Could you imagine what it would be like to forget who you really are? This kind of thing is called amnesia and it happens in real life. In March 2015, actor Harrison Ford experienced amnesia when the vintage plane he was piloting experienced an engine failure and crashed. He remembered special landing instructions that air traffic controllers gave him before he tried to land, but after that he could remember nothing when he woke up in hospital five days after the crash.
In 2008, 32-year-old single mom, Naomi Jacobs, woke up one morning and could not recall 17 years of memories. She thought that she was 15 years old, she did not recognize her 10-year-old son, but she could remember phone numbers and she knew how to drive a car. Using detailed diaries that she had kept, she was able to rebuild her forgotten memories, and most of her memory returned within 8 weeks. [i]
When a person experiences amnesia in real life, it can be very disorientating. However, if the amnesia is extensive and permanent, or if the ability to form new memories is also lost, which sometimes happens when there is brain damage, it can be very debilitating.
The “who-you-are” that amnesia can wipe out is called identity and the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “identity” as: “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual”, One of the main goals in life is to discover and develop one’s own identity. Most of that quest for identity takes place during the teenage and young adult years, but questions of identity can come up at other times of life, especially when a major life change like divorce or retirement happens. Most of us are able to successfully navigate that quest and go through our adult years with some kind of a stable sense of who we are. But here is a question that I am asking you to consider: Is the sense of who you are secure enough to get you through a life-changing challenge? If your identity is built on what you do, what will happen to you when you retire or if you lose your job? If your identity is built on how you look, what will happen to you when your looks begin to change over time? If your identity is built on your stuff, what will happen to you when you lose your stuff? If your identity is built on your key relationships, what will happen to you when you lose one or more of those key relationships, through a break in the relationship, or through death? Now, please keep in mind that all of us, to some extent, build our identity upon these things. But I am talking about your core identity, who you are deep down, at the center of your being. I am talking about that sense of identity that drives you in all your various realms in life, like what you do, how you look, what you have, and how you relate to others.
And here is how to get at your core identity really is, because we may not be aware of it. If all the things in life that could be taken away from you were stripped from you, leaving you with nothing, who would you be? I am suggesting to you that your soul and mine thirst for a secure identity at our core. We want to know that no matter what happens to us, we will know that I, the “I” who we really are, will be okay. And when you are able to have that kind of a personal identity, then we will be able to fully live in the rich, full, abundant life that Jesus wants to give to us.
But how do we have a personal identity so secure that we know that we will be okay even if everything in our life is stripped away? That is what we are going to be considering as we dig into the Bible today
Who Are We?
Our reflection will begin by going back in time to the very beginning. In Genesis 2:7, we read, Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7) Human beings are unique among all of God’s creatures. We have physical bodies but we are also spiritual beings. With the breath of God breathed into us, we are enfleshed souls, we are souls that live in a physical body. And both men and women, the Bible tells us, are created in the image of God. That means that God made an impression on us when he created us, therefore we are like him in significant ways and we reflect some of God’s goodness, love and other qualities back to him and into the world around us. We were made for relationship with God. And Genesis, chapters 1 and 2, describe for us what that relationship, ideally, should be like. The first humans lived in paradise, in an idyllic and fruitful garden, where all their needs are supplied. They had a close intimate relationship with God and there was no barrier of any kind between humans and God.
Then the Fall happened when our first parents disobeyed God. Their sin disrupted the relationship between humans and God, corrupted the goodness that God put into creation when he made it, and distorted all of humanity both body and soul. That’s why God gave us the Law, a written declaration of what we humans beings should and should not do. And the law is most clearly expressed in the Ten Commandments. God gave us the Ten Commandments because he loves us and he wants what is best for us.
The Ten Commandments are like the boundaries of a soccer field. As long as we stay within the lines, we have freedom to live wholesome, fruitful lives.
God has a Greater Life for Us
But God has something more for us than a life lived in accordance with the Ten Commandments, even though that is a good thing. To see how we receive God’s greater life, let’s take a look at Galatians 3:23-4:7. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
What we find there is that Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Galatia, is using the language of inheritance law to describe our transition to abundant life with God, and a key aspect of that transition is identity. He writes, Before the coming of this faith [faith in Jesus Christ] we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. (Galatians 3:23-25) A guardian is someone appointed to look after the personal interests of another person. Parents may designate a guardian for their children in their will and that guardian looks after the children if both parents die. Paul is saying that the law is like a guardian that God put in place to look after us until the time was right for us to receive the full rights of our inheritance.
This is where the issue of identity arises. The inheritance is tied to one’s identity. Only a person listed in someone’s will is entitled to receive the bequest left to them. You have to be exactly the right person listed in that will in order to receive the inheritance that is listed there for you.
Right at this point, we hit our first problem because anyone with the slightest amount of honest self-awareness will realize that they are not the right person to receive any good thing from God. We would like to think that we really are, but we all know deep down inside of us that we really aren’t. So we try. We try to build an identity for ourselves that says we are a good person worthy of receiving good things from God. We try to overlook the failures in our past, the flaws in our present, and the frightful possibilities in our future. But that only creates cognitive dissonance for ourselves, and our muddled minds make it even less likely that we will ever receive abundant life from God. We cannot pretend to be someone who we really aren’t.
But God has the solution to our identity problem. He knows that our broken, sinful nature causes us to base our identity on the wrong things. He knows that we hurt ourselves and others as we try to cover up who we really are and pretend that we are someone who we are not. He knows that we struggle to accept our own flaws and failures because they cannot fit into any kind of socially acceptable identity in this world. And God also knows that, on its own, our sin-stained soul cannot have anything to do with a pure, holy God. And yet, God loves us, just as we are, with a pure, unconditional, self-giving love.
So how can the impassable gap between us and God be bridged? God bridged that gap for us. God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, into this world to become fully human so he could undo all the damage done by sin. Jesus lived a perfect human life that counts as our life for everyone who looks to Jesus in faith. And then, when the time was just right, because he loves us, Jesus willingly went to the cross to suffer and die for all the sins in all the world throughout all of time. Jesus paid the full cost of forgiveness for all the bad things that we have done and all the good things that we have failed to do. Jesus switched identities with us and suffered in our place for our sin and brokenness so that we can live in his place with all of his righteousness and purity.
This is what it means to live “in Christ.” We accept ourselves, with all our sin and brokenness, because we trust that Jesus really has forgiven us. And then we live our lives in this world trusting that the righteousness and purity of Jesus applies fully to us, because we are living our lives in him.
A few years ago, Wagner Hills Farm had a side business called Covenant Coverings. I always thought that that was a great name for that business because it is such a beautiful picture of what Jesus does for us. When we live in Jesus, we are living in a pure, white tent that he has provided for us, a tent that shelters us from all the guilt and shame that tends to rain down on us because of our sin and brokenness. In this tent, we are surrounded by Jesus’ righteousness and purity. We can celebrate within this tent with all of our fellow followers of Jesus because all of us have this new identity from him as beloved, forgiven children of God. We have this new identity because of a covenant Jesus made with each one of us at our Baptisms. That’s when Jesus washed us clean of all our sin, bound himself to us with a bond that he will never break, gave us a new life with him that will last forever, and adopted us into the family of God. Living “in Christ” means living under the covenant covering that he has given to us. Living “in Christ” means living with the new identity that he has given us as beloved, forgiven children of God. Living “in Christ” means living as heirs to the future fullness of God’s kingdom which will be revealed when Jesus comes back to this world in a visible way to make us and all things right. That’s when all the corrupting effects of sin will be healed in all creation, and we will be raised from the dead with new resurrection bodies that will never get sick, grow old or die. Death will be defeated, evil will be banished, heaven and earth will be reunited, and we will live in the combined new heaven and earth forever. We will see Jesus with our own eyes, and we will adore and worship him into eternity.
With all the problems in the world these days, it may seem almost trivial to distill the Good News of Jesus down to a simple saying like the one I am going to say, but it is true. Because of Jesus, in the end, everything will be good.
If things are not good, that means that it is not the end yet.
So we live in the now and the not yet. Right now, because of Jesus, we are beloved, forgiven children of God. Right now, because of Jesus, we are covered by his righteousness and purity. Right now, we are new creation people who live and move and have our being in this world through the relationship we have with Jesus. But our struggle against the sin in our soul and in the world around us is not yet complete. Our transformation into becoming like Jesus is not yet fully done. The paradise for which we all long, which has no more death or mourning or crying or pain, has not yet arrived. And our heart longs for these things to come and to come soon.
The Baptismal Gift That Makes All the Difference: The Holy Spirit
So what do we do in the meantime? There is one more gift given to us in Baptism which I have not yet mentioned, and that gift makes all the difference to us as we go through the challenges of living as God’s people in a broken and hurting world. And that is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
God tells us through Paul, Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” (Galatians 4:6) The word “sons” here is a technical term, not a gender term. It indicates that all of us, both male and female, have the full rights of inheritance in God’s Kingdom because, in ancient times, only sons could inherit from their fathers. Because Jesus has made us heirs and children of God, God has also given us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit quenches our thirst for an unshakeable new identity by helping us to see who we really are: beloved, forgiven children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of God.
It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to look to our heavenly Father in faith and cry out, “Abba, Father.” What is being referred to here is not a Swedish music group from the 70s. The ancient Aramaic word “Abba” is a term used when one has an intimate, personal relationship with their father, much like our English word, “Daddy.” It is the word that Jesus used when he prayed to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Mark 14:36). The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us to know and live in the close, personal, intimate, loving relationship with our heavenly Father that Jesus has given us. Then is through our relationship with our heavenly Father that we are able to live as his beloved, forgiven child in this broken and hurting world. It is from our heavenly Father that we receive the resources, courage and direction that we need for each day. It is from our heavenly Father that we receive comfort, encouragement and hope when circumstances turn our lives upside down. Our heavenly Father is always leaning forward to answer our prayer whenever we cry out, “Abba, Father!” All these things we know are objectively true because Jesus rose from the dead. And we know that they are personally true for us because Jesus has given us the living water of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit assures us that God the Father really does love us, that Jesus really does forgive us and that he, the Holy Spirit, really does live within us.
Jesus’ Invitation to be Abba’s Child
In his book, Abba’s Child, author Brennan Manning writes:
Several years ago, I directed a parish renewal in Clearwater, Florida. The morning after it ended, the pastor invited me to his home for breakfast. Sitting on my plate was an envelope containing a brief note from a member of the church. It brought tears to my eyes: “Dear Brennan, In all my eighty-three years, I have never had an experience like this. During your week of renewal here at Saint Cecilia’s, you promised that if we attended each night, our lives would be changed. Mine has. Last week I was terrified at the prospect of dying; tonight I am homesick for the house of my Abba.”…
…In His human journey, Jesus experienced God in a way that no prophet of Israel had ever dreamed or dared. Jesus was indwelt by the Spirit of the Father and given a name for God that would scandalize both the theology and public opinion of Israel, the name that escaped the mouth of the Nazarene carpenter: Abba.
Jewish children use this intimate colloquial form of speech in addressing their fathers, and Jesus Himself employed it with his foster-father Joseph. As a term for divinity, however, it was unprecedented not only in Judaism but in any of the great world religions. Joachim Jeremias wrote, “Abba, as a way of addressing God, is … an authentic original utterance of Jesus. We are confronted with something new and astounding. Herein lies the great novelty of the gospel.” Jesus the beloved Son, does not hoard this experience for Himself. He invites and calls us to share the same intimate and liberating relationship. [ii]
So the challenge that I am leaving with you today is this: Tell yourself each day who you are in Jesus. We tend to forget and Satan loves to whisper lies in our ears which, if we believe them, will pull us away from God. We need to vigorously counteract the lies of our enemy and our own forgetfulness by continually telling ourselves who we are in Jesus. What does that look like? You could use words like these: Because of Jesus, I am a beloved, forgiven child of God and I am loved, accepted and valued just as I am. Let’s practice by speaking these words aloud together. Because of Jesus, I am a beloved, forgiven child of God and I am loved, accepted and valued just as I am.
As you grow in living your new identity in Jesus, you will find that your sense of who you are will never be shaken, regardless of what happens to you. The Holy Spirit will keep reminding you that you are a beloved, forgiven child of God and that identity will never be taken away from you. Amen.
[i] Forget Me Not: History’s 17 Most Bizarre Amnesia Cases,” LiveScience.com (Internet; available at: https://www.livescience.com/60551-bizarre-amnesia-cases.html; accessed on June 6, 2022).
[ii] Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 61-62.
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(This sermon was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on June 9, 2022. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)