Identity was the word of the year in 2015, according to Dictionary.com and Time magazine. Stories about race, gender, sexuality and nationality dominated the news and academic circles. There was a lot of interest in the way individuals or members of a group are perceived, understood, accepted, or shut out. We were taught to ask, “Who am I? What makes me different from others? What defines me?”
Those are good questions, especially in a culture that has systematically oppressed particular non-dominant groups, my gender being one of them. But it’s a real game-changer when the church reveals what we have in common with others, what connects us to God and all of creation because of the work of Christ. Not because we are blind to injustice, but because we are being transformed by the love and mercy of God.
But what about the church? Do we have any distinctives? What is the identity of a Jesus-follower? (Even the aspiring or reluctant ones …because we count, too.)
I retreated last weekend with some leaders to ask some of those basic questions and soak in the answers from God and each other. We are planting the church in South Philly (who knew it could be fun?) and my prayer was for God to expand our vision of who we are and who we might be called to love around us. Below are the characteristics of the church that we pondered — they all flow directly from the life of Jesus that is shared by his people all over the world, not exclusively, but inclusively! for all who want to take part.
Beloved — I got this tattooed on my arm to remember the new identity God was giving me when I started this journey for real in my 20’s. It was the knowledge of being accepted unconditionally…called out by a loving Parent who saw the best in me and was going to bring that to fruition. Every follower of Jesus is this special. We are seen and known by God, as individuals and groups, and our awareness of that knowing and being known can grow as we pursue that conscious contact with our Creator.
Pilgrims — The church is a bunch of foreigners on the move in every context. Like Jesus was sent from his “home” for a particular purpose — victory over sin and death forever — his followers are sent to deliver his presence and grace personally. We also came from God and are returning to God. Our “home” is in God and so we need not fear the particulars of our sending. We talked about learning to be present to the work of God wherever we might find ourselves — at work, home, commuting, out with friends, or called to new experiences and relationships. We can have that sense of purpose wherever we are.
One — Just like a body has many parts that work together to be one living being, followers of Jesus are part of the whole. Learning to recognize and do our part (that probably no one else can do like you do it) involves some spiritual listening. It is fun to call out the gifts we see in each other.
Filled — The church is indwelt by God. We embody God’s Spirit. Sounds like a big claim, and it is, but we all know something about it — that sense of ourselves that is beyond us. It is mysterious, but through Jesus we are incarnations, too. Holy. He said, “You are already clean because of the Word I have spoken to you.” We rely on the presence of God to guide and comfort us all along the journey.
New — Because of God’s Spirit we can be continually re-made. We are regenerated people as we cooperate with the Spirit’s work of grace. That’s why Paul says not to lose heart: though outwardly we are wasting away, we are inwardly being renewed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:16).
Jesus-followers bring the reality of newness to a world that needs it, a world where nothing much is new under the sun. The poor keep being oppressed by the rich, governments keep vying for resources and power, people keep betraying one another and themselves. It’s amazing that we could do anything different! I am glad to be in it with so many friends who are.