Second Sunday after the Epiphany

In the name of God, who knows us by name.  Amen.

When our dog, Rufus, was just a little puppy, he came with me on a trip down south to spend time with my family.  My younger nephews were just toddlers at the time, so we were careful with how we introduced them.  I wasn’t worried about Rufus being mean, I was mostly just cautious that he might get too excited and not know how to react.

So we orchestrated the meetings.  My brother would hold each of the twins as I held Rufus, and we’d let them start to get to know each other.

When Miles met him, he squealed with joy and reached out to pet Rufus.  With a smile so genuine it couldn’t be contained, Miles continued to pet him before exclaiming, “Kitty cat!”

I gently corrected him, “No, Rufus is a dog.”  But Miles didn’t believe me for a second.  His family had a dog.  A great big old lovable Catahoula, weighing in at probably 75 pounds, and definitely standing taller than Miles.  Rufus was a tiny thing – probably about 12 or 15 pounds at the time.  My little nephew knew dogs.  Dogs are big.  This creature was not big – it must be a kitty cat.

It became a little game between us – Miles would cry out that Rufus was a cat, and I’d say, “No, Rufus is a dog.”  And Miles would giggle in delight at the little exchange.

The next time I saw them, both Miles and Rufus were each a few months older, and the reality of Rufus’ identity as a dog had begun to set in on Miles.  He would kneel on the floor next to Rufus petting him.  Then he’d look up at me for affirmation and say, “Rufus is a dog.”  Then he’d say, “Rufus is a black dog.”  Or, “Rufus is a small dog.” Or, “Rufus is a soft dog.”  He’d teased out every aspect of Rufus’ identity and spoke of it on repeat for hours.

I thought of those stories this week because this little excerpt from the Gospel today deals with the subject of identity – from a lot of different perspectives.

It begins with John identifying Jesus, while he was still far away.  He identified him as the Son of God, and talked about why he knew it to be true.  He said, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”

Then, the next day, identity is the focus again.  First, John identified him to his disciples: “Look!” he says, “here is the lamb of God!” and they began to follow Jesus.  When Jesus turned and noticed them, he asked them what they were looking for.  As a part of their drift toward an answer they identify Jesus as a rabbi – a teacher.  Presumably, one who is wise and learned.

Andrew finds his brother and shares a part of Jesus’ identity – “We have found the Messiah.”  Then, in the last bit that we read, Andrew brings his brother to Jesus.  Jesus instantly identifies him, and then, out of nowhere, re-identifies him – he gives him a new identity.  Jesus says, “You are Simon, son of John.  You are to be called Cephas.” (which means Peter).

Identities are swirling about.  Even changing on a dime.  It’s all a little strange.  Why?  Why is this the focus of an entire section of readings?

Well, identities are important.  One of my pet peeves is when people call me Jonathan.  There’s no reason it bothers me.  It’s not important.  There’s nothing wrong with the name “Jonathan”.  But it’s just not my name.  And how we identify ourselves is important.

The subject of identity is front and center in our society, perhaps more than ever.  In our highly polarized political life, there’s far less emphasis on what any individual believes or how someone behaves and a lot more on what team they identify with.

And in the culture wars, gender identity is a huge focus.  I’ll freely admit that there’s a lot that I don’t understand about gender identity conversations, and sometimes I struggle to be as sensitive as I aspire to be when it comes to using people’s preferred pronouns.  But can’t we at least see and agree that identity is important?  It’s important to me, and it probably is to most people, that others get our names right.  So we all understand, at least to a degree, the struggle that must accompany being misidentified.

Identity matters.  It communicates.  That’s part of why priests wear collars – it’s a way of communicating our identities (and in turn, our intentions) in the world.

Throughout his life, a big focus of those around Jesus will be his identity.  “Who do people say that I am?”  People respond to his miracles and wonders by declaring that he must be the Messiah.  Even before he is born and after he dies, Jesus’ identity is central.  The angel identifies him to Joseph, who then tells him how to identify him to the world.  He meets the disciples around the camp fire, but it’s not until they break bread together than they can see who he is.

Identity is important.  Who we see when we see Jesus is important.  And who God sees when God sees us is important.

This isn’t one of those threatening sermons that asks, “What will God see when God looks at you?”  It’s not a threat of judgment.  It is an assurance of mercy.  An assurance of love and grace.  When God sees you, God sees someone who is loved.  Someone who was created in God’s own image – you take after God, the first creator.

It may seem strange that Jesus met Simon, identified him as Simon, but then renamed him Cephas, or Peter in that very instant.  Why would he do such a thing?

Later in the story of Jesus, we hear that Cephas, Peter, will be the rock on whom Christ’s church will be built.  We’re told that Cephas means Peter, but our translations don’t tell us that Cephas meant “rock” in that ancient language.  From the moment Jesus met him, Jesus saw his potential.  He saw him as a rock – a foundation; a figure of strength.

When God looks at us – when Christ looks at us – when the Holy Spirit moves through us – God doesn’t see us as we see ourselves.  God sees potential we can’t imagine.  God sees possibility.

And that’s how God knows you.  That’s how God identifies you.  As potential.

So why would we spend a Sunday thinking about identity?  Because identity is important.  And because there’s more to it than we might initially see.

Look for your true identity – the way God sees you – within yourself.  And look for it in everyone you meet.  It’s probably something better than you can see at first.  So look deeper.  Look for the image of God.  Amen.