The Right Rev. Eugene T. Sutton
Let us pray. Tell us what we need to hear, oh God. Show us what we need to do to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.
In today’s Gospel Lesson Jesus asks the Disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” That is a fair question to be asked in every age by every person. Jesus, having come out of prayer, struggling with the questions of self-identity wants to know what the ‘buzz’ is. But then he asks the Disciples directly, “Who do you say that I am?” I think Jesus knew who he was. I think he was trying to decipher if the Disciples knew.
There’s an old Benedictine Rule that anyone welcomed into a monastery is received on the basis of who they are. The brothers or sisters don’t ask anything but your name. Not where you’re from, not where you went to school, what achievements you’ve made, how much you’re worth, or anything like that. Those things are not that important to them. They are simply interested in who you are, not what you are, or what you do. And they find out who you are apart from any of the accumulations or awards you may have built up around yourself, or the masks you have put on, and are perhaps hiding behind.
This is the inner authenticity of the Christian faith.
Through our Baptism we are washed, cleansed, of all the accumulations and wax build up of labels and titles, to become who we truly are. We put on Christ, as the Scriptures say, and are defined by our adoption into Christ’s own body, the family of God.
As St. Paul puts it in today’s Epistle lesson, “We are no longer identified by the world’s categories. We are not Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. No more labels. No more general categories in God. We simply ‘are.’
So I want to explore with you just for a little while this question, ‘Who do you think you are?”
This is an important question in Christian spirituality because we begin all considerations of who we are and what we are to do in light of that from this one central fact — that all persons are created in the image of God. That is the first question, for example, in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. If you want to check it out, I like to say it’s in those brown and curled pages in your program from overuse. It’s on page 845 in the Book of Common Prayer. The first question: “Who are we, by nature?” And the answer: “We are created by God, made in the image of God.” That means that something of the imprint of God is in every human person whether they know it or not, whether they have forgotten it, it makes no difference what race, clan, religion someone is, we believe as Christians that that imprint of God is in everyone.
Then the second question derives from it: “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?” The answer: “We are free. It means we are free — free to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God. Freedom is a spiritual category then for Christians. We have to be freed up apparently to love. We don’t love naturally. The Scriptures say that we are bound up in our own sin, which prevents us from loving. So when we act out of who we are, we become free enough to love someone simply because of who they are.
And it says we have to be free to create. All good artists know that. Artists know two things: One is that all good art requires a discipline. You must know the rules of the trade, of the medium. This is true for a visual artist, or a writer, or a musician. I believe that one of the great art forms of any age is blues, blues music. I’m probably alone in that this morning. But let’s say, even jazz. And you know that a good piece of jazz, perhaps you have a jazz quartet, and they begin by playing a central rip — do, do, do…dodododo….. dodo.. You have no idea what that one is! And then the quartet plays that, and they are disciplined in repeating that theme until the bass player starts going dum, dum, dumdumdum…, and the other soloists have solos where they have the theme in the background, but then they move off from the theme. They are so practiced and accomplished in being disciplined with the theme that they are then allowed to be free. And they play their solos. And a singer might do some bebop. And they go almost, almost completely off, but they never are untethered from that disciplined theme. So that by the end of the song, all of them go back to do, do, do..dododododo…..dodo. Dah. Discipline and yet freedom.
The art needs both. We have to be freed up in order to create.
And as the Catechism says we have to be free in order to reason. Reason is also part of what moves us to God and who we are.
And finally, to be free to live in harmony with creation, and with God. It’s all centered in freedom.
In light of this, then, why then did Jesus say, after he had the question “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter said, “You are the Messiah of God,” Jesus went on to say, “If anyone becomes my follower, they must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will safe it.”
Well, how can that be? Does Jesus want to kill us? Does he want us to end our lives for his sake? How can we be concerned to be who we are, and then Jesus says, “You must become ‘not’?”
Well, of course, Jesus does not want us to end our lives. In order to understand that saying we must make a distinction between self-denial, which the Gospel calls for, and self-negation, which the Scriptures never call for. Negation comes out of a self-hatred. A kind of loathing. But God is not interested in having us loathe ourselves and our bodies. In fact, as Thomas Merton once said, “The easiest way to come to God is to enter into our own center, and then pass through that center into the center of God.”
That is to say by way of illustration, what if this Cathedral were completely dark, except for one solitary light, a light, say if I had a candle right here? That image of the light is what St. Paul calls the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. That is the image of God in everyone. The truest thing you can say about yourself is that you bear the light. And if you want to try and find out who you are, you must go to that light. And so, at the center of your life there is God and there is you, and you were meant to be together in union. Not that you are ever God, and God is always God, but you are to be together in union, for as Christ prayed for his Disciples before he was crucified, “I pray Father that they all may be one as you and I are one, I in you, and you in me, may they be in us.” Union.
If you want to know who you are, you must know that you, the real you, your true self, is with God.
The problem is this, of course: In order to live your life in that reality you have to go through life backwards. That is, you are always facing the light, trusting with an utter faith that the light will guide you as you walk through (I’m constrained by the pulpit here….),…but as you walk through life you are walking backwards. You’re always turned to the light.
And therein lies the problem: who wants to do that? When are you so prepared, so full of faith that you will go, in a sense, blindly, into the darkness of the world, only to be guided by that inner light?
And so what all of us do at some point is we turn our backs on the light. We turn our backs to see where we are going, because we want to direct our steps. We want to become the masters of our life, and we try to figure out who we are based on the decisions we make on where we’re going. Notice that that turning the back on the light is not done willfully. We don’t willfully try to turn our back to God. But we do it out of fear. You are afraid that if you do not direct yourself you will stumble, you will fall. So out of fear you walk into the darkness thinking that you are doing the right thing, but the only thing you are able to see again, if this Cathedral were dark, you would see that you’re only walking into your shadow, the shadow created by the light within.
That shadow is your false self, the person you think you need to be, or ought to be. It’s not who you really are in God, but it’s a construct you’ve created, and it’s marked by things you think you need in order to have a good life. In the false self you believe that it is all about accumulation, money, power, control, symbols of security, titles, property, …. all the things that you think define you. But it’s false.
In that light then, Jesus says, “If you want to have intimacy with God, follow me and deny yourself.” But which self? The false self. Not your true self that is in God, in union with the light, but the false self that you have created out of fear.
St. Augustine, in writing his classic work, The Confessions, prayed this, “Lord may I know myself in order that I might know you.” And that is true. In our faith, to know one self is to love one self, since one’s true self is wrapped up in God who is love.
The question remains then, how do we get there? How do we come to that self-knowledge, our true self, denying everything else?
Our example, as always, is Jesus. In today’s Gospel lesson, before he asks for question of self-identity, it says, “While Jesus was at prayer, he was in deep prayer, as was his custom.” But this prayer of Jesus is not the prayer that we commonly think of as prayer, and that is directing God. So often we think prayer means telling God what we think, especially what we think God ought to do. “Oh God, I think you ought to help my mother, you ought to make my brother better, you ought to get me a better job, you ought to heal this person,…. I want you to do this. I want you to do that…..In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”
But that’s not prayer in Jesus’ name. To pray in the name and character of Jesus means to ‘be in God’. Those moments, typified by silence, where you’re listening, you’re going back to the center, you’re going back to the light, you become quiet, and your only prayer is, “Oh God, help me to be in you and direct my steps.”
In this Cathedral and through the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage we have literature on praying contemplatively in this way, centering prayer, going to the center. If you are concerned to know how to do this we can help direct you to how to pray in this deep way as Jesus prayed.
Finally, today is Father’s Day, and if this were a place I could preach for an hour I would tell you who I am, and who I am is in large part because of my father, James Sutton, and my grandfather, Daddy Robb. These men had no titles that the world could give. Neither of them have any positions of power. You will never have heard of any of them. Daddy Robb, God rest his soul, died at 72, thirty years ago, and he was a poor farmer in North Carolina. He had eight sons and daughters, one of whom was my father, and although Daddy Robb, I don’t believe, went more than a hundred miles outside his circumference of this little place south of Fayetteville, North Carolina, called Swan’s Creek, on the Chickenfoot Road. It’s there where I spent my summers with my cousins and all on the farm, and I use that word graciously. He was poor. But yet the family was rich in love, and through Daddy Robb and my Grandmother Miss Ellen, they raised us, along with my father and mother. And my father, someone would say, “He’s just an auto mechanic, retired now.” But if you really wanted to know my father and my grandmother you would know that they consider their central truth about themselves was that they were God’s own sons. And they raised us with that knowledge as well.
So if you ever want to ask, “Who is Eugene Sutton?” you could no worse than to say “Eugene Sutton is a child of God, thanks to Daddy Robb and Jane Sutton.”
To God be all honor, glory and praise.