Epiphany – Image vs. Identity

Dear Disciples of Christ Jesus,

The season of Epiphany marks one of the most critical seasons for teaching the faith. Our readings are focused on proclaiming Jesus’ identity. Knowing who Jesus is is essential for beginning the journey of following him. The lectionary Scripture readings during this season provide us with true insight into what “The Light” exposes.

The word Epiphany literally means to make manifest. Following the Christmas season that proclaims Jesus’ birth and his presence, the Church proclaims who Jesus is.

The wise men proclaim him a king. In fact, Jesus is the King of Kings, Lord of all creation.

John the Baptist announces Jesus as the Messiah. In his baptism, the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus to be the Son of God.

Jesus calls his disciples to follow Him. As they follow him, the disciples experience the power of his Kingdom that broke into our world through him.

In these texts, Jesus heals the sick and casts out demons. The disciples experience the power of Jesus’ mercy, compassion and love opposing the spiritual forces that wound, corrupt and destroy people. His power is greater than all the evil in the world combined.

In our texts, we also see the human side of Jesus. He is exhausted at times and gets away to be alone and pray. He is clear about his mission and theirs — to proclaim the Good News of his Kingdom to neighboring towns, throughout all of Galilee and Israel and to the ends of the earth. Jesus leads his followers to move forward, not to stay where it is safe and easy, but to move to places where people are hurting and in need, where they have not yet heard or believed in Jesus. Matthew quotes the great words of the prophet Isaiah: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow, a light has shined” (Matthew 4:16 NLT).

This light also exposes the risk of following Jesus. John the Baptist is arrested and executed. Plans are interrupted and Jesus moves from place to place to avoid those forces that seek to destroy him or subvert his mission.

The season of Epiphany is about the Light that overcomes the darkness of life. It overcomes the darkness, but it does not take away the risk.

If Jesus’ plans were interrupted because of the darkness in this world, should we expect anything less in the lives of those who follow him?

What I have experienced in ministry over the years is that plans are often interrupted. We can waste much of our life filled with regret and disappointment. What I have also learned is that there is nothing in my life that is off limits to him and that, when he disrupts my plans, he may be trying to accomplish his plans that are far better. They are far more fulfilling plans in which he calls us to overcome our self-absorption by being absorbed into his life.

Jesus has a way of interrupting our lives when he wants more for us and for his Church. That is precisely what he did with those first disciples. He interrupted their plans with a far better plan. Whether they were cleaning their nets or bringing in revenue for Rome at the tax office, Jesus interrupted their lives with an invitation, “Come and follow me.” When the Gospel is rightly proclaimed today, people will hear the same invitation from Jesus. They will also be forced to wrestle with all that it means to respond obediently, to take that first step away from our self-absorbed life to life in him.

Sometimes our persistent sinful nature causes us to hold onto those things that are unhealthy for us even when we know there is hope in a different direction. We would rather maintain the familiar condition and disease than pursue the changes necessary for greater health and wholeness of life.

In my own life, I have found that Jesus only asks me to give up the things that control me, that are harmful to me, that keep me from holding onto him.

Making decisions about the future is never easy. No matter what decision we make, it exacts a toll from us no matter how glamorous or lucrative the world makes it seem. The light of Epiphany makes it clear that we can expect no less when we are following Jesus. We are all spending our lives for some cause. The question is for what cause are we giving it away? For ourselves or for Jesus and his mission.

One of the greatest tragedies facing churches today is that we have worked so hard to make the Christian faith anything but challenging. We have labored hard so that people will say yes to easy faith, low commitment, membership that grants us multiple rights and privileges, to an organization that can easily become a self-indulgent institution, bent on self-preservation even if it means compromising the faith for the sake of proclaiming a gospel of its own invention, that is really no gospel at all.

In spite of those misguided efforts, I am convinced that people today are looking for real Christianity. They want to be challenged. They want to hear the call of Jesus to become his disciples, and they want to know how to begin the journey. People are hungry and thirsty for Jesus. They are searching for direction, meaning, purpose, worth, value. They want what only the Kingdom Jesus proclaims can provide — life and community in him, through his body, the Church. When people experience life in Jesus, they are no longer focused on what changed or what they gave up, as it is meaningless and insignificant in comparison to what they now possess, new life in Christ.

The revealing light of Epiphany shines like a laser. It is a powerful but very narrow beam of light that proclaims Jesus as Messiah, Savior, Lamb of God, the One who opens the Kingdom of Heaven to all who believe in him.

The revelation to the Magi, the declaration at his baptism, his rejection of evil, the obedience of his disciples, the authority and insight of his teaching, the power of his miracles and the mystery of his transfiguration all reveal the truth of his identity.

The faith we live, proclaim and share with others is not about mere information. It is about a truth that is so compelling and so powerful that it not only reveals Jesus but transforms us. He reveals who he is so that we might receive our true identity through him.

During this season of Epiphany, I am always reminded of the difference between image and identity. It is impossible to exist in this culture and not be concerned with our image.

We are constantly bombarded by media that heightens our sensitivity about how others will perceive us. How we appear, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the car we drive, our home, our furniture, the technology we use, the people we know, our social circles — all focus our lives on our image. We can become so preoccupied with image that we have no time or energy to focus on the far deeper, far more critical issue of our identity. I don’t know about you, but, when it comes to making difficult decisions, I have asked, what will other people think? Sometimes I have tried to dodge a decision Jesus is calling me to make by asking what will please the greatest number of people. That sounds caring on the outside but it doesn’t go very deep!

The world keeps telling us the task of life is to create our own unique sense of self, to make a name for ourselves, to create a reputation for ourselves, to become self-fulfilled. That path leads only to following our self — self-centeredness and selfishness that are not only unhealthy but destructive eternally.

Discipleship is not about image. It is all about identity. Our identity is in Christ. It is not in manmade institutions or organizations no matter how well intended. In Baptism, we take on the identity of Christ as we accept the name “Christian.” The sign of the cross marks us forever. This is the beginning of defining who we are. We learn from Jesus who he is and, in him, we find out who we are — children of the heavenly Father, citizens of the Kingdom of God, followers of Jesus. As Paul reminds us, in him (Jesus) we live and move and have our being! We are called and claimed by the infinite One who gave his life for us, who proclaims our infinite worth and value by his death and resurrection for us!

Jesus did not give his disciples a doctrine. He did not give them a theology. He did not give them a building, constitution, structure, institution, and not even a methodology for success. He gave them only one thing. He gave them himself with a gentle call, “Come and follow me!”

Brothers and sisters, that is all we have, but it is all we need, for it is everything! It is all we are, and it is more than anything else we could hope to be, followers of Jesus. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that those worldly things are unimportant, but they are not the most important thing for the body of Christ. He is.

The oneness Jesus prays for his disciples to experience in the 17th chapter of John is not an organizational unity or a matter of institutional loyalty, but the oneness of identity, “that they may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” The identity of Jesus is in the Father. The identity of the Father is in Jesus. Jesus is praying that his identity will be in us and that our identity will be in him. That is his promise and our only hope.

In this season of Epiphany, focused on Jesus’ identity, we discover again our own identity in him as his followers and as a community of his disciples. The light of Epiphany shines on Jesus, his mission and all the risks associated with it, clearly symbolized in the cross.

It is my prayer during this revealing season that we manifest our identity in Christ Jesus, emboldened for his mission fully aware of all the risks associated with following him in this world.

With his identity rooted in “Christ Alone,” Luther would write, “With the zeal of a missionary, I dedicated the rest of my life to telling others the good news of salvation by grace through faith. For now, I knew that I stood before God with Christ’s righteousness and with Christ’s courage.”

May we do the same. Forget the image and gain the identity in Christ, focusing on substance rather than the surface of real life in him.

Have a blessed Epiphany season!

It is good to be with you following him.

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