Grace & I got the box set of the three Bourne films for Christmas. The hook in the plot is Jason Bourne’s amnesia and search for his true identity. They are fantastic films, and while much of the action is clearly preposterous, the underlying theme of the trilogy is the underlying question of all human experience: “Who am I?”
For years I have been teaching followers of Jesus that their sense of identity needs to come from who they are in Christ. Our normal, human behaviour is to identify ourselves and other people by things we can easily categorise and box – what is your skin colour? what is your social and educational background? what car do you drive? what kind of house do you live in? what job do you have? what clothes do you wear? which football team do you support? where were you born? who are your parents? who are you married to?
On one level there is nothing wrong with this kind of categorisation. If we are to understand other people they are the kind of questions we need to ask. But the problem begins when we use these boxes not simply to understand people, but to judge and discriminate against them. It is also a problem when our own sense of identity comes more from these things than from our relationship with Jesus.
I know this. So I have been somewhat shocked to discover how strongly my own sense of identity springs from the things I have done and the things I own. Packing up our house I keep coming across things that have long been forgotten in my loft but which I cannot quite bring myself to throw away – old pictures, school reports, university lecture notes… There is an accumulated history of my life in those boxes, and to take it all to the dump would feel like burying something of what I am.
As I have been sorting and discarding and packing I was reminded of installation artist Michael Landy’s “Break Down” exhibition in 2001 when in a vacant store in Oxford Street he catalogued and then destroyed all 7,226 of his possessions. This was a somewhat extreme investigation into personal identity, and a challenging one. And of course, for all of us there will be a day when everything we own – every love letter, credit card and odd sock – will be left behind. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I am planning on beginning my ministry in Poole by preaching through the book of Titus. Paul begins the letter by declaring who he is: “Paul, a slave of God and one sent by Jesus Christ.” In the end the only way to really find out who we are is to follow Paul’s example and to completely surrender ourselves to God. Perhaps my children or grandchildren will be curious about an old box file with some letters and photos in it; perhaps it will better help them to understand who I was, and therefore who they are. But what will count eternally will be who I am in Christ, “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable.” (1 Peter 1:23)
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