The Power of Identity

Often when people talk about those who influenced their lives, they name a teacher. Mr. Porterfield was my high school humanities teacher. He shared art and music, culture and history, and he expected us to remember just about everything. In fact, I would say, “Mr. Porterfield, what do we need to know for the exam?” And he would say, “Know everything and then you’ll be fine.” We wrote long papers. We took difficult exams. And that was decades ago. Recently, my daughters provided us with tickets to an art museum. Walking through the galleries there were these paintings of big puffy angels and stern-looking people from the Bible, if those people had been born in Italy instead of Palestine. I thought this collector loved the Baroque and Italian Renaissance periods. I could almost hear Mr. Porterfield congratulating me for recalling that little bit of art history. When I am in a museum or when I listen to classical music or read a piece of good poetry or literature, I often think of that teacher’s influence on my life.

Teachers open up our horizons. They expose us to new concepts and ideas, and in so doing, they enable us to grow. Some people today think of Jesus as a teacher. And while it is true that Jesus taught, the experience was even greater. Jesus was a Rabbi. So, in our text this morning, Jesus is not looking for students, he’s looking for disciples.

Teachers have a limited focus. They instruct in specific subject areas, and teachers have limited time. By the time you’re in middle school, you typically only spend 60 maybe 90 minutes a day with any given teacher before going to another teacher’s classroom. And then the next year, you get all new teachers.

Now, consider the rabbi to disciple relationship. That relationship went well beyond academic study. In our scripture today, Philip knew that becoming a disciple would be transformative to him. He and the other disciples that would follow Jesus would spend as much time with Jesus as possible. They’d walk from town to town. They’d stay in the same accommodations. They would talk daily for hours and observe Jesus in a variety of settings. Essentially, it was going to be a three-year camping trip.

Now, you think about what it’s like to hang out with people on a camping trip – how close you can become or the hardships you can endure. That builds real community. And Philip knew that as a disciple, he would try to become more and more like Jesus. Disciples often called the rabbis master and would follow behind them as they walked.

Now, if you’re having a hard time imagining that level of relationship, because there’s really nothing like that in our society I don’t think, think about the Star Wars movies. Think about the Jedi knights. The relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi is fundamentally different than my relationship with Mr. Porterfield.

The identity of this rabbi, however, makes it more than the average rabbi. Philip told his friend Nathanael about Jesus because Philip had already come to believe that Jesus was not just any rabbi. Philip found something deeper still in Jesus’ identity and you can hear it in the invitation that he offers to Nathanael. Philip says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote – Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Now notice that Philip is saying two things about the identity of Jesus. He’s saying that Jesus is the one of whom Moses and the Prophets wrote. He’s saying that this Jesus is essentially the culmination of the Hebrew Bible. And he’s also saying, “He’s the son of Joseph, he lives over there in Nazareth.”

When Philip does this, he introduces the question of identity that brings tension throughout the gospel of John and in our lives today. Is Jesus of divine or human origin? Is Jesus the promised Christ that Moses and the Prophets spoke of or is he just a teacher from a small village near Galilee?

New Testament scholar Gail O’Day observes that there is a connection between the identity of Jesus and how you understand that and the meaning of your discipleship. She writes, “The decision to be a disciple is inseparable from the decision that one makes about Jesus’ identity.”

Now, listen to that again. I want you to think about your own life. The decision to be a disciple is inseparable from the decision one makes about Jesus’s identity. In other words, your discipleship will depend in many ways on how you understand Jesus. Who you believe Jesus to be, how you see his role and his function, dramatically impacts your life.

Philip wanted Nathanael to also become a disciple of Jesus and Nathanael was resistant. Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Now, that’s that human identity. Apparently, Nazareth was not a town out of which may people came that were of great wisdom. It wasn’t associated with the great rabbis of the day.

When Nathanael met Jesus, however, he realized that Jesus recognized and knew something about him that others did not know. It was as though when he met Jesus that Jesus looked right into his head and his heart and apparently knew all about him. Jesus said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” When he heard Jesus say this, Nathanael made a confession of faith, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Suddenly Nathanael knew that Jesus was far more than a teacher from Nazareth or even a rabbi from Nazareth. Nathanael called Jesus the Son of God and the King of Israel and those were significant titles in that culture.

Nothing changes our lives more than discovering Jesus’ deepest identity. When we think that Jesus is just another teacher, we’re often informed without being transformed. We can know a lot about the lessons that Jesus shared. We may hear sermons and read a lot of books about the Christian life, but even when we understand the way of life that Jesus offers, we don’t necessarily change. Again, we have information without transformation.

That can happen when people have been in church their whole lives, have moments of conflicts, moments of difficulty. I recall a conflict in a church meeting that started with a man who became irate. He was a leader in the church that I served, and I was surprised by his frustration and by the way he acted toward others when a certain topic was discussed and the conversation frankly didn’t go the way he wanted. After the meeting, I was seeking guidance from someone who had also been present and I sort of pulled her aside and I said, “Can you help me understand? What do I do with that. How can I help him in those moments?” And she looked at me with a sympathetic eye and she said, “Pastor, don’t let that bother you. I’ve known him my entire life. That’s how he acted in elementary school; that’s how he acted in middle school; and that’s how he acted in high school. Bless his heart, it’s still how he acts today!”

You know, it’s possible to know the Beatitudes but not know the blessings of obedience to Christ. It’s possible to recite the great commandment to love God, our neighbor and ourselves, but fail to treat other people with just basic respect and grace. The great commission can sometimes be recited from memory, but the truth is we haven’t prayed for anyone to know Christ or attempted to share our faith in years. And we can memorize the 23rd Psalm and know it by heart, but when we actually go through a time of tragedy not feel the abiding presence of the Good Shepherd.

That’s information without transformation.

Nathanael claimed that Jesus was the Son of God and the King of Israel and that understanding of Jesus’ identity, I believe, changed Nathanael’s life. I think it set him on a discipleship path that when he got to the other side of it, he was transformed. He was changed. He was truly a Christ-follower.

Now, here is the question I’d like to ask you today. Who is Jesus to you? Is Jesus a teacher or is Jesus the Son of God? Is Jesus a guy from Nazareth years ago or is Jesus the one that God promised us and therefore the one who should be believed and followed?

If you want to do a quick diagnosis of your discipleship, here is a simple way, measure the resistance you feel to actually living the way of life Jesus describes. If you are informed but not transformed, you will consider Jesus’ call to obedience through love and forgiveness, through trust in God, and when Jesus says, “Please notice the detriments of materialism,” you’ll think all of that is naïve, you’ll think it’s impossible to do and that really nobody does it.

But, if you see Jesus as the Son of God, if you see Jesus as your savior and as your Lord, which has this element of obedience, you’ll know that Jesus’ words are right and just, and you’ll not say it can’t be done. You’ll say, “How am I going to change my life so that it can be done.”

And you’ll claim the power of Jesus’ presence because you’ll realize that actually living the way Jesus wants you to live is probably not something that you can do without Jesus present. Now, when Jesus is your teacher, even your rabbi, there are always going to be places where the cost of discipleship exceeds what you think is good and helpful to your real life.

I was standing at an auction years ago and a man told me that his mother taught him two things about bidding at an auction. “Number one,” she said, “don’t scratch your nose at the wrong time.” “Number two,” she said, “always know your upper limit.” Your upper limit is the price you won’t pay as the bidding rises, so that you won’t get caught up in it. And then this man turned to me and he said, “‘Know your upper limit’ applies to a lot more in life than auctions. It’s the best advice she ever gave me.”

Well, here’s what I would agree. That is very sound financial advice, but the great danger for us in our discipleship is this. If Jesus is our teacher, our upper limit may be actually quite low. We may make all of his teaching conditional. We may say, “You know what, I’ll forgive when that person does the following. I’ll start giving my money away and even be generous once I have this much amassed wealth. Oh, yeah, I’ll control my anger as long as nobody provokes me.”

When we see Jesus the way Nathanael did, we simply give ourselves over to the way of Christ. We just decide we cannot put an upper limit on that. And in so doing, we’ll find a life that is good, a life that’s full, and a life that’s abundant.

We are informed, but more importantly, we are transformed because Christ can work in that environment to change us. We become a person we can only be when Jesus is actually our savior and our Lord.

Jesus knows you the way he knew Nathanael. Jesus knows me the way he knew Nathanael. He can see inside our minds and inside our hearts as well. And if we walk with him and if we obey him as the Son of God, he will in fact give us a beautiful life. When life is not beautiful, because sometimes it’s not, there are things that happen we don’t control, Jesus will give us a peace that passes all understanding in the midst of the complexity and the difficulty.

But it all depends on the power of identity. How we see Jesus and our desire to make him the Lord of our lives to whom we are obedient transforms everything. And as he said to his first disciples, so he says to us today, “Come, follow me.”

I’d like you to think about your life as I offer a word of prayer and I just want to ask you to pray with me.

Lord, sometimes we want to make you something other than what you are and who you are. Help us to submit to you. Help us to actually do the things you ask us to do so that we might enjoy the life that you promise. Lord, there may be a specific area of life that someone is struggling with today around this question of obedience or a special need that they have in the midst of difficult time. I pray that you would fill that need and help them see the beauty of your calling to simply do what you say. Be for us, we pray, both savior and Lord, the Son of God who came for the world. Amen.