s focus on the underlying meaning.
Jesus talked of his body and blood, given for you. He says that he gave his blood for us; he gave his body, dying on our behalf. If you’ve ever had a blood transfusion, you’ll know how one person’s generosity can give life to another. As the father of a child who’s had a kidney transplant, I am forever grateful to the unknown woman who in her death allowed her organs to be given up and shared for those in need. What a profound gift that is, how could I ever say thank you enough, apart from going on the register myself?
Christians believe that Jesus gave his body and blood on the cross in love so that we might live. Christians depend on Jesus and his self-giving life, just as the transplant recipient depends on the organ.
But for the disciples, with their background in Old Testament inspired Judaism, a very different image would come to mind. Imagine a man who has wronged his neighbour. Something has happened, which cannot be undone – perhaps there has been a fight. Now he is making the long journey to Jerusalem, with a year old lamb in tow. There’s not many in his flock, this lamb represents a sizeable portion of his livelihood, but the sin is serious and he genuinely desires reconciliation.
At the temple, the costly sacrifice is made on the altar. As the lamb dies, the man feels a weight of guilt lifted off his shoulders. The price is paid, sin’s death has died, and he can go home sombre but forgiven.
Jesus’ disciples interpreted his death like that. He was the Lamb of God, who freely gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Christ was the Passover lamb, dying so that God’s people could be delivered from evil. Jesus himself spoke of his death as being a ransom – a price paid so that the captives could go free. Shortly before dying he gave us this ceremony so that we could remember his body and blood given for us.
So the Eucharist tells us we are forgiven. The first step in our identity is as redeemed sinners, those who have been loved by God so much that the ultimate price was paid. What amazing worth we have in his eyes! If you’re ever tempted to wonder if you count for much, then remember this: Christ died for you. You are immensely valuable and hugely loved
As we celebrate communion, remembering this will surely create love and gratitude in our hearts. As we reflect, we can experience his forgiveness, being set free from guilt and things that bind us. We’ll remember what Christ did for us and dedicate ourselves to his service in thanksgiving. Nothing could be too much to offer him. Our identity is not trapped by the past, or defined by our mistakes- we are forgiven!
But this is not the whole story. Sometimes the emphasis on forgiveness can be overdone, so that, paradoxically, we end up thinking too much of our failings. Churches which forget the next step can end up making people look inwards, focus on their mistakes, even becoming guilty that Christ died for them. That is not at all what he intended.
The second part of our identity is also found in the words of the Last Supper: this is the new covenant in my blood. Covenant means agreement and Jesus is talking about a new beginning, a new life.
In other words, when we accept Jesus into our lives, we become children of God. Trusting in Jesus we are born again. We have a new identity as sons and daughters of God – the Bible calls us saints.
So as well as being forgiven sinners, we are also children of God, saints in the making. This is really important for Christian living because it invites us to become what we are. We are already children of God – let us live out our identity. Christian living isn’t about raising ourselves to some impossible level, but allowing God’s Spirit to make us what we actually are. Look with me at 2 Corinthians 3 verses 17 to 18.
St. Paul says that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Freedom might not be a word we associate with religion – isn’t it about laws? But this is the freedom to become the Real Me. The person God intended me to be, the person I’m designed to be. Not the Me that society pressures me to become, or the Me the advertisers sell to, or even the Me who tries to live up to people’s expectations. But the freedom to be the Real Me living God’s way, following God’s call, becoming more and more myself as I get closer to him.
I’m a gardener. If I want to plant cabbages I know that I need firm soil with lots of manure. That’s what helps cabbages fulfil their potential. If I planted carrots there, it would be a disaster. They wouldn’t push through the compacted soil, the high fertility would make them fork and twist. Similarly God doesn’t want you to try and be anyone else. He wants you to thrive in the identity and environment he has given you.
At the same time as we become more ourselves, we also become more like Jesus. There’s a remarkable image in that Corinthians reading, as if by looking in a mirror we catch sight of Jesus image, and as we look at him the light reflected transforms us by our focus on Christ.
Perhaps it’s like those children’s toys that glow in the dark. You have to put them in the light for a while until they somehow glow with their own radiance. Similarly as we spend time with Jesus, as we look to him, we begin to resemble him. When we worship God, when we spend time in prayer, we find our identity is rooted more and more in him, and then our actions are transformed.
At the confirmation service last month Bishop Lee described how he had met Desmond Tutu. Apparently the most striking thing about Tutu is that he is totally happy being Desmond Tutu. He’s the most comfortable person in his own skin that Bishop Lee had ever met.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be like that. Not to become like Desmond Tutu – that wouldn’t work!! I want Jesus to shape my identity so that I am totally comfortable with whom I am in his grace. I want to be rooted in Christ, not moulded by others. It’s not easy though.
We define ourselves in so many ways: by the sins with which we battle, or mistakes from long ago. We’re tempted to find identity in success and fear failure, to gain credibility from qualifications and position. We even allow the gifts of God: parenthood, marriage, work to become the core of identity and try and make them carry a weight they cannot bear.
So it needs a positive effort to secure our Christian identity. We need to remind ourselves regularly that we are forgiven. We need to see ourselves as saints in the making. We need actively to remember that call to be like Jesus. We must consciously reject the false identities with which we are labelled, and assert our identity in Christ. Let us pray now that we may be rooted and grounded, built up in him.