Who am I? Whose am I? (23 June 2013)

1 Kings 19.1–15a
Galatians 3.23–29
Luke 8.26–39

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who was hanged on Hitler’s direct orders only a few days before the end of World War 2. While a prisoner in a Nazi jail in 1943, he wrote a poem called Who am I?.

Bonhoeffer’s poem starts like this:

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Bonhoeffer appeared to others to have it all together, even while he was a prisoner on ‘death row’. But inside, it was a different story.

This is how he saw himself:

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick,
like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath,
as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers,
for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness,
for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends
at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying,
at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer looked inside his own heart, he saw a different reality. Not ‘calm, cheerful, firm,’ but ‘restless and longing and sick’. Not ‘free and friendly and clear’, but ‘struggling for breath’. Not ‘equable, smiling, proud’ but ‘thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness’.

Bonhoeffer was different on the outside to what he was inside. Outwardly relaxed and confident, he was inwardly scared half to death.

I think, ‘Who could blame him?’—but Bonhoeffer disappointed himself. He wondered whether he were a hypocrite. He writes:

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself
a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still
like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder
from victory already achieved?

Who are we? Are we sometimes one person, in control, resourceful and capable? Are we sometimes another—moved by anxiety into frenetic activity, or collapsing like a heap?

Can we both at the same time, a complete and utter hypocrite? Which is ‘the real me’? These questions haunted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and we are not immune from them.

Bonhoeffer didn’t leave it there. His poem ends like this:

Who am I?
They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God,
I am thine!

Bonhoeffer couldn’t answer his own question—am I one person sometimes, and then another? Am I just a hypocrite? Who am I really? He continued to be haunted by these questions, in his cramped and lonely cell.

He found no consolation in an answer to these questions; but he did find consolation in who he was before God:

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God,
I am thine!

I suppose each one of us can identify with Dietrich Bonhoeffer sometimes. We’re one thing on the outside, another thing inside. The face we show to the world isn’t always the person we see on the inside. Perhaps sometimes we can feel like we’re hiding our true selves from others, even from ourselves.

But we know we can’t hide our true selves from God.

The invitation to us is to say in faith, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God,
I am thine!

Whoever I am, O God, you know I am yours. If we can say that, we can be confident in the face of all our fears and insecurities.

People in biblical times weren’t any different. Take the prophet Elijah. Even he didn’t know his own true self. Remember how the story goes? We heard it a few weeks ago:

There he is, one man against the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal at Mt Carmel. A bull for each side, and each god must set their own offering alight. Baal is strangely absent. Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal, even suggesting that their god had gone away to relieve himself…

Then Elijah douses his offering with buckets and buckets of water, and fire from heaven consumes the lot. God wins!

You’d think Elijah would be standing ten foot tall after that. But when Queen Jezebel finds out, she vows to kill him—and he runs as fast as he can. He begs God to take his life, he thinks he is the only true believer left.

Elijah does one thing right. He goes all the way to Mt Horeb, also known as Mt Sinai. He wanted God to reveal himself, as God had revealed himself to Moses at Mt Sinai.

Elijah finds out a few things. One: God is not in some spectacular things that happened, a great wind, an earthquake, a bushfire. Two: God was there when Elijah stopped long enough to hear “a sound of sheer silence”. Have you ever heard that?

Three: Elijah was not alone. There were others who belonged to God.

Four, and best of all: Elijah belonged to God. God had not deserted him.

Who was the ‘true Elijah’? I don’t know. But whose was Elijah? Elijah belonged to God.

Our Gospel story is that very strange tale of the man who lived over on the Gentile side of Lake Galilee. He was “a man of the city”, he was known to people, but he was infested with demons. How many demons? He told Jesus his name was “Legion”—and a Roman legion had around 6000 soldiers. 6000 is a lot of demonic issues to deal with.

Now, we may be able to identify a bit with Elijah and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But what does this man have to do with any of us? Can we identify with him at all?

I imagine each demon pulling him a different way. I imagine him being psychologically distracted by thoughts and desires pulling him first one way and then another.

Isn’t that just like us?

Aren’t we pulled every which way? I must pass that exam. I’ve gotta get that promotion. Does he like me? Why won’t she go out with me? I don’t want to lose this job. What a great car, wish I could afford one!

Who am I? Aren’t there around 6000 things pulling me one way and then another?

This poor man learned one thing: he belonged to Jesus. In Jesus, he had a centre around whom he could build his life. I don’t know who he was; but he learnt whose he was.

Who are we? Are we pulled in 6000 directions at once? Or like Elijah, do we snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory? Do we know who we are, really? What’s my self-esteem like? Am I what I know of myself, or am I what others see?

Those are important questions, but they’re much less important than this one: whose are we? Who does the very soul of me belong to?

The Apostle Paul helps us here. He says,

As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

We are baptised. We have clothed ourselves with Christ. We have put on Jesus Christ’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self- control.

We are joined to Jesus Christ in baptism. We are one in Christ. Male, female, black, white, gay, straight. Doesn’t matter who or what you are.

God’s promises are ours. We are heirs of all of God’s promises.

That is our identity. That is who we are and whose we are: we are people who have put on Christ, and who live according to the Spirit of Jesus. God is with us, and will always be with us.

What forms your identity? Is it Jesus Christ, and the power of his Spirit? Or is it what you want to buy or do or who you want to be with? What is at the centre of your life? The choice you make will affect every detail of your life. The choice is yours.

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Filed under Baptism, church year, RCL, sermon

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