Jeremy Shoulta: The (Re)Born Identity

In my early years of church ministry, I regularly heard two comments after being introduced and identified as a minister: “You don’t look like a minister!”

To this day, I can’t figure out what would lead someone to believe that I don’t have the appearance of a member of the clergy. Perhaps it’s something as simple as the fact that I don’t wear a clerical collar. It could be that there remains a popular notion that ministers dress formally, or should dress formally, each day of the week. Or maybe – and this is the one I’m going with – I merely have the appearance of a rock star, Hollywood actor, or prominent athlete.

The second comment I often received never set quite well: “You’re too young to be a minister!”

I received this observation for the better part of a decade, right up until gray hairs started setting in at a surprisingly fast pace, after which I rarely heard that comment again. I know that these words were not given as an insult, but certain thoughts would flood my heart and mind upon hearing such a statement:

  • Maybe I am too young to serve in church ministry.
  • I’m terribly inexperienced and shouldn’t be in this position.
  • I haven’t garnered enough wisdom to go about his work.
  • No one will receive pastoral leadership from someone who is “too young to be a minister.”

Why was I allowing these rather innocuous (and well-intentioned) comments to generate such feelings of inadequacy? Was it my own inability to swallow my pride and roll with the punches? Was I harboring a deep insecurity that I had not come to realize?

Each of us, at one point or another, are classified by our unique appearance, a quirky mannerism, or peculiar life circumstance. Many, if not most, of these externally received means of identification are unhelpful and, at their worst, become hurtful and debilitating. These means of identification reduce our “fearfully and wonderfully made” selves into a single trait. Aren’t we so much more than that?

On this Fourth Sunday of Lent, we join with Jesus in meeting an individual who is given no name or self-provided biography. The community, however, has ascribed certain qualities to him: (1) the man is blind and has been so since birth, (2) he and/or his family are notoriously sinful and (3) he sits and begs for assistance around the streets of Jerusalem. The community, including some of Jesus’ closest followers, found it most convenient to classify this individual with prejudice and little-to-no empathy. This external identification was anything but gracious and redemptive.

Jesus, on the other hand, saw the man in an entirely different light. Jesus knew the man needed healing, but instead of leaving him out to dry and joining in on the prevalent gossip of the day, Jesus vowed to “do the works of him who sent me.” As the story goes, Jesus proceeds to spit on the ground and creates a paste to put on the man’s eyes and sends him to wash in the pool. The man is no longer blind; he has become new.

Through this miraculous act, Jesus invited the man to take on an identity of one who had experienced divine restoration. The healing of the man’s physical blindness was an outward sign of a holistic transformation which the man experienced that day. No longer was this man required to live into the identity imposed upon him by a community who had no desire but to judge and condemn.

We might assume that such an event would cause a communal celebration; if anything, we might think that such an explicitly divine intervention would excite and energize the faith community. But this kind of change is unsettling for those who make their meaning by placing labels and identities on others from a position of power and privilege. Members of the community and the religious leaders themselves started asking certain existential and practical questions and made quick assumptions about all had inspired:

  • If this man was healed on the Sabbath, then we must identify who broke the law!
  • If this man has truly been healed, how do we now regard him, and how do we regard his parents?
  • What does this say about everyone else we’ve already determined to be outside our favor?
  • What does this say about Jesus? What if his message of healing and new creation catches on?

Those questions became too consequential for the religious leaders. The individual formerly known as “The Man Blind from Birth” poked one too many holes in the establishment’s understanding of their own authority. There was no alternative but to throw the man out.

Jesus and the man would have another encounter. After a time of brief dialog, the man professes his faith in Jesus and worships the Christ. Jesus would go on to say, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” The man embraced his new identity fully that day, proclaiming with joy, “I was blind but now I see!”

This story invites us into deep reflection during this Lenten season. While this narrative centers upon Jesus’ encounter with the blind man, everyone (including the reader) is forced to reckon with certain aspects of our humanity:

  • We are quick to judge and condemn.
  • We turn religious devotion into a tool for marginalization.
  • We cannot survive the agony of doubt and despair alone.
  • We allow the onslaught of worldly influences to compromise our Christ-centered identity.

These are realities we must confront in our faith journey in times of confession and repentance. And while we should share in and invite accountability within our faith communities, we must not make it a habit of imposing identities of unredeemable sinfulness and shortcoming on others. There must always be space for grace and reconciliation, as Jesus so often shows us during his earthly ministry.

Most importantly, we are invited to center ourselves on the new identity bestowed upon us by Jesus. We will always be bombarded by classifications and characteristics that the world chooses to prioritize for us, but we have the freedom to embrace who we are in light of the One who created us in his image. As the man celebrates his new life in Christ, so too must we welcome his loving presence each morning. For the Lord has “turned our mourning into dancing, loosened the sackcloth and clothed us with gladness” (Psalm 30:11).

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” Our Christian identity requires more than passive receptivity, as though it were merely something we check when we respond to a campaign survey or mark as our “Religious Affiliation” on Facebook. When we receive and embrace the light of Christ, we join with Jesus in helping others discern and live into their sacred identity.

God’s Spirit moves mightily when we lean into a Christ-centered way of being, and we are compelled to place the saving power of Jesus at the forefront of our missional life and identity.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Amen.