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What is your real identity?

When we are asked to complete a form particularly from a government department, we often asked how we identify ourselves usually by ticking boxes. Are we white British or black? African or Asian or Indian? Coloured or mixed raced? Are we male, female or transgender? Are we married, single, divorced, in a partnership relationship? Are we gay, straight, bisexual, queer?
Our modern world in its drive to recognise diversity is ever more demanding for people to identify themselves culturally, ethnically, sexually and the like. The ease with which people have been able to move around the world has made our communities much more mixed and brought us all into contact with people from different backgrounds to our own. Some Wrexham schools have children from twenty to thirty different countries on their role many of whom use English as a second language and Welsh as a third. In Britain and the west, greater freedoms in our society coupled with less pressure to conform to certain norms have given people the opportunity to be more individualistic in how they identify themselves. From tattoos to piercings and dress to music, there is a huge variety across many scenes. For the young people today, this only adds to the pressures of growing up. Millennials, those born around the turn of the century can be prone to fret about who they are; how they are perceived on Facebook and WhatsApp.
Many of us will feel uneasy about these developments. It can be argued that the ‘Brexit’ vote was in part a reaction to these shifts in society. Whatever personal view we have, there is little chance of holding back the tide. What we need to do is to consider our own identity. I am not thinking now about the boxes you tick on the form, but what you regard as the most important thing about yourself. How do you identify amongst your friends and family and the wider community as a whole?
To do this, we can focus our thoughts this morning on our new testament reading from the Paul’s letter to Ephesus. Ephesus situated in modern Turkey exists today as a fine ruin and much visited site. In Paul’s day, it was trying to fuse together two cultures. Many of the rich people wanted to see themselves as fully Roman benefiting from being part of the huge and powerful Empire, engaging in its financial institutions and social pleasures. Yet they would continue to speak Greek, regarding it as a superior language. They sought to recover some of the classical Greek from the past. Ephesus was also known for Artemis, a Greek god worshipped uniquely in that city for which there was no Roman equivalent. Her temple was regarded as a wonder of the then known world. Many of the citizens of Ephesus identified a rich intellectuals. The infrastructure of the city matched its grand aspiration. There were even oil-fired street lights. Yet the whole infrastructure was maintained by many who were poor and kept in servitude with little prospect of enjoying a better life.
It was into this eclectic mix of human indemnities that the Christian church had been established which Paul now sought to tutor and encourage through this letter. He reminds them of his own identity: ‘I therefore, a prisoner in the Lord,’ (Ephesians 4.1)
He tells them first that he is a prisoner. We will quickly draw our own conclusions about those who identify as prisoners. We will all have had own feelings about so many being posted on our door step at HMP Berwyn. While we would say…but Paul is different. His imprisonment was unjust. He is a saint after all. Yet in that time and that context and for many who were enemies of the emerging Christian movement or were just indifferent to it, Paul’s imprisonment would have done his reputation no favours.
But Paul makes an immediate clarification: he is a prisoner ‘in the Lord’ Having acknowledged the identity that was self-evident to everyone, he then claims his identity in Christ. It is this identity which is surely most important for Paul and he seeks to encourage members of the church in Ephesus to identify in the same way. He begs them to ‘lead a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called.’ (Ephesians 4.1)
The remainder of the passage from the epistle tells them how to do that. What is most striking here is that their identity in Christ is not individualistic like so many of the identities which people assume in our society today, rather it is corporate. Their identity in Christ is wrapped up with one another. What are the marks, the distinguishing features of their identity in Christ? Paul gives this answer: Humility, gentleness and patience, bearing one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4.2-3)
The Christians who first heard these words would have been part of the cultural melting pot of Ephesus. Were they Roman or Greek or Jew or of some other back ground? Were they part of the well healed elite or slaves, or poor. Did they worship the god Artemis and therefore identify as proud Ephesians? The new church in Ephesus would have been drawn from these differing groups, people whose identity would not normally mean that they belonged together. It is Paul who must remind them of their new identity in Christ which they share with him. To express this identity this identity together, they must work through their differences by being gentle and patient, bearing one another in love.
In the second part of our reading this morning, Paul speaks of the risen and ascended Christ honouring the Ephesian Christians with gifts of ministry: apostles and prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. These roles, these identities are not honours for their own aggrandisement, but ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.’ (Ephesians 4. 11-12)
To sum up then, Paul is teaching the new believers in Ephesus, who came from many different backgrounds and struggled with their identities to realise that by accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour, they, like him had a new identity in Christ which subsumed all others. However, by belonging to Christ, this new identity was not individual, but a shared one as part of his body. In order that this new identity should be seen by the world, they were called to act counterculturally. Instead of brazenly flaunting their individual identities, their shared identity was to be a powerful sign of God’s renewing presence in the world. This was to be achieved through gentleness, humility, patience and using gift of ministry for the good of all rather than as badges of office.
Finally, what does all this have to say to us in Britain today? I would suggest much the same as it said to the Ephesians. Instead of griping about the way people identify today, may we remember that if we truly belong to Christ, then our identity rests in him first and foremost. If this is the case, then we share it with our brothers and sisters in Christ who in human terms may not share our identity…but they do in Christ. As our society becomes diverse, should not our churches reflect that diversity of human identity while working with humility and patience to secure our united identity in Christ? ‘For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope …one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4.4-6)
Trinity 11 05.07.2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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