identity

OUR ROLE (IN THE CHURCH): BUILD UP (EPHESIANS 2: 11-22)

When we talked last week about being “raised up,” we talked about how we are saved by grace, and we have value, worth and dignity in Christ. God is glorified when God is seen in us, shining through the cracks of our brokenness, making something new and better of us to accomplish good works He has planned for us. But as we continue reading Ephesians, Paul is going to talk about purpose.  Why are we here? What good am I?  What can God possibly do with me, and how will he do it? Let's pick up in Ephesians 2 beginning at verse 11:

 "So never forget how you used to be. Those of you born as outsiders to Israel were outcasts, branded “the uncircumcised” by those who bore the sign of the covenant in their flesh, a sign made with human hands. You had absolutely no connection to the Anointed; you were strangers, separated from God’s people. You were aliens to the covenant they had with God; you were hopelessly stranded without God in a fractured world.

But now, because of Jesus and His sacrifice, all of that has changed. God gathered you who were so far away and brought you near to Him by the royal blood of the Anointed, our Liberating King. He is the embodiment of our peace, sent once and for all to take down the great barrier of hatred and hostility that has divided us so that we can be one. He offered His body on the sacrificial altar to bring an end to the law’s ordinances and dictations that separated Jews from the outside nations.

 His desire was to create in His body one new humanity from the two opposing groups, thus creating peace. Effectively the cross becomes God’s means to kill off the hostility once and for all so that He is able to reconcile them both to God in this one new body. Jesus, the Great Preacher of peace and love came for you, and His voice found those of you who were near and those who were far away. By Him both have access to the Father in one Spirit.

And so you are no longer called outcasts and wanderers but citizens with God’s people, members of God’s holy family, and residents of His household. You are being built on a solid foundation: the message of the prophets and the voices of God’s chosen emissaries with Jesus, the Anointed Himself, the precious cornerstone. The building is joined together stone by stone—all of us chosen and sealed in Him, rising up to become a holy temple in the Lord.  In Him you are being built together, creating a sacred dwelling place among you where God can live in the Spirit."

In Ephesians 2, Paul uses three analogies to show how our role in the church it to live and build together in a sacred church community where the presence of God is both welcome and obvious: One body (Identity) One citizenship (Allegiance) and One building (Purpose). As Christians, we are part of a church. We aren’t just raised up so we can shine. We aren’t saved in isolation. We are raised up together so that we can bring the practical application of God’s goodness into the world. So, let’s make this practical.

In high school, I was on a basketball team. Ten individuals had to become one. We were united.  We were a Flame (which was our mascot). Our identity was worn proudly on our shirts. Our allegiance shifted. When we went out for the team, we had to choose basketball over a lot of other things, and we had to give up our independence to the will of the coach. We all had a purpose: win. If you watch March Madness or the NBA, the team that clicks is the team that wins. The Pistons who won the NBA championship several years ago weren’t the best players in the NBA. They were the most united.

In marriage, two individuals become one. Sheila and I were united almost 25 years ago. We were no longer our own; we were not only “one,” we had a claim to each other. Our identity was now wrapped up in the other one. Our allegiance shifted. We had to choose each other over our family and over other people. We were now surrendered to the will of God and the desires of the other. We are united in purpose (at least ideally), whether it’s vocations, or mission, or raising kids.

 In church we see the same principle, but in some ways it is much, much more complicated.

 One Body (Identity)

We are all part of one body. This addresses the issue of Identity. It’s not just a question of who I am anymore. It’s a question of who we are. And the “we” is everybody committed to following Christ. The barriers that come with this are huge. At that time Paul wrote to all the churches around Ephesus, the Jew/Gentile barrier was the biggest hurdle (and the one mentioned here). But there was also men/women, slave/free, rich/poor, etc. When individual people form the “body” of Christ on earth, it’s hard.

  • We unite emotional with intellectual.
  • We unite people who worship God best through music with people who worship God best through study or hiking or praying or painting.
  • We unite people who grew up with the Bible or in church with people who didn't.
  • We unite Charismatics with Traditionalists.
  • We unite introverts and extroverts.
  • We unite the expressive and the stoic.
  • We unite Republicans and Democrats.
  • We unite people who think marriage is awesome and people who think marriage is a nightmare, so when we talk about the church as the Bride of Christ, or we use marriage analogies for God’s love or our relationship with God, we have to be careful
  • We unite people who work for PCC and RTL and people who have had abortions, so we speak truth with so much grace, and we offer the hope of God’s healing by being a part of the healing of others.
  • We unite people who think ‘family’ means home and people who think ‘family’ means hostility.
  • We unite people who love that God is a Father and people who cringe at that connection because of their fathers.
  • We unite people we just don’t like, and people who let us down, and people who ignore us when we need attention, and people who pay too much attention when we want to be left alone, and people who are hypocritical, and people who are a little too transparent…

 It’s hard. But God plans to reconcile us to God through this “one body.” Christ died not only to save us as individuals but to unite us as one humanity. We are individual ambassadors, yes, but the church is the corporate ambassador.  

One Citizenship (allegiance)

We are all citizens of a new country. This addresses the issue of Allegiance. As a Christian, a citizen of the Kingdom of God, my time, my money, my emotions, my relationships are all surrendered as an act of allegiance and obedience to Christ. In the Old Testament, God commanded that His people not worship any of the other pagan Gods. In the New Testament, this worship of idols has more to do with priorities. No one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). You can’t serve God and something else.

As citizens in the Kingdom of God, we pledge our allegiance to something greater than our wants and desires. We pledge our allegiance to something greater than America. My money is God’s, my reputation is God’s, my sex life if God’s, my time is God’s, my entertainment and vacations and work and friendships – all God’s. And that’s hard, too, because we like being the ruler in our Kingdom of Me. Jesus said,“By this the world will know that you are my disciples: that you love one another.” (John 13:35)

 If we want to be a disciple, we have to accept the authority of Christ and follow. If we want to be a follower of Christ, He will demand our allegiance. Being our own authority figure is not an option for us if we are followers of Christ.

 One Building (purpose) 

Being “built up” does more than just establish comraderie. It gives us a purpose. What are we here for? What plan does God have for our life? We are being placed by the Master Builder to form the walls of a sacred dwelling place, a holy temple, where God can dwell in Spirit. We sometimes over-personalize the fact that the Spirit of God dwells within us. We only claim it personally, and we forget that the Bible also talks about it the Spirit of God dwelling in us corporately.

When Paul made this claim, he upended the prominent role of the temple at that time. The temple building was the heart of the Jewish nation – politically, socially, musically, morally, etc.  It was also the heart of Greek and Roman communities too (think of Cult of Diana in Ephesus). Many believed the temples were where heaven and earth met. 

Paul made it clear: we don’t have to go to a geographical place or a particular building to go to a place where the Spirit of God dwells. The Spirit of God dwells with God’s people. So, what difference does that make? How does it tie back in to the previous analogies? There is an interesting comment in Philippians where Paul talks about a fruit of Spirit-filled living that is often overlooked.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Philippians 2:1-2)

 Paul is basically saying, “If the work of God in you has done anything at all, you should have the same mind (the mind of Christ), the same love (agape, self-sacrificial), and be in one accord.” We let God unite us. Because Christ is in us, we build unity by asking for forgiveness – and we are able to do the hard work of forgiving.  Because Christ is in us, we build unity by speaking truth humbly and with grace, and by listening humbly and with grace. Because Christ is in us, we build peace by entering into life together with a very different and very challenging people and make it work.

So we are raised up not just for our sake, but for the sake of others in the church. There are lots of other ways we can talk about using our gifts and talents, but this is a foundational purpose that all of us can participate in no matter our education, background, abilities or skill level.  We can become part of the ‘body’ of believers; we can give our allegiance to Christ; we can become part of what God himself uses to build a sacred dwelling place where God lives in Spirit.

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  • What are our divisions today? Race, culture, gender, economic or marital status? Spiritual or educational background? Different ways in which we experience God?
  • What tends to hold you back from participating as a part of the church body?
  • How would our corporate life together change if you fully gave your allegiance to the lordship of Christ?
  • What are the implications of the church being the temple of the Holy Spirit? If we were all conscious of that, how might our lives change? If the American church were purposefully conscious of this as we address social issues, do you think our approach would change or stay the same? 

New Life: Risen With Christ (Colossians 3:1-3:14)

So it comes down to this: since you have been raised with Christ, set your mind on heaven above, where He is seated at God’s right hand. Stay focused on what’s above, not on earthly things, because your old life is dead and gone. Your new life is now safely enmeshed with Christ, who is in God. On that day when the Christ—who is our very life—is revealed, you will be revealed with Him in glory!" (Colossians 3:1-4)

 

This is the solution to a life in which we are enslaved to sin (read Colossians 2 to see what that looks like). Awesome! But…how does that work? How do we “set our minds” and “stay focused”? Let’s keep reading (picking up in verse 5):

"So kill your earthly impulses: promiscuous sex, impure actions, unbridled lust, evil desires, and greed (which is idolatry). It’s because of these that God’s wrath is coming, so avoid them at all costs. These are the same things you once pursued, and together you walked in the path of evil. But now make sure you put off such things: anger, rage, spite, slander, and abusive language. And don’t go on lying to each other since you have traded the old self and the evil it did for a fresh new you, which is continually renewed in knowledge according to the image of the One who created you. In this re-creation there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian and conqueror, or slave and free because Christ is above all, and dwells in us all. Since you are all set apart by God, made holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a holy way of life: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Put up with one another. Forgive. Pardon any offenses against one another, as the Lord has pardoned you, because you should act in kind. But above all these, put on love! Love is the perfect tie to bind these together. Let the peace of God control your heart (the peace you were called to as one body), and be thankful. (Colossians 3:5-14)

 

In this passage, we see three important principles that should help us find the freedom of new life in Christ.

Identity: Know who you are (1-4)

The Bible gives at least three images to describe our life “enmeshed” with Christ:  Getting out of jail, being adopted, and putting on new clothes.

  •  Getting out of Jail: It used to be the case that we were in chains, slaves to our sinful nature. We could not live freely. We might have moments of good living when we thought we had been set free, but we were just walking in the courtyard. No matter what, we would enter lockdown again. Christ opened the prison door; He set the captives free. Now we can truly walk out of the prison of sin.
  •  Being Adopted: It used to be that our character, reputation and nature were the result of the Family of the World – priorities, worldview, default reactions, loves, habits, tendencies.  Christ brings us into the Family of God, where all these things undergo a process of change. My priorities increasingly reflect God’s, etc. As we go through sanctification, we begin to naturally reflect our new family’s character, reputation and nature. We will fail at times, but that doesn’t mean we get kicked out of the family. In this family, we pull each other closer with the love of the Father.
  •  Changing Clothes: We make a decision: will I dress with my family colors or not? Will I present myself in such a way that when people see me, they see who I am now? Do I wear a jail uniform even though I am no longer a prisoner? Do I wear the styles and slogans of the Family of the World, or the Family of God? I have to dress myself every day. What will I put on?

 We have to remind ourselves of this identity. It won’t necessarily be easy. Old habits die hard. We could keep on our prison clothes and go hang out in the yard. We could pursue our old family and honor their habits. We could keep the old clothes.

Clarity: See who you were (5-11) 

In order to make the decision to “kill” our earthly self (stay out of jail, new clothes, etc), we need to understand what is at stake. If we don’t think our old life was that big of a deal, we probably won’t make changes that last. So, why do you need to “kill” these things? Why is God angry? Look at the life that unfolds when you indulge your earthly desires:

  • Greed -  You have a lust for more, be it sex or anything else. You want what is not yours. If you get it, it’s still not enough.  It doesn’t matter who you hurt or what impact you are having on others, you take what you want. It’s relentless; you are driven, you are always hungry for more.  Paul starts with an external activity, then moves into the heart – it’s greed, and it’s idolatry. You are worshiping things (at least on the surface); ultimately, you are worshiping self.
  • Anger – Of course, you are never satisfied. There is a “slowly building, settled animosity” as your frustration boils over, the rage – you lash out since you have no reserve. If you are a person who struggles with anger, Paul identifies at least one reason for it: greed or lust. You are driven to get something you want but don’t have, and when you don’t get it, or when you do and it fails to satisfy, your anger builds and then spills over onto the people around you. First you used them as simply things to satisfy your demand for more – sex, attention, respect, money, authority, admiration, comfort – then you abuse them verbally and emotionally (slander and abusive language).
  • Deception  -  You live and speak deceitfully. This may simply mean they had a problem with lying, but I wonder if this doesn’t have more to do with the duplicity of their lives. They claimed to be followers of Christ, but they were still living in lust, greed, and rage. The phrase translated as “abusive language” is the same word for “blasphemy” – somehow, they were blaspheming the name of God as the lashed out at other.  The Jewish converts knew the commandment, “Don’t take God’s name in vain,” which was actually not an admonition against swearing. It meant don’t claim allegiance to Christ falsely.  Don’t lie; particularly, don’t lie by claiming allegiance to Christ while living in allegiance to the world.

 What’s at stake? More than just a relationship with Christ. Your relationship with others matters too. That list of contrasts (slave or free, etc) highlights the problem of  division, where people tend to reject others with prejudice. This list covers nationality, religion, education, and social status. This is an issue of pride. I am better than you. Why? I am American…I have more money…I have an education or skill set…I don’t work for other people…I have a good reputation…I understand the finer things in life… (All of these have their opposites, I might add. Look how redneck I am! A country boy can survive!)

We might think, “It’s not a big deal if I sleep around. No one is getting hurt. It’s not a big deal if I am greedy – why shouldn’t I want more? It’s not a big deal if I get angry – it’s justified; they had it coming! Slander? I am just telling people what that jerk is really like!” If you don’t understand how destructive these things are, you will never understand why God is angry. If, however, you see the impact they have on you and on others, you will begin to get a little angry too. Your heart will begin to break for the damage people experience.

 If you or someone you love has been sexually used and discarded, or experienced the damage that rage can bring, or lived with chronic lying and the untrustworthiness that follows, or had their faith rocked by hypocrisy. - if you or someone you love has experienced this, you know why God is angry. They more you begin to understand the heart of God for those whose lives are wrecked by lust, greed, anger, gossip, and lies, the more you will put that away from you.

Priority: Be who you are (13-15)

"Since you are all set apart by God, made holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a holy way of life: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Put up with one another. Forgive. Pardon any offenses against one another, as the Lord has pardoned you, because you should act in kind. But above all these, put on love! Love is the perfect tie to bind these together. Let your hearts be ruled by Christ’s peace (the peace you were called to as one body), and be thankful."

 

Here’s the thing: Your identity is given to you Christ. Your clarity will result from the work of the Holy Spirit in you. Your freedom is a gift from God. But you choose your clothing. And how your dress yourself will have a huge impact in how you experience life in the Kingdom of God.

 I think we have a tendency to be complacent. “God saved me; He wanted me in His family. Awesome. He can do the work.”  So we sit back and wait to stop being angry, or lustful, or jealous, or peaceful.  We just expect to start feeling kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, loving, and thankful. That’s not how it works (according to Paul).

 You have been freed from the power of greed, lust, anger, lies, and pride. But you must make a choice: Will I dress myself in the clothes of my new identity, or will I put on the uniform of all those things I once was? You didn’t have a choice before; now you do. You are free to become who you are.

  • Do you want to be compassionate? Clothe yourself with compassion.
  • Do you want to be kind? Clothe yourself with kindness
  • Do you want to be humble? Clothe yourself with humility.
  • Do you want to be gentle? Clothe yourself with gentleness.
  • Do you want to be patient? Clothe yourself with patience.
  • Do you want to be forgiving? Clothe yourself with forgiveness.
  • Do you want to be loving? Clothe yourself with love.

This is the opposite of the idolatry of self – every action is a sacrifice you make for the sake of Christ and with the help of Christ for others.  It will bring freedom from the control of sin and self-destructiveness in your life, and it will bring peace to your family, church and community. It’s one of the beautiful ironies of life with Christ: it’s when we lose our life that we find it. It’s when we offer ourselves in service that we find freedom and bring peace.

We have to connect to Christ. We have to understand our identity. We have to see ourselves and our lives with clarity. We have to prioritize the life Christ has given us. We have to commit to what we have been given. Then we have to choose to dress like a Child of the King.

 

Saints and Temples

Identity1.jpg

 A United Airlines agent was rebooking a long line of weary and frustrated travelers. One angry  passenger pushed his way to the front of the line, slapped his ticket down and said, “I have to be on this flight, and I have to be in first class.”
 The agent said, “I would be happy to help you, but I need to help some other first.” 
 The passenger responded angrily, “Do you know who I am?” 
 The agent promptly got on the public address system:  “May I have your attention! We have a passenger here who does not know who he is!  If anyone can help him find his identity please come to the gate!”
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     Paul addresses who we are in Christ in 1 Corinthians. He begins, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If we are followers of Christ, we are sanctified and called to be holy.  Ware saints.
      Paul goes on to give three analogies to help these saints further establish their identity in Christ.  After using fields and buildings to paint apicture of life in the Kingdom of God, he closes with this analogy: “Don't you know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)
    We are the temple of God.Saints and temples - that sounds like a really good identity.
     It’s important to know who we are, but it may be equally important to believe it.  After telling the church that in Christ they were all saints and temples, Paul says later in chapter three

“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly —mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.  You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?"

    Even thought God has given them a new identity, they had not understood and embraced it. Their identity was somewhere other than Christ. This jealousy Paul speaks of is “zalos” - envy, indignation, or emulation.  It’s an identity formed by comparing ourselves to other people.  It’s checking out the competition to see how we compare to others.
    Strife is “eris,” or contentions.  This is thinking,  “I must be right  - and I should be revered for being right.”  It’s an identity formed by feeling superior to others.  Paul goes on to make an important distinction between that kind of identity and one built by Christ: 

“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward.  If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (I Corinthians 3:10-15)

     When we  build our identity on how good we look, how good we are at our job, how much we make, how much stuff we have, who we marry, or what we know, says that’s a building of wood, hay and straw.  It’s never going to sustain us when hard times come our way.
     When Howard Hughes died in 1976, he was worth $2,000,000,000. He married beautiful women, built and flew airplanes, and made successful movies.  However, he trusted no one; he was loved by no one. He died a recluse in a dark room, drug numbed, afraid of germs, Uncle Sam and people in general.  He built with sticks and straw, and when hard times hit they could not sustain him.
     As saints, we need to build with the material of temples: gold, silver, and costly stones.  We need to honor this temple God has made of us. 
     We don’t belong to the world. We don’t need to work harder, get more things, go into debt, or trample on people to own the world.  That's all wood, hay, and straw. 1 Corinthians 3: 21-22 says, “All things are yours, whether [the teachings of] Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future —all are yours…”  
     In other words, we don’t have to fight for position in the Kingdom of God so we can get part of a limited supply of grace, or peace, or hope.  We don’t have to compare ourselves to others and make sure we are superior by the culture’s standards. Jesus came to give us true life, not only in the next world but in this one as well.
     True wealth comes from an identity grounded in Christ's presence within us.  It's not the fading riches of Wall Street, or the fleeting fame of strength and beauty. We belong to God – we are His saints, His temple -  and this gives us an identity that will stand firm for eternity.  

(Notes from a sermon by Scott Norris given on August 19 at Church of the Living God)