I remember Preacher Tom clearly. During my time at college, he would come to campus wearing a blood red baseball hat with capitalized, bold letters stating, “Don’t Sin”. He held a large sign that would be a good four feet above his head threatening people to “Repent!” Below the call to repent was listed every sin, in its most explicit form (i.e. fornication, masturbation, etc.), that one must repent of.
Often he would stand just outside of the food court hoping to get as much of an audience as possible. I remember sitting outside watching him interact with students who passed by and feeling anger and, if I’m honest, an almost unhealthy rage begin to to turn within me. He would shout out “Whore!” or “Slut!” to women whose dress he didn’t approve of as they passed by. Men would be labeled as “masturbaters” and “drunks” as they unwittingly walked by. As you can imagine, this went over well and led to many respectful interchanges with students willing to hear Preacher Tom out (where is my raised eyebrow emoticon?)…
What enraged me about this, and I don’t think I could labeled the emotion then but I can now, is that those labels are not the identity of those who walked by. Sure, some of them may have done some of those things, but that doesn’t determine their identity. The sum of what we have or have not done is not who we are. Rather, who we are is determined by the one who created us. And the one who created us, created us by his divine choice to be image bearers of the all holy infinite God. This is the identity of all people: image bearers. And to identify anyone as something less, is to deny the imago dei imprinted on their life.
While this is true, the world around us works to identify us as something other than imago dei. Our culture would have us believe our main identity is to be a consumer (there are more malls than high schools!), or an upstanding citizen, or a fill-in-your-political-party-of-choice-here. We stand in awe of those people who can be identified as their “own person” as the exemplify the rugged individualism we Americans love. Identity is based around wealth, position, influence, education, neighborhood, or even our kids successes on the athletic field. Internally, people battle against the negative identities of being a failure, a hindrance, inept, or a fraud. There is no shortage of identities shouting loudly to be the one defining us instead of the imago dei.
Granted, the imago dei every person bears has been blurred by the sin nature we each possess. But that is why Christ came! He came that the sin nature that identifies us as sinners in rebellion to God might be replaced by a restored imago dei offered to us when we are united to Christ.
Just look at Jesus and how often he did this. In John 8 the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and asks what punishment she should receive. Her identity in the eyes of the Pharisees was an adulterer. A whore. And according to the Mosaic Law, her punishment should be death. But Jesus sees not a whore, but a image bearer of the Creator who needs to be restored. I think we often fail at moving people towards embracing their identity as image bearers. In this story, many act as though we must validate her current identity to give the woman worth. We may not do this explicitly, but it happens, almost unconsciously. We stress her being a victim of being used by the ruling authority for their own purposes. We point out that the man is missing from the equation and how unfair the culture was towards this poor woman. Or maybe, more honorably, we see her as having the image of God imprinted on her soul and deserving of respect, but we don’t call her to leave behind a life that is blurring the imago dei she bears. These are simply different identities less empowering than the her true identity, the latter being an incomplete or fractured version of the true identity. Jesus removes the identity given to her by her accusers and calls her to live into her identity as a daughter of God by telling her to “Go and sin no more.” The pursuit of individual holiness as image bearers of an holy God is a concept that seems to have been pushed to the fringes of Christianity in our pursuit to be relevant, accepting, and loving.
Let me be clear, I think too often in Christianity we aren’t accepting enough. Far too many Christians focus on an identity other than image bearer for those who are outside the church. We focus on an identity determined by the current actions and behaviors of a person rather than the identity they could and should be living into. Accepting people may mean we allow them to continue being identified as something other than a restored imago dei. Loving people means we won’t allow that. The pattern of Jesus, which we should be seeking to imitate, is to dine with the misfits society has identified as unworthy, and identify them as worthy and love them by calling them to a greater identity than the one they currently bear. He calls the thief to be a contributor. The tax collector a giver. The prostitute a worshiper. The proud humble. The weak strong. The poor rich.
Let us also acknowledge that for some us, the identity we currently bear isn’t socially tabooed, but rather, is socially acceptable. Being successful, intelligent, wealthy, moral, or an upright person are all socially acceptable identities. And while they are good and right, they are not our identity. We see this in Jesus telling Nicodemus he must be reborn. That his current identity must die in order for him to live into a new identity. Again we see this when Jesus calls the rich young ruler to a life beyond his wealth. While Jesus is calling him to give up so much in terms of material comforts, he is also calling him to leave behind an identity that, in all likelihood, served him well in the world.
Holding on to an identity, regardless if that identity is seen as positive or negative, other than the imago dei sells us short of the life we are to lead. You are an image bearer. You are an adopted son, an adopted daughter of the most high God. You are an heir, sharing in the inheritance given to Jesus by the Father. That’s your identity. Go and live in that. Let that define you.
The call to “repent” is not, then, a threat as it feels like when it comes from Preacher Tom. It is an invitation to relationship and new identity if one would leave their old identity behind.