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Who Are We?

When I think about the impact of Jesus' death on the disciples, I first think about Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning. She was so struck with grief that she did not recognize Jesus. The traumatic death of Jesus was so vivid and real to her that she could not believe that he was alive and standing in front of her. She mistook him for the gardener (and in a way he is the gardener of all creation), and she could not accept the reality of his being alive until he said her name: "Mary."

I also think about the last chapter of the Gospel of John. Dispirited and dejected, the disciples had nothing to hold onto. Jesus had changed their lives so completely that they could barely remember who they were before they met them. To battle his grief, Peter thought back to his identity as a fisherman (our job is sometimes our identity, too). With his new identity wrapped up in his relationship to Jesus, and with Jesus violently ripped from his life, he had to remember that he was once someone else. "I'm going fishing," says Peter at his lowest point. "We will go with you," say the rest of the disciples; they have no better idea. Jesus reminded Mary who she had become with him by saying her name. It is not Jesus himself who reminds Peter, but the beloved disciple. The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord." Then, by his actions we can surmise, Peter recognized Jesus and remembered his own identity as Jesus' friend: he leapt into the water and swam fast enough to beat the boat to shore.

The Book of Acts documents the power and action of the Holy Spirit and the story of the growing church. The opening scene in Acts is a little like the closing scene in John: the formerly grieving disciples are all gathered around their risen Lord. He told them to stay there where they were gathered even after he leaves them so that they can receive what was promised to them. I think they still have an element of disbelief, and don't understand that Jesus is going to leave them (trauma can do that to you: make you not understand what's going on around you). Their emotions don't necessarily line up with their experiences. Jesus is leaving, but they are too happy that he is with them for the moment to understand that they will be separated again. Their response in this phase reads like a joke about Presbyterians: they had a committee meeting and elected officers (sometimes, keeping the business of the group going is an important way to distract us from uncertainty). So they stayed and waited (what do you do while you're waiting for something? The apostles "were constantly devoting themselves to prayer").

Then Pentecost happened to them. Who were they then? It says that after Peter's Pentecost speech, they "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." First they were fishermen, or whatever, then they watched Jesus by following him, then they waited and prayed, now they've added learning, fellowship, and sharing meals to their praying.

Just a couple of verses later, it's about the same, but worded differently: they "spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people." It sounds like they're not just sharing fellowship within their own community; they have "the goodwill of all the people." This iteration of their identity also adds that they praise God and are glad and generous.

If we stop and ask, "Who are they?" what kind of answer do we give? One way to answer this kind of question is with "They're the people who . . . " statements. In this part of the story, they're the people who hang out at church (the synagogue). They're the people who don't complain but are glad. They're the people who are generous. They're the people who like each other (they spend time together). They're the people who share meals together and welcome each other into their homes. They're the people who are always learning about God and about Jesus. They're the people who are always praising God. No wonder they have the goodwill of the people; they sound fun to be around! They're the people who are pleasant to be around.

Peter heals a cripple and has a conflict with the temple police including some jail time. Then, when they realized they were all under threat, they prayed that they speak the word of the Lord with boldness (and they did). The community does not fall apart when threatened, they somehow grow closer. It says, "the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common." The apostles "gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all." It goes on to say that "there was not any needy person among them," they were sharing their property and caring for each other so much.

Remember, not long ago their jobs defined their identity. Across time, their identity changed.

  • They're the ones who saw Jesus

  • Then they're the ones who followed Jesus

  • Then they're the ones who saw Jesus killed

  • Then they're the ones who saw Jesus raised

  • Then they're the ones who waited, praying

  • Then they're the ones who received the power of the Spirit

  • Then they're the ones who eagerly learned from the apostles

  • Then they're the ones who liked each other and spent time with each other and fed each other

  • Then they're the ones who spoke boldly about how great Jesus is, even under threat

  • Then they're the ones who cared for each other and shared all their things and their lives with each other

At each part of the story, their identity changed, and they added to it. As crises came up, they faced the crises and overcame them. They figured out how to organize themselves for service to each other and invented the office of Deacon. They faced persecutions and went to new lands and spread the good news about how great Jesus is and increased their community and crossed cultural borders and became the more and more perfect, the more and more holy, the more and more sanctified body of Christ in the world. That's quite an identity!

That's our identity, too. It's not THEY anymore; it's WE. We're the ones who pray and receive the spirit and worship together. We worshiped together in a pecan grove. We worshiped together in a new building 100 years ago. We have been worshiping together and spending time together and praying together and learning together and sharing with each other and caring for each other all this time. WE're the body of Christ in the world today.

Don't take my word for it, and don't take my words for it. When you're praying, think about who we are and come up with your own words: "We're the ones who . . ." It might be, if you're honest, that some of what we are is not what you want. We can change. "We're the ones who make the gentiles become more Jewish" was a controversy in the first century, but they worked through it and became "We're the ones who accept gentiles so much that there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free among us." Let the Holy Spirit tell you where we're off and become better. That's a process called sanctification, becoming more holy. Hey, here's another identity statement: "We're the ones who are becoming saints." Don't let it be overwhelming. Just think of a small thing. If it's good, celebrate it and keep it: "We're the ones who love education." If it's not, accept it and try to change: "We're the ones who complain about not having more friends?" can change to "We're the ones with Holy Spirit power to be open to and to show God's love to everyone we meet."

Identity is not the kind of thing that you construct and polish and put on a shelf; identity changes. Some of our identity is beyond our control, though. We're the ones whom God loves. We're the ones whom God adopted as children. We're the ones with Christ as a brother. This is the part of identity that Christ was reminding Mary of when he said her name in the garden. Jesus reminds us of this part of our identity all the time. We can remind each other of this part of our identity, too, like when the beloved disciple reminded Peter by saying "it is the Lord." Hey, here's another identity for us: "We're the beloved ones who remind each other that we are beloved."

Thanks be to God.



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