“Gordon! What a lovely surprise – I didn’t expect to find you here!”
I was standing at a reception in the garden at Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, chatting with a few others who, like me, had been invited to a gathering of international faith representatives. The posh voice behind me was clearly happy to have discovered “Gordon” in the crowd, the greeting loud enough to break up our conversation and cause our little group, and others, to turn in unison out of curiosity.
As I turned I became aware of an odd thing: it was me who was being addressed, the unexpected focal point of attention. The look on the speaker’s face turned instantly from one of delight, to confusion, and then to flushed embarrassment.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said, “From the back you look just like Gordon Brown.” There was a ripple of laughter from those standing around, realizing that I had been mistaken for the man who was then Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (and would soon be Prime Minister).
Later in my hotel room, before changing my suit for more relaxed clothing, I spent a moment trying to eye myself in the mirror from behind. Yes, I thought, I can see the semblance. But then, I do need a haircut.
Have you ever been mistaken for someone else? Or worse, have you ever mistaken the identity of another? I remember an awkward moment on a department store down escalator when the woman to whom I gave a couple of friendly waves on the up escalator turned out NOT to be the partner of my colleague at work. Where to look as we drew near and then passed?
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus wanted to know from the disciples. And they answered him, “some say you are John the Baptist; and others think you could be Elijah; and still others, one of the other prophets, maybe. Then he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.””
John the Baptist was a obvious choice, a popular preacher beheaded by the regional king; some harboured the thought that John might come back to life and give the king his comeuppance. Elijah? A common belief was that the great prophet of old would make his own second appearance, ushering in the age of the Messiah. But, barring those two, people were fairly sure Jesus was some kind prophet in his own right, or one of those from ages past making a return.
The question of Jesus’ identity didn’t seem to matter much to the crowd. They still followed him around the Galilean countryside no matter what they thought about who he was. Whoever he was, he had a power and authority that brought good to their lives. The disciples themselves were still trying to work out exactly who Jesus was years after he had gone from them.
The truth be told, the followers of Jesus today, if we take in all the various streams and denominations of Christianity, let alone the millions of individual believers like you and me, also have vastly differing ideas about who Jesus is, in the sense of what he is like, what he stands for, and the significance of his life and teaching. I confess I’m sometimes embarrassed or confused about the things my co-religionists say about Jesus, or the things they think are necessary to follow in his footsteps. I’m sure I cause them equal embarrassment at times.
Does it matter, the understanding we have of Jesus?
Yes, actually, it does. Bishop N.T. Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, says “One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship…outward to the world around.” Some of the worst atrocities and injustices in human history have been carried out in the name of Christ, not by people who were simply looking for an excuse to do what they wanted, but by those who genuinely thought they were doing the will of God, who thought they were acting in accordance with the spirit of Christ.
One of the things that surprised me most when I was ordained and assumed responsibility for teaching in the church was the remarkably low level of knowledge many regular church-goers have with regard to the faith they affirm. Aside from a weekly sermon (and who, really, is listening?) many Christians receive no further instruction or training, go no further than reciting and puzzling over the words of the Creed.
When I was the chaplain of Amsterdam’s NFL football team, the Admirals, I would sometimes pose this question to the guys in chapel: “What do you think would happen to me if you put me, as I am, in for a play, handing the ball to me to run with it?” Invariably, these men would start to chuckle before they answered the question. “Dog,” they would say, “you’d be dead!”
“Why?” I would plead, “I’m not too small am I?”
“No, you ain’t too small; you’re just totally unprepared. You aren’t fit like we are, you don’t know the playbook, you haven’t trained.”
“And you?” I would ask, turning the tables, “what makes you think you are going to be able to make your journey of faith, walk successfully as a follower of Jesus, if you have done absolutely nothing to prepare for that endeavour?”
Calling the crowd to join his disciples, (Jesus) said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering, embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? (The Message, Eugene Peterson)
If we, like Peter, have professed our belief that Jesus is one anointed by God, that he is the one we intend to follow and be identified with, to learn from him and be the kind of person he was, we are going to have to apply ourselves.
I finish with the words of Brennan Manning:
The Carpenter did not simply refine Platonic and Aristotelian ethics, reorder Old Testament spirituality, or renovate the old creation. He brought a revolution. We must renounce all that we possess, not just most of it. We must give up our old way of life, not merely correct some slight aberrations in it. We are to be an altogether new creation, not simply a refurbished version of it. We are to be transformed from one glory to another, even into the very image of the Lord – transparent. Our minds are to be renewed by a spiritual revolution. The primal sin, of course, is to go on acting as if it never happened. When we are hungry for God, we move and act, become alive and responsive; when we are not, we are dilettantes playing spiritual games. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance,” said Abraham Herschel. And intense inner desire to learn to think like Jesus is already the sign of God’s presence. The rest is the operation and activity of the Holy Spirit.