Hello, my name is …
You should have found a name tag in your bulletin when you arrived in worship this morning. These stickers are usually very easy to fill out. You write you name so everyone around you knows who you are. But what if your name is not what best define you? How would you fill in the blank if it simply read, “Hello, I am _____?”
We have been focusing over the past month on reclaiming our identity in Christ. Our identity is the truest thing about us, and from our core identity flows every thing else, from how we think of ourselves to how we act in relationship with the world and people around us.
When filling in that blank, “Hello, I am _____” we often use words that have been given to us by others. Some of those words are welcomed, while others are not. We are named by that which people can see – by our Photo ID. We could fill in the blank saying, Hello, I am tall, I am short, I am blonde, I am brunette, I am blue eyed, I am big footed, I am thick waisted, I am handsome, I am sunburned. We are also given names and defined by our work. We could say, Hello, I am an executive, I am a parent, I am blue collar or white collar, I am an hourly employee or I am salaried, I am homeless or I am gainfully employed, I am civilian or I am military, I am retail, or I am a contractor. Our Work IDs are often based on occupation, but they are just as often based on our successes and failures. We could say, Hello, I am a college dropout, I am a grad student, I am in rehab, I am divorced, I am a Nobel – these work-based IDs are shaped and defined by the things we do, for better or for worse.
All of these descriptors, whether based on our Photo ID or Work ID, have a tendency to shape our identity. Our identity, in turn, shapes our behavior. Any while many of these descriptions may be true of us, none of them define us wholly.
The problem with any and all of these words is that, left to our own intuition, we allow these descriptive words that others use to become the core of our identity. Even though the words aren’t necessarily true, they shape our identity, and our resulting behavior becomes reflective of a false identity.
Today will we take a look at another set of descriptors that are unfaithful to the fullness of our core identity. Today we are focusing on our Voter ID. The society in which we live seeks to define us by our political leanings. There are words our culture uses to fill in the blank, Hello, I am …. such as: democrat, republican, libertarian, moderate, liberal, conservative, right-wing, or leftists … the list could continue. The assumption is that by identifying by any one of these words, you will act and think a certain way because these words define your identity. And your identity shapes your behavior. Especially this week, the world around you is going to try and shape your Voter ID for you, in hopes that your behavior in the polls on Tuesday will be in line with the new identity you claim as a Voter. But again, while such descriptors may not be untrue, none of these political terms define our core identity.
The problem with misshapen identity is that, generally speaking, we don’t spend time focusing on rebuilding or reclaiming or correcting false or fake IDs, we tend to focus on correcting the resulting behavior. We tell our children to stop acting up or acting out. We jail individuals for petty crimes, expecting time locked up and separated from society to change their behaviors. We use time-out and punishment, loss of privilege and loss of wages as hopeful practices to change behaviors. We try to correct wrongful acts without looking deeper into the identity that is the core cause of such behavior. And we know identity shapes behavior – not only is this proven by sociologists, but it’s defined even in our scriptural text. Proverbs 23 says that what you believe in the core of your heart will define your being. Your core identity shapes behavior. Yet even in the church, we focus the majority of our time on behavior modification. We tell people what it looks like to live like a Christian, what you can and can’t do, what’s right and wrong in regards to our actions. We hardly ever focus on reshaping and reclaiming our identity that is the cause of such behavior.
Our scriptural focus over the past month to help us spend some intentional time on reclaiming our identity in Christ has been Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The church community in Ephesus was a relatively new faith community. The church had begun only about thirty years prior to this letter. Paul had spent about two years on the ground in Ephesus teaching and shaping the faithful life of the Christians in the new church when it had started. But since those two years, at least to our historical knowledge, Paul had not returned to Ephesus.
Having been gone for a number of years, the Ephesians, lacking the physical presence of leadership by Paul, were having problems within the faith community. The problems were largely centered on the discrepancies between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians. The letter we have to the Ephesians is Paul’s attempt to correct some of the behavioral problems they were experiencing. Yes, you heard me right, even Paul was hoping to correct the behavioral problem.
But don’t let his intention overshadow his practice. This letter is a wonderful example of how to correct behavioral problems. See, there is in this letter some great detail about what faithful behavior looks like from those who are within the life of the church. But, the examples of behavior modification come in the second half of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. His critique of behavior, and his naming what right behavior looks like, doesn’t come until chapter 4. Paul knows that behavior modification doesn’t start with telling people what they’re doing is right or wrong, it starts with helping them to reclaim their core identity as faithful followers of Christ Jesus. Over the past few weeks, we have been focusing on these first three chapters to help reclaim our identity as Christians. It was this purpose that these chapters were first written – they were offered by Paul to reshape the identity of the Gentiles and Jews as one body in Christ in a hope for identity modification.
To understand Paul’s letter, we have to identify what had gone wrong in Ephesus? Why was there such identity crisis in the early church at Ephesus?
It’s a common practice when meeting new people to ask the question: “Where are you from?” That’s a normal question, especially here in Old Town, a place in which very few people are actually from. How do you answer that question?
Without fail, when answering this question, I start with a vague response to see if it’s even worth my time to go into the details of my home town. If you ask me, I generally say, “I’m from Atlanta.”
To be clear, I am not from Atlanta. I have been to Atlanta many times, I have Atlanta Braves and Falcons blood in my veins, but never once have I, nor has anyone in my family, ever lived in Atlanta. Truth be told, I’m from Lawrenceville, GA, which is about 45 minutes northeast of Atlanta. Only if you seem to have any clue about the layout of Georgia do I take the time to offer the details, because, while from Lawrenceville, I wasn’t born in Lawrenceville, I was born in Americus, Georgia, a small town in south-central Georgia in a hospital that doesn’t even exist anymore.
Why are the names of hometowns important? Why is that question one we even bother to ask? Besides the possibility that we hail from the same place, we use the names of our hometowns, we use our historical lineage, to define ourselves and others.
When asked the question, where are you from, small towns rarely get named. We use large towns like Atlanta, to define our hometown, because they carry a more significant weight. Ephesus was no small town. It’s size, stature, and favorability is equitable to Los Angeles or New York City. It was a central coastal hub, that was home to some of the ancient wonders of the world. To be from Ephesus was a claim to be from the wealth of the Roman world. If you were from Ephesus, you claimed your hometown without hesitation.
The Gentile Christians who were part of the church in Ephesus claimed their roots as true Ephesians. Their nationality (to use our modern day language) as Ephesians, and their allegiance to their hometown Ephesus, was competing for their identity and their allegiance to Christ. The Jewish Christians had an identity crisis of their own. Having hailed from the promised land of Israel, the Jewish Christians were struggling with their allegiance to the ancient scriptural texts and their historical identity as “God’s people” and this new claim on their life as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Paul is writing to the two groups who are quarreling with one another over their separate identities as Gentiles from Ephesus and Jews from Israel. Each was claiming their national identity gave them a leg-up or a more distinguished identity than the other.
To reshape and reclaim their identity as faithful believers, Paul offers in this first chapter to everyone in the church at Ephesus, the Jews and the Gentiles, a prayer of blessing around the claim of God on our lives. The claim of Paul throughout this prayer, and in fact, the claim of the New Testament regarding our identity, is that we are first and foremost in Christ. Over 140 times in the New Testament text this phrase, or a similar phrase, is used to describe those who are disciples of Christ.[i] We are in Christ, or we are in Him.
Picking up in verse 3 of today’s text in Ephesians 1, we read, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” This identity, as one in Christ, was a calling for your life before any other descriptors came about. You were claimed and called as holy and blameless children of God before even the foundation of the world. This identity as being in Christ is part of God’s eternal purpose for your life.
Again, the letter was written to the Jews and Gentiles of the early church. “The occasion for the letter was the enmity between Jew and Gentile in the Roman Empire … It was ‘holy enmity’ on both sides. To the Jew, the Gentile was an idolater. And to anyone loyal to the [Roman Empire, like a Roman Citizen from the city of Ephesus], the Jew was an atheist, [who refused] to acknowledge the gods of Rome and the emperor.”
Paul writes to them both and calls them to hear the blessing of God as above and beyond any other identity that may be defined by their political loyalties to their native governing bodies. The love of God that calls them to be in Christ with one another is greater than the power and promise of their national or ancestral heritage.
In fact, to clarify this point, Paul writes in another letter, “Our citizenship is in heaven” – “we are citizens of heaven,” he says, “where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.”[ii] Paul’s call throughout the scriptural texts is to break free from the claims on our identity by the world around us, and to lift up and hold as the core of our identity our calling by God to be faithful children of the risen Lord. First and foremost, Paul says, we are to identity as children of God, citizens of heaven, whose primary focus is on Christ, because as claimed and adopted children of God, we are in Christ.
So what does this mean for us today? What does this mean as we enter into the most nationalistic and political week of the past four years (and perhaps longer)?
First, as citizens of heaven, we must live differently than citizens of the earth. To be a citizen of heaven, to assert as our core identity one who is claimed and called by God, we must not seek the affirmation and accolades of others in our society, we must live – as our text today offers – for the praise of Christ’s glory. “That living praise will require the formation of character and community fitting to the gospel and resistant to the cultures of enmity [that are present in our society today].”[iii] It means we must be hospitable to another regardless of their Voter ID, regardless of their political leanings. When our identity is in Christ, we will live as one who delights and is grateful for the opportunity to share in the work of God in the world, and not as one who seeks to fight against and resents the other because of a difference in political beliefs.
Second, as citizens of heaven, we recognize heaven’s ultimate jurisdiction – we seek first God’s word. In Ephesus, Paul isn’t seeking to cancel out the identity of Jew and Gentile. “There remain Jew and Gentile, but ‘in Christ’ they have a common identity. ‘In Christ’ they are made one community. It is not that the Jews must act like a Gentile or the Gentiles like a Jew, but they must both act like Christians.”[iv] I don’t believe God’s word advocates for a world of only democrats or a world of only republicans, I believe God’s word calls for all, regardless of our political ideas, to listen first and foremost to the Word of God. Anything spoken by one party or another must take a back seat to the will and word of God as witnessed in Jesus Christ.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, as citizens of heaven, we put our hope in heaven, not in DC or in any of the political candidates whose names may be on the ballot. It is sad that such animosity exists between persons of varying political ideals and Voter IDs. To say that there will be some disappointed Americans, and perhaps some disappointed individuals all around the world on Wednesday morning, is probably an understatement. But, disappointed as one may be, as those whose core identity is defined by being in Christ – claimed, called, holy and adopted – we don’t place our hope for the future in the candidates or the parties that seek to run our nation. We offer our allegiance and our hope to the one who created us, the one who called us, and the one who loves us. We are not first and foremost citizens of this nation, we are claimed by God as citizens of heaven.
So hear this good news – for there may be a great deal of news that isn’t called ‘good’ this week – your identity is not shaped by your Photo ID, your Work ID, your Voter ID, or any other Fake ID – you have a Valid ID as one who is called by God, claimed by Jesus Christ on the cross. You are loved, you and worthy, you are holy as the one who created you is holy. Claim your identity in Christ Jesus our Lord, and may everything you do, say, think, and believe be shaped by the grace of God who has called and identified you. In the name of the Father, in the grace of the Son, and in the eternal witness of the Holy Spirit, Amen and Amen.