Jesus’ question in the gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-30), “Who do people say that I am?”, has a strangely modern resonance to it. We derive our sense of who we are from a number of sources and there has recently been quite a lot of discussion about the affect of social media on our sense of self. We regularly hear about celebrities being subjected to vile abuse online and Rev’d Kate Bottley, known as the Gogglebox Vicar for her appearances on that programme, was one of the latest to talk about this after receiving what she described as sexual abuse through Twitter after appearing on Strictly. These attacks have a way of getting inside us, because they invade our private space via our phones and computers, and it feels like someone is in the room with you, which can be very unnerving.
There has also been quite a lot of comment about cyber bullying and the pressures on young people to match certain images, and this can affect body image and a sense of self worth. Eating disorders and psychological health are closely related to these pressures. Add to this exam pressure, where over the last few weeks we have seen so many images of A* students and success, it’s a tough time for those whose results have not been so glittering, but actually may represent significant effort for that person, or even those who have not performed as they wished. Life is not over for them and in time different doors open, even if it requires a rethink now, but it’s hard to hear that at the time. I know this from firsthand experience – my own O and A Level results were not glittering, but life has a way of being a journey in God’s grace all the same.
So ‘who do you say that I am’ is a far more topical question than we might have thought just a few years ago.
I am reading at the moment a book about Dementia with the subtitle ‘Living in the Memories of God’. I’m giving it a slow read because I am taking it in as I go and reflecting on its insights. One chapter talks about our sense of self and draws on the work of psychologist Steven Sabat. He offers 3 aspects to our sense of self: personal identity, story and relationships. ‘Personal identity’ is about our ability to distinguish between this glass being mine and that cup being yours. It is the ability to distinguish between me and you, yours and mine. The second aspect, ‘story’, is about our biology, physical charateristics and experiences. What I have done, where I have been. The third is the one Jesus asks about, it is the ‘self in relationship’. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ ‘How do you label me?’ I am a dad, I am a husband, I am a role – Vicar, Trustee – and people respond to me in those roles, projecting their assumptions. I have no control over these projections. When I walk about the city centre wearing my clerical collar, people respond in all sorts of different ways, which come from within them and I have no control over them. Some of this is depersonalizing – they see the collar and don’t see any story or any inkling of how I might be feeling on any given day. That goes for so many people, in so many roles from checkout staff, to receptionists and baristas, medical staff and bus drivers.
For those suffering from a condition, like dementia, they can easily become the patient and cease to be the person who has a story. They get labelled by their medical condition and people can stop relating to them as a person with a story, and just as a collection of symptoms. A well-known pitfall of being in care is the institutionalizing that can go on through the lack of homely personal touches and surroundings, which are so important for our sense of who we have been and the story we carry. People coming out of the forces can find that they struggle to cope without the clear boundaries and expectations of rank and role, structure and procedures, they previously knew and felt so secure in. It is important to be called by name and for the story and relating to be kept alive, even if the person themselves has forgotten it.
As important as these definitions are – identity, story and labels – they do not define us completely. And no one’s definitions of us can completely capture who we are. The same goes for Jesus, people say what they say about him, but none of them can fully grasp who he is completely. That is beyond their defining, limited as they are to their limited grasp and vision. A missing aspect for us in the 3 aspects of self model is our status as children of God, which goes beyond the boundaries of story and label. It goes beyond the achievements which are valued and those that are unseen. It is unconditional love and it is a status that never leaves us, even if we forget the story and lose our relational status or it is overwritten by a new institutionalized one. We have a status as a beloved child of God, and we live in the memories of God, even when our grasp of memory may fade.
The twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer pondered on who we are in his poem ‘Who am I’, written while held as a prisoner by the Nazi regime in the 1940s. He begins by talking of different ways that he has been experienced by others in how he has related to them. Then he asks:
“Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick,
like a bird in a cage…
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today,
and tomorrow another?
Who am I?
They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God,
I am thine.”
(Letters and Papers from Prison p126)
Bonhoeffer was struggling with who he was and how his condition, his plight, was held and known. His profound faith shines through at the end with his assertion that whoever he is, he is God’s. We are children of God whatever our story, whatever our label, whatever our remembrance or forgetting.
When Jesus asks ‘who do people say that I am’ he is asking far more than what is the word on the street. He takes us to heart of the most profound question that we can grapple with. We are so many things in so many different places. Fundamentally we all know that ‘I am me and you are you’, even if some labels have fallen off. We have a story, which we may or may not remember – and at times all of us forget bits of our story or may actually need to forget bits to cope with the pain. We are in relationship with others and these labels pick up important ways we live and experience. But most importantly, and through all of this, we are children of God, heirs of his grace and beloved.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 27th August 2017