Updated: May 26, 2019
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Acts 9:1-19a ~ Sunday, May 5, 2019
At the deepest, most fundamental level: who are you? How do you feel about who you are? These are the essential questions of identity. Your identity is all about who you truly are at your core and how you feel about yourself.
Identity is a pressing issue, especially in our society. In various ways we regularly hear that what really matters in life, what is truly important is for you to be you! This is so important, our culture preaches, that it would be wrong for you to think you need to be someone you’re not. Worse still would be for someone to keep you from being who you are. So we’re taught to believe that the most important thing in life is this: You must be yourself.
Yes, the issue of identity is a hot topic today, but it is not a new topic. The issue of identity is at the heart of the story of the man we know today as the Apostle Paul. Before he became the great Apostle Paul, though, he was a very different person, even referred to by a different name, the name of Saul. In the traditional culture in which he was raised, Saul was taught to find his identity in the role he had within his community and how well he fulfilled that role. His religious training reinforced this understanding. He was raised according to the teachings and customs of the Pharisees, a Jewish religious sect that believed that God’s love for them depended on understanding their role in society and how well they lived out God’s rules for that role. Their acceptance by God depended on their performance for God. Many rebel against strict structure, but Saul thrived in it. He was praised by both his teachers and his peers as a Pharisee among Pharisees.
At this same time Christianity was really spreading through Jerusalem, into the surrounding area, and neighboring countries too. Christian teaching was very different than what Saul had been raised to believe. Where Saul found his identity in what he did, Christianity teaches that identity is found in who a person is in Christ! Christianity teaches that people are affirmed and praised by God not because of how well they fulfill a role in society or the family, but because God freely forgives and accepts them on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection for them. For Saul the passionate rule follower, the message of free forgiveness in Christ sounded like it gave people the license to live as recklessly as they desired and still be good with God. Saul saw this message and all who believed it as a clear and present danger to life as he loved it. Driven by his own need to be identified as an over-achiever by those he admired, Saul appointed himself as crusader for God who was willing to do whatever it took to silence those whose beliefs and teachings threatened his identity: “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). If the most important thing in life is to live out your identity, to be yourself, then Saul is an amazing example of what this means!
In fact, his approach to identity seems to be a bridge or a hybrid between the traditional way of clarifying the issue of identity and the more modern way. Traditional culture assigns identity to the individual and praises the individual based on how well they live out that role for the sake of society, for the so-called common good. Saul was told by his family that he would be a Pharisee. His assigned role was to understand the laws of God, live them out himself as an example to others. He excelled at this and was rewarded with high praise among those he admired.
It also appears that Saul may have been ahead of his time when it comes to the issue of identity. Here’s what I mean: in our day our culture finds the idea that family or community can define our role and thus can assign us our identity, modern culture views that as oppressive. Culturally, we don’t believe it is right to be asked to suppress your desires for the greater good. It’s why Queen Elsa’s song “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen has become such a big hit. For Elsa, "Let It Go" is the moment she begins to stop holding herself to someone else's idea of perfect. It’s time for her to truly be herself. It seems that’s what Saul was doing in becoming a crusader against Christianity. No one told him to wage a holy war against Christians and Christianity. He decided to do this all on his own. In this way he was very modern! In modern culture, being your true self means following your heart.
If anyone has his bases covered when it comes to the issue of identity, it’s Saul. If the goal of life is figuring out who you are, feeling good about who you are, and living out your true self, then Saul has really got it all figured out! And if it’s true that you can’t go wrong by being yourself, then everyone, everywhere ought to celebrate Saul! Yet as he is making his way to Damascus, Jesus confronts him saying: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus isn’t criticizing Saul for failing to be true to his identity. He’s going deeper than that! Jesus comes to deliver Saul from living according to an identity that is defective and deficient!
Let’s say you get a new cell phone. But it won’t let you send text messages, it only lets you make phone calls but you can’t receive any, and it won’t hold a battery charge for more than 30 minutes. What do you do? I’m guessing you wouldn’t say, “Well, that’s just the way this phone is. I have to accept it for how it’s made.” Not at all! You’d take that phone back to the store and get a new one, one that does all that it was designed to do, that fully functions like it was intended to!
That’s what Jesus is doing for Saul and his identity on the road to Damascus. Jesus is calling Saul to let go of his defective identity and in its place receive one that actually reflects the person God had in mind when he made him! To get a replacement for a defective product, it’s important that you understand a retailer’s return policies. A similar thing holds true when it comes to identity. One of the reasons we live our lives under defective identities is because we don’t recognize the way a healthy, fully functioning identity actually works. So we need to take a look under the hood, so to speak, to get a clearer understanding of how identity actually works.
In his famous work, Lord of the Rings, author, J.R.R. Tolkien, reveals a key truth about how identity works when he writes: “The praise of the praiseworthy is beyond all rewards.” In other words, when you are praised by someone you respect and adore, that praise means more than anything else in all the world to you. This is crucial for us to understand if we’re going to really grasp how identity works. What that means for your sense of identity is that it doesn’t just come from within you. Your sense of self-worth is something you also seek from the person/the people whom you respect above all others. When they say to you: “I affirm you, I respect you, I praise you,” this is what really bolsters your sense of who you are. “The praise of the praiseworthy is beyond all rewards.” This crucial element of our identity comes from outside of us!
To receive such praise in both traditional and modern cultures, you have to earn it. You have to do things to deserve it. Whether that’s by living out your family’s or society’s role for you (traditional culture) or actually living out your own dreams and desires for yourself (modern culture), in both cases your identity results from your achievement! Saul’s warpath to Damascus is deeply personal because his identity is wrapped up in how many Christians he’ll round up there and take to prison! If you see this, you are now also in a position to see just what it is that Jesus is doing for Saul when he stops him in his tracks!
Jesus is changing everything for Saul. He’s showing Saul that his true identity isn’t something that he must achieve, it is something for him to receive. It is God’s gift to him! Listen again to what Jesus says about Saul to Ananias: “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Saul hadn’t done anything to deserve this identity, but Jesus gave it to him anyway. This makes Christianity truly unique in all the world! You are given an identity that you haven’t earned! It is something you receive rather than achieve!
That changes everything! Every other system says, “If you follow the rules (your own or the ones imposed on you by others) the result is you’ll achieve a stable sense of who you are. You’ll find your true identity.” But Christianity says, “Connected to Jesus by faith you discover who you truly are, the person whom God made you to be, the person for whom the Son of God lived, died and rose again, the person in whom the Spirit of God now dwells. This is who you are – the handiwork of God, bought by the blood of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This is the true you!” This identity will always be your best identity because it is given by the One who looks at you and sees you as more precious than all the riches in all the world. He is the only One in all the universe whose opinion of us will always be about blessing us, desiring, giving, and affirming the best for us.
How do we hold on to this identity? How does this identity transform us, operating at the core of our existence? Learn from how Jesus reinforces this new identity, Saul’s true identity in him. He sends a Christian man, Ananias, to him. Though Saul was coming to Damascus to imprison, maybe even kill Ananias. But Jesus changed that when he gave Saul a new identity. Because of Saul has this changed identity, Ananias now calls Saul, his brother in the Lord! Ananias recalls with Saul how his identity changed when Jesus stopped him on the road to Damascus! Real change happens at the heart level, as a person changes what they believe and who they worship. Ananias is helping Saul inwardly digest the truth of what Jesus has done for him. He reflects with him on what this changed identity means for his life going forward. His own spirit is filled up not with pride over his own achievement or praise from others over what he’s accomplished. Rather, Saul sees himself as a different person because of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. As the scales fall from his eyes, Saul is seeing himself as God sees him: a dearly loved child of his Heavenly Father! He is baptized, washed clean in the forgiveness of Christ, this new identity reinforced and strengthened in him through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit!
The same things that helped Saul see, embrace, and live in this new identity that Jesus gave him are also helpful for us too! Affirming and being affirmed by fellow Christians in our walk with the Lord as brother and sisters in the faith! Gathering in the company of and giving and receiving encouragement with our fellow believers is an important element of reinforcing our new identity! Reflecting on what Jesus has accomplished for us, exploring in greater depth and detail how his work for us provide us with a new self-understanding. Taking to heart Heavenly Father’s opinion of us through Christ, reinforces in us a new sense of self-worth. And the chance to relive daily what baptism means for us: it means we have been reborn as new people, the image of God belongs to us, we identify with God’s Spirit who lives in us, and we follow his guidance and are influenced by his leading.
My friends, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, family together under God - this is who we are! This new identity given to us by our God and Savior, this changes everything for each one of us, at the deepest most profound levels, every day, in every way! I am eager to dig deeper and explore further with you what this looks like and what this means for you in the weeks, months, and years ahead! God grant it for his glory and our blessing! Amen.