CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: I Know Who You Are
Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
- Mark 1:21-28
“I know who you are….”
I know who you are… these words can be spoken in a lot of different occasions. A person sees a friend they knew from school a long time ago. “Hey, I know you….” A celebrity sits in restaurant, and a person interrupts them saying, “Aren’t you____…?” . Someone views a suspect in a line up or a competitor on the field: “I know who you are.” In each case there is a moment of recognition, an attempt at identification.
For Jesus, this moment comes in a worship service in the town of Capernaum, a day’s journey from his hometown of Nazareth. The people are amazed at how he teaches with such authority. They may be wondering, "Who is he? Where does he get this from?" But there is one in the crowd who recognizes him, an unclean spirit within a man who identifies Jesus. “I know who you are, the holy one of Israel.” In the gospel of Mark, this happens frequently. The gospel goes on to say that “whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, 'You are the son of God.' But Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell who he was.” (Mark 3:11-12)
This account of the life of Jesus focuses on his identity. The gospel of Mark begins by describing it as “the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” And near the end of the story, a Roman soldier, who witnesses Jesus’ death on the cross, says “Surely this man was the Son of God.” The story itself is about how that identity is revealed.
For Jesus, his identity is affirmed in his baptism, the moment the Holy Spirit alighted upon him and he heard the voice of his heavenly father say, ”You are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased.” He is fully aware of his identity, and yet he chooses not to announce it to others. There could be many reasons for this. It could be that, while he knows his identity, he needs time and space to decide what to do with it, how to live it out. It could be that if the people know who he is, they will demand that he become who they look for and hope for: a Messiah, a King who will rise up and overthrow the imperial overlords. They certainly insist on this later when he triumphantly enters Jerusalem. They would box him into a limited view of what he can be.
But Jesus knows that identity is not the same as mission or purpose. Instead of asserting his identity, he takes time to discern, within a community of people, what he will do and how he will do it.
Jesus may look at the Roman emperor, who proclaimed himself to be the son of God. This message was even stamped on the Roman coins. Jesus does not wish to be like the emperor. He chooses a different path. Rather than become a king who seizes power through a violent coup, he decides to be a rabbi, a teacher, a healer. He defines for himself what it means to be a Messiah. And he allows his followers to see it for themselves.
At a pivotal moment, after Peter declared “You are the Messiah," two of his disciples, James and John, imagine that Messiahship to be a kingdom of the world, and they want to sit at his right and his left. Jesus says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45) Jesus offers a radically different vision of what it means to be messiah, or king, or ruler in the world. This is Jesus’ mission; this is what he came for.
So when the unclean spirits and demons proclaim, “I know who you are…," he silences them. When people like Peter "get it," he tells them not to tell anyone. The truth is, knowing "who" some one is does not tell you what they will do, or how or why they do it.
Jesus’ life was not scripted. He did not come to fulfill a role or an expectation. He had to make decisions, every day, every minute, just as you and I do. The mystery we celebrate in Jesus is that he is both the Son of God and the Son of Man, begotten of the Father and born of Mary, fully divine and fully human. What we witness of his life in the gospels is the way he made decisions, the discernment he used. He did not charge confidently into every situation. Look at the times he stopped and prayed before making major decisions. He was moved by the words and actions of others, they helped him clarify his mission and purpose, and they strengthened him to face it.
In our lives, we may encounter people who say “I know who you are." Indeed, we may have many identities: the name we are given, the names put upon us, titles given, or our roles as child of, as spouse of, as parent of. But in the end, we choose how we live out those identities. And each person is unique. And each person changes over time and with experience. Part of following in the way of Jesus is learning that life is an ongoing time of discernment and understanding.
I think about this as I imagine what it will be like on the other side of this pandemic, when we can gather safely together again. We will see friends and family, colleagues and coworkers, even people we barely know for the first time in a long time. There will be that moment of recognition and identification. But it will not be exactly the way it was. It may be tempting to think, “I know who this person is," but we have all experienced so much during this time: pain and struggle, suffering and loss, fear and trembling. We have been stretched in ways we could not have imagined. We learned to work together from afar. This time is a part of our experience and is a part of us now. We can grow in this time and allow this to be a part of our own discernment about what we will do and why. I hope when I greet others in that time, and that time will come, that I will refrain from saying “I know who you are” and be open to who you are then.
Because under it all, an essential part of your identity, a truth that Jesus came to reveal: You are also a beloved child of God. And nothing and no one can take that away.
The Rev. Canon Earnest Graham is a canon for regional ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.
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