This post originally was delivered as a sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, Okla., Sunday, 15 April, 2018. Readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary Year B.
Mr. Ralph Alsman, of Brookville, Ind., was by most standards an unremarkable man.
The 25 year-old man led a fairly normal life, until that all changed due to one unfortunate attribute: he looked every bit like John Dillinger, the infamous bank robber of the early 1930s.
Alsman looked so much like Dillinger, he even had a mole in the same spot on his face, and bore an identical scar to Dillinger’s on his left wrist.
This physical resemblance to the bank robber, and the fact that he lived a mere 54 miles from Dillinger’s hometown, led to an unfortunate series of cases of mistaken identity. Mr. Alsman was arrested and interrogated 17 times, under suspicion of being John Dillinger.
When federal authorities issued a shoot on sight order for Dillinger, things got worse for poor Mr. Alsman. It seems he was shot at 11 times, and was actually shot and wounded twice, by officers mistaking him for Dillinger.
It was a race of sorts, to see which Dillinger would be killed first: the actual bank robber, or poor Mr. Alsman. Dillinger lost out in July, 1934 when he was gunned down by officers, and Alsman’s life was allowed to return to some semblance of normalcy.
When the The Pittsburgh Press asked Ralph Alsman how he felt about the case of mistaken identity, he said this: “How do I feel about Dillinger? I just can’t say. But this run-around is getting me down. I surely do wish I was back home.”
I suspect the apostles felt much the same way in our Gospel reading for today. Hiding out in the upper room, having just seen their Messiah tortured, crucified and buried – having seen everything they’d worked for over three years seemingly destroyed – I suspect a few of them felt “tired of the run-around” and wished they were “back home.” I think I would have felt the same way.
But, like poor Mr. Alsman, the apostles also were suffering under a case of mistaken identity.
When Jesus appeared to them, we’re told “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”
Now, this case of mistaken identity was easily fixed, because Christ was there in the room, in person. Jesus tells the apostles:
“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Unfortunately for us, we don’t get that upper room experience. We don’t get to touch and see. Borrowing from our Gospel reading from last week, we have to be “blessed” as “those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
That calling – to believe without seeing – can be a hard task. Everything about this world tells us to believe in and to value things we can see, touch and acquire. Houses. Cars. Bank account balances. Impressive-sounding titles we can put on stationery, on our desk or — if you’re really doing well — on a building. We believe in these things.
But, how do we believe in something we can’t see, or touch? It’s much easier to focus on what we can experience with our eyes and our hands, than to focus on that which we can only experience through faith — through spiritual vision. And, when our spiritual vision becomes clouded because we are frightened, when doubt arises in our hearts, it’s easy to run into cases of mistaken identity.
It can be hard for us to recognize Christ in the world around us. It can be harder yet to recognize Christ within us, and within each other, or to recognize Christ acting through us in the world.
So, how do we recognize Christ’s presence? It may be a chicken-or-the-egg issue, but I think it all starts with recognizing ourselves — recognizing the true source of our own identity, and our intrinsic worth.
In our reading today from John’s First Epistle (1 John 3:1-7), we’re told exactly where our worth comes from: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
And then, there’s this issue again of mistaken identity: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
Sometimes the world doesn’t know Christians, because to the world, Christ makes no sense. The world that tells us “Me first” and “You are worth what you own” can’t see Christ. And, sometimes, we don’t recognize ourselves, because we don’t see Christ within ourselves. When we define ourselves by the standards of the world, “Christ within us” doesn’t make sense. With the eyes of this world, we lose sight of ourselves as children of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister and theologian who resisted Nazi power in Germany, struggled with this question of identity. Bonhoeffer was arrested for opposing the Nazis, and for holding illegal clandestine worship services.
While imprisoned, awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer composed a piece titled “Who am I?” which beautifully deals with this issue of maintaining our identity:
Who am I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I step from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised
like a squire from his manor.
Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.
Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?
Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite,
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine,
Whoever I am, Thou knowest me, O God, I am thine!
Bonhoeffer faced a struggle within himself, between the identity of this world and the identity we have in Christ.
In the identity of this world, he had been stripped of all titles and possessions, convicted by a fascist government, dressed in prison garb, thrown in a dank cell, and consigned to death. In the identity of this world, he had been reduced to, in his words, “a pitiful, whimpering weakling.”
But, Bonhoeffer’s true identity, the identity we all have in Christ, isn’t of this world. It could not be diminished by a repressive government. It could not be confined by prison bars, or altered by threat of violence. It is the identity that allowed Bonhoeffer to smile in the face of his tormentors, to exhibit grace amid tyranny, and to walk with dignity and peace through prison, through execution and into eternal life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintained his true identity in the face of tremendous persecution, even to death, because he embraced those final words: “Whoever I am, Thou knowest me, O God, I am thine!”
It was in recognizing himself as a child of God that Dietrich Bonhoeffer also could see Christ in his captors, even as he walked up the scaffold to his death.
When we see Christ in ourselves with that determination, it opens us up to see Christ in others – even our enemies. And, when we truly see Christ within us, we can’t help but fall in love with who we really are. We can’t help but fall in love with God, who loves us so dearly.
I read somewhere that Christianity is best described as a passionate love affair with God. I think there’s something to that. And, when we completely open ourselves up to our true identity, and really embrace that love, we can’t help but have it overflow to those around us. It won’t be confined. When we see Christ in others, when we love Christ in others, we open ourselves up to be the hands and feet of our Lord, allowing Christ to work through us.
Peter, in our reading from Acts, was able to raise up the lame beggar not because of his own power, but because of the true identity of Christ working through him – the love of God flowing between God’s children. Just as Peter was able to raise up the lame beggar, so too are we called to raise up those in need in our community, by recognizing our true identity as children of God, and seeing Christ in everyone we meet.
In contemporary times there’s perhaps no-one who has better reflected the identity of God to those in need, recognized the presence of God in our world, and shown us the way to embrace God within us, than St. Teresa of Calcutta.
I don’t need to enumerate St. Teresa’s many acts of grace and charity – and wouldn’t have time here. But, what’s really amazing about her conviction and dedication to serving God, is that in the last 40 years of her life she suffered a crisis of faith.
Over four decades, St. Teresa felt cut off from God. She couldn’t hear God. She couldn’t feel God moving in her life. She confided to her spiritual director: “… the silence and emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. The tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak.”
How did she keep her faith? How did she keep going as such a devoted servant of God, when for 40 years she could not feel God’s presence? She kept going because she stayed strong in her identity as a child of God. And, when she couldn’t find God elsewhere, she always could see Christ in the faces of those she served.
“Whenever I meet someone in need,” she tells us, “it is really Jesus in his most distressing disguise.”
We all will have days when we don’t recognize our true identity. We’ll have days when we can’t feel God moving in our lives. We’ll have days when we succumb to the weight of a world that deceives us at every turn about who we really are.
But, we always will be able to find our way home, if we hold fast to the conviction that we are children of God, made in the likeness of God. And, if we forget our identity, we always can find Christ, waiting for us in the face of the very next person we meet.