The Difference Between Proximity and Identity

This being Holy Week, I find myself thinking quite a bit about the experience of the first disciples as they witnessed the most important event(s) in human history.  We were created, we fell away, we are being redeemed through Christ.  For this all to happen, we 1) had to be created and 2) had to encounter God while in our broken state.  Had Christ not come and endured the cross, which includes the horrendous path of obedience and suffering seen in the moments between His arrest and the crucifixion, we would still be in a big and ugly mess.

Before His arrest, Jesus told the disciples that they’d bail.  Peter, the Will Riker to J. Picard, the Goose to Maverick, made it crystal clear to his Rabbi that he was going to be reliable, no matter what comes… even death.  Jesus knew better (as He always does) and told Peter specifically that he would do a hat-trick and deny Christ three times.  Once is enough, but three times is like “yeah, there’s no question here… we’re all clear on where Peter stands.”

Peter, by the way, didn’t stand.  When things got ugly, Peter folded and ran, just as Jesus said.  So much for trusting in human ethic and willpower, I suppose.

But here’s what gets me (and thanks for walking with me this far, because here’s the crux): Peter was nearby Jesus the whole time.  We read in Mark’s gospel account that Peter was warming himself by a fire, keeping a distance that likely allowed him to monitor the situation from afar.  I wonder if Peter saw himself as a wingman with the wisdom to stay safe and available, not unlike when Batman leaves Alfred in the car until just the right moment.  Peter was close — proximal is the word I like to use here — and therefore still “with” Jesus.  Hold on to that thought: Peter was proximal (close by) and may have, by his own standards, been in the clear in terms of full commitment to his promise to remain. Let’s give Pete that credit.

However… and here’s what fascinates me and molds me, too… proximity wasn’t enough.  A girl asked Peter if he was with Jesus.  Peter says “nope!”  Again, she asks in front of a crowd, and Peter, still proximal, says “Nope!”  Strike two is followed by the out, when Peter calls down curses after another guy calls out his affinity with Jesus, giving a firm and undeniably clear “NOPE!”

Cue the rooster.

There’s a difference between proximity to Jesus and identity with Jesus.  Proximal activity includes doing churchy things: reading the bible, singing this and that, knowing what we believe, giving money to the passing plate, etc.  Big deal.  How does that really change us?  Not much more than putting on a different outfit or swapping our pickup truck for a Mustang.

Identity with Jesus is about who we are, not what we do or how close we might be to Jesus-y things. Peter has failed.  Big time.  Oh, and, by the way, praise God that the scripture tells stories of typical blockheads doing ridiculous things, because I can relate.  Why?  Because he wasn’t nearby?  No.  His failure was in denying his identity as one who belongs to the One.

I like proximal discipleship because I can measure it, rely on it, and feel safe in my performance.  This is the quick path to soul death, and it’s easy to swallow because our self-reliance is like an anesthetic that keeps us blissfully ignorant of what’s truly happening to us.   I don’t need proximity.  I need identity.  I am in Christ: a new creation, a son of God, a broken vessel claimed and restored, yet being restored continually.  I am loved.  I am free.

Spiritual disciplines are proximal.  They get us close but they themselves don’t transform us.  Going to church (even on Easter!) is proximal: it is a vehicle that gives us reason and structure, but it’s the Holy Spirit who brings us to life from the inside out.  That kind of formation is nothing less than a total transformation of who we are and how we identify.

This affects my lenten journey, which is good, because I want to know better this God who loves us, even though He knows our thoughts, intentions, dysfunctions, and propensity to count on ourselves.  What does it even mean that Jesus can look into the eyes of His closest friends and say “you will all fall away,” only to invite them along for the next step in His journey to the cross?  What is this mysterious and generous grace?  And why do I get what I do not deserve?

Here’s the pinnacle question: are you close to, or are you in Christ?

His death means our death — death to self — which is a daily thing for a follower who identifies.  Jesus isn’t looking for fans on twitter.  This is to be an inside job that will require everything of us.  If the world notices we are near Him, they have every right to question our identity in Him.

“Wait!  Aren’t you one of His disciples?”
“Yes.  And I know what that means, both now and in the life to come.”

Amen.