We are made in the image of God. Our identity derives from God’s identity. I would propose that, as well as a general sharing in God’s identity common to humanity, each one of us is given a particular aspect of God’s identity to display. In this way, together we display the multi-faceted likeness of God in a way we could not on our own. This particular aspect might be revealed to us in a variety of ways, but one of these is through our given name.
We receive our identity from God, and we grow into it as we respond in obedience to God’s call on our lives; returning to God to be re-commissioned when we hide, not only from God and from our neighbour – before whom we are called to reflect God’s glory – but also from ourselves, our true identity.
Here is an example, from one of my favourite characters in the New Testament, Mark. We only get glimpses of Mark, but I am drawing on those glimpses and on tradition from the early church to flesh-out his story.
We first meet Mark as the un-named young man who flees from the scene of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51, 52). As an interesting aside, he is wearing nothing but a linen garment, and when he is seized he flees naked, leaving the garment behind...prefiguring Jesus’ dead body being wrapped in linen and held in a tomb (Mark 15:46), the linen being left behind when he, resurrected, departs (as witnessed by Mark’s mentor, Peter: Luke 24:12; John 20:3-9).
However, Mark’s presence at Gethsemane must have a back-story. He is the relative of Barnabas, the ‘Son of Encouragement,’ and we can surmise from Barnabas’ later dealings with Mark that this young man has known the love and encouragement that affirms to him that he is special. We can also surmise that for Mark to have been in the Garden, he was also present at the Last Supper. While only Jesus and the Twelve are depicted in traditional paintings, this would have been a meal for Jesus’ wider community, and if Mark is counted within this number we can consider this to be an experience of success. But this is followed by the Garden, an experience of failure. Mark’s name means ‘Warrior’ – an aspect of God’s identity – but he fails to be brave in the face of ambush.
Mark surely feels the weight of his failure – not alone among the disciples – and needs to be restored. His specialness is affirmed again when he is chosen to accompany Barnabas and Saul. On their first missionary trip, Mark gets to share in initial success, before again reaching a point where, in the face of hardship, he deserts them for the security of home.
There is a point where Barnabas wants to give Mark another chance, and Paul won’t have it – perhaps because he is yet to see evidence that Mark has learnt the lessons he needs to learn from success and from failure.
However, at some point Mark does learn, because the time comes when Paul writes of Mark that he is standing with him in Paul’s imprisonment (Colossians 4:10), is helpful to Paul in his ministry (2 Timothy 4:11), and is counted as a fellow-worker alongside Paul (Philemon 1:24). Peter also acknowledges Mark in his writing (1 Peter 5:13). Having embraced failure, Mark discovers true success.
The last time we see Mark is before the throne of God in heaven, in the revelation given to John. According to church tradition, the four living creatures represent the four Gospel-writers, and Mark is the lion (Revelation 4:6b-8). Mark, called to share in an aspect of God’s identity: the warrior, the Lion of Judah. Mark, who starts out as a scaredy-cat, hiding from God and neighbour and himself, and who learns that he is special and that he is good and that God is good. Mark, who goes on an adventure of highs and lows, victories and defeats, dying to mere self-preserving existence and growing-into the life in all its fullness God had prepared for him.
And what of us?