You Are the One (and Not the Ninety-Nine)

We Will Never ‘Identify out’ of the Gospel

Connor Gwin / 6.23.20

In Twelve Step recovery groups, newcomers are advised to resist the temptation to “identify out.” Many newcomers have the tendency to find all the reasons they don’t fit with the group or can’t possibly become a part of the recovery fellowship. When I was new in recovery I fell victim to this habit and found myself listing the myriad ways I did not quite fit. I was too young, too far gone, not far gone enough, and on and on.

This habit of identifying out applies to almost every area of life. It is not just alcoholics and addicts that are burdened by being “terminally unique.” We—by which I mean humans—love to be different and not like those other people (whoever those other people are).

Jesus told a parable about a shepherd that leaves his ninety-nine sheep to find the one that was lost. The implication is that Jesus is concerned with the particular experience of the lost sheep. Jesus is always seeking the outcast, the one on the margins. This is true to be sure.

So often, however, when we read scripture we find a way to identify out. “Surely, Jesus is talking about someone else and not me,” we think. This is the case with the parable of the lost sheep. It is easy to assume that I am one of the ninety-nine sitting safely on the hillside while the shepherd goes after the lost one.

One pervasive misconception in Christianity is that once you are baptized, converted, or born again, the Gospel moves on to some new outcast or sinner. Following this often unconscious line of thinking, Christians can default to the assumption that we are all set since we are in the pews. We know the stories. We’ve prayed the prayers. We are “in.”

We can justify ourselves as I did as a newly sober person under the fluorescent lights of a recovery meeting. We identify out and start to believe our own commentary: “I am not that bad. I am not that lost. I am doing alright, thank you very much.”

We end up painting a picture of the lost sheep as a hypothetical or even mythical Other—certainly not me.

The trouble is the Gospel does not speak in general terms nor is the truth of salvation for some hypothetical category of person. The lesson in the parable of the Lost Sheep is that God will do whatever it takes to find a lost soul. Throughout his ministry, Jesus reveals the mythical other to be none other than you and me. The hard thing to accept for many Christians, especially lifelong believers, is that we are all lost souls.

In my experience, most people do not realize they are lost.

In Jesus’s time, those with religious and ethnic privilege could not imagine that they were in the wrong, but they were no better than whitewashed tombs. So Jesus went first to those on the margins as a way of turning the whole game of righteousness on its head.

Those on the margins were fully aware of their need for a savior not because they were the only ones in need but because they had no illusions about their status. They were at the bottom with eyes wide open. They were sick and knew they needed a doctor.

Of course, Christian anthropology makes it clear that all humans are sick, all humans are at the bottom of the well. We can fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, but in those dark morning hours of our lives, when our illusions fall away, we know where we truly stand.

The truth of the Gospel is that Jesus would have emptied himself of the glories of heaven and come to earth to die if you (yes, you) were the only human. The truth of the parable of the Lost Sheep is that it is about you (yes, you).

When Jesus said “It is finished” from the cross, he was talking about you (yes, you) and your sin.

Just like my experience in the rooms of recovery, I want so badly to identify out of the Gospel. It is easy for a preacher to do. This Good News is for my people, my congregation, the others—and this is true.

But the Good News is first and foremost for me (yes, even me) and for you (yes, you).

When you hear Jesus speaking to the lost, the broken, the outcast, and the sinner, can you hear him speaking to you? Can you fight the urge to identify out of the need for a savior?

The Good News is good news because it is about you and your unique experience.

The Good News is good at all times, in all places, and to all people, because it is about a God that pours it all out for you (yes, you).

The Good News is that you are the one lost sheep. You are the one that the shepherd set out to find. No matter who you are or where you come from, no matter what your life has looked like or what your life has become, no matter whether you think you need a savior or not—you are the one Jesus has come to rescue.

Image credits: Martin Schmidli, Visitor7

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One response to “You Are the One (and Not the Ninety-Nine)”

  1. E says:

    This is great. Nice to hear a minister say that it’s a struggle to identify as the “one” and not the 99. I experienced the same thing in AA, and in fact the reason I went to my first meeting was NOT because I thought I “really’ had a problem, I just wanted to talk to the experts and be reassured that I wasn’t an alcoholic. Instead, to my surprise (and a little dismay) they were like “WELCOME. Keep coming back.”

    How can people who don’t know the depth of their own sin appreciate the fullness of the Savior’s saving? I love your statement that “the Good News is good news because it’s about you and your unique experience,” and that “its good for all people at all times and in all places.”

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