“Who am I?”
It’s a simple question. The answer might be a bit more complex though. How do I know who I am? From where do I take my ideas of identity?
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus of Nazareth asks this question of his friend Peter. The answer to this changes everything.
Christology - who we say Jesus is - tells us about more than ‘just’ Jesus: it defines our personal identity too (it’s a call to be truly human), it defines the world around us (the Creation mandate reveals all things to be in relation to their Creator whether they would ‘own’ it or not) and it defines what it is to be saved (to be truly free in God).
To give the answer Peter does, ‘The Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ (Matt 16:16; Mark 8:27; Lk 9:20), also determines ecclesiology (what the church is and, by definition, what you are plural). Therefore, to say ‘you are the Christ’ impacts me:
a) ...as an individual - “in Christ” - what I believe about Christ affects me in every sense.
b) ...as a corporate reality - I do not exist ‘alone’, I am part of the church, the “body of Christ”. So what does this mean? (How frustrating that all plural ‘yous’ in the New Testament which English doesn’t distinguish, that we so easily render as individual and written specifically to ‘me’, are actually calls to ‘be the church’ together.)
“Who do you say that I am?” It’s the greatest question anyone can be asked and the one that all should grapple with. It is full of implication.
A few ‘random’, complex and perhaps confusing thoughts…:
“I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus Christ (John 10:10)
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Jesus Christ (Mark 8:34-36)
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Jim Elliot (Through Gates of Splendour)
“Humans become genuinely human, genuinely free, when the Spirit is at work within them so that they choose to act and choose to become people who more and more naturally act in ways which reflect God’s image which give him pleasure which bring glory to His name which do what the law had in mind all along. And that is the life that leads to the final verdict - well done, good and faithful servant.” (Tom Wright, Justification, London: SPCK, 2009, p168)
Are these promises? Are they challenges? What does it mean to live out the life of a disciple of Christ in the twenty-first century? What about in Guatemala where life is sustained, quite literally, by other people’s rubbish salvaged from the city’s mountain of waste? In DR Congo, where rape is used routinely as weapon of terror? In Northern Siberia where global warming is opening up icebound communities to the scrutiny of those outside and to influences that threaten a myriad of unique traditions? In Doncaster where the Worldshare office is based?
What does the New Testament say? Reading the words of those who wandered around with and experienced life with Jesus in the first century is a curious thing. We see a ‘band of brothers’ eating and talking and weeping and living together. They knew without any doubt that he was a man, a bloke, a carpenter from Nazareth. Of course. They knew where he came from and who his family were.
But as they spent those few years together they also began to realise that something bigger was going on. They had a whole heap of assumptions about Someone who would come and bring them freedom from oppression, bring healing for their bodies and forgiveness of their souls - the ‘Messiah’. But, generally, this Jesus muddied the waters of these expectations and exploded so many preconceived ideas.
The title CHRIST or MESSIAH holds together the ontology and the function - the person of Jesus and what he did! Someone is identified as saviour because he saves! Jesus redefines what ‘Messiah’ meant. We can’t separate the person of Jesus from his work. His identity is tied up in this and it must have an impact on our lives.
Indeed, Jesus turned the world upside down in so many ways – both in how he lived himself and the implications for us, his followers, today. He valued people and principles that society rejected or ridiculed; He saw exactly what was inside a heart rather than being ‘blinded’ by whatever outer ‘clothing’ a person chose to ‘wear’. He treasured people because of who they were rather than what they did. And this usually meant he sought out the grief-stricken and broken and poor and neglected and misunderstood. Jesus saw everything as it really was and, one day, he’s the one who’ll finally bring justice for us all.
The challenge for us as we seek to follow him is to work out what that looks like ‘here’ (wherever that is) today.
If we call ourselves Christians our own identity is found in reference to Jesus Christ: what we believe about him determines who we perceive ourselves to be and, therefore, how we live.
The Christian story transforms - Jesus followers were, and should always be, utterly defined by their theology of ‘following’. Life is transformed by what is believed. The Big Story we live by, our domain assumptions, aren’t private and hidden; they will impact our personal, church and social identities.
The story of Jesus’ walk to the Cross and His resurrection on the third day is one of sacrifice (Revelation 2:20). I’m impacted personally and my walk is affected. The reality of creation is a story of being created to love. The beauty of salvation is that I am saved to relate properly in love.
This means many things:
Giving and receiving with grace and love, knowing that I am blessed to be a blessing. I am truly blessed, but mine is never the final address on the blessing’s journey.
Not being selfish, not even merely being ‘nice people’ - which often means caring or doing or giving for only as long or as far as is comfortable for us, or doesn’t interfere with our own needs, or when we’re thanked for it.
It means being free enough to love our neighbour (and our enemy) (Matthew 5:43) and lay down our lives for our friends (1 John 3:16).
To be in community is to belong. It brings with it the freedom (and responsibility) of being known. In the community that is the Body of Christ this means, primarily, being known by Jesus himself and by those who follow Him and strive to live as his disciples.
Spending time with one of Worldshare’s Partners in Africa yields much insight into this dynamic. To be part of the tribe, to be part of the community, is to be alive. Indeed, there is no life outside it. The greatest punishment is to be ‘shunned’, cast out. This means, in effect, to cease to live. How profound then that ladies are so often cast out of their families, homes and communities when the violence and rape perpetuated against them is counted against them too. What would Jesus do with such modern-day lepers? Would he not touch and heal and restore them too? Through the healing hands of His People he still does.
To dance with the African beat, to preach with joy and passion, to pray for the broken ladies, to sing with them, to touch them, is light and life for all. Unencumbered by the norms of Western ‘propriety’, freed from the constraints of not looking too different, of not speaking of Jesus too loudly into a secular context which has no time for him, here is a place open to healing of body and soul. Here is a sense of ‘home’ deeper by far than the place where we usually live.
In church one day sat ‘3 stripes’, neat in his uniform and listening intently to all the proceedings. The body language screamed for all to hear. As he shuffled along the row and sat down, the two ladies immediately either side of him leaned out and away. Very soon one of them got up and moved away completely. Even though the place was so full there would have been not a hope of a seat elsewhere. Of course the ladies were terrified. This is how it had worked ‘around there’ for so long. Men in uniform in positions of power brutalising and raping defenceless women with impunity. Of course they would shy away in terror at any opportunity.
But what a picture of reversal it might have been.
The ladies were all part of a visiting choir. The meeting was on Good Friday, arguably the most holy moment in the Christian year. The soldier had with him a Bible and a pad of paper and he made notes scrupulously throughout the sermon. ‘Jesus People’ both.
But that bond, that oneness, the only ontological reality that will last from this world into eternity, the Body of Christ, overwhelmed by the division that the horror of this world’s darkness had brought in its wake. How tragic.
The culture of violence and horror, the divisions of gender, the complexities of a hundred other issues far beyond my limited understanding, these things spoil the beauty of the supernatural oneness that is the only thing that can bring true peace.
This is the ultimate reality, that only ‘in Christ’ can such divisions of tribe and situation and deepest trauma be bridged… but how deep do those roots really go? Seemingly, for that moment at least, not deep enough. In earthly terms it is, of course, entirely understandable. But the radical Way of Jesus and His uncompromising call for forgiveness speaks a different truth. And this is the dynamic that Worldshare’s partners grapple to teach and live it out.
Forgiveness at the heart of all reconciliation
Another continent, another decade, another war, another scenario that the worldwide grace of WorldShare Partners has touched.
Two nations locked into conflict. People born on the same bit of land; raised by women who were near neighbours, fast friends; playing together as children; now torn apart by acts of extreme violation perpetuated one against another by those same neighbours. How could the horror ever be forgiven? Surely it could never be forgotten? And, as such, how could reconciliation every occur?
A colleague who was German made the observation that our two nations were once at war and yet, here we were, a few decades later, friends and co-workers once more. Sorrowfully the reply came: “But you withdrew into your separated lands after the conflict was done. You licked your wounds and were free to build in safety until you were ready to meet afresh. Here, we lived beside the ones who raped our wives and murdered our children. Where would we return to heal? What place can now be our home? Not that… surely not that… with those memories and those neighbours.” Where indeed? How could that ever be possible? Beyond the gift of humanity to achieve.
And then the picture of ‘heaven’. The students of Christ. From all sides in the conflict. Equally violated. Equally unable to go home. And yet united by deeper bonds. Those of Christ. The Body. Not comfortable. Not easy. And deeply offensive to loved ones who didn’t share the faith. But One. Somehow. Possible only because of Christ. And hopeful. Of more. One day. Maybe.
And so the conundrum, the bonds of The body, Christ, the church. Deeper, eternal. The one thing that God is doing on this side of death that will last into eternity. An ontological reality more solid than the table I sit at. Deeper than the love of a child or a mother or a lover. So much stronger than the ‘mere’ accident of physical birth or the choice of a human heart.
Theologically, inclusion - not exclusion - is the heart of life in Christ. Anyone in Christ, regardless of how different they might be in race or colour or character or interest, is bound to me with the bonds of the blood of Christ. It can be no stronger.
I might not like it. I might not like them. I might never even meet most of them. But the Body of Christ is not just another ‘social club’ of ‘like-minded people’ with common interests and similar habits who would gather together naturally because they’re nice or polite or middle-class or whatever. The Body of Christ is not jut another ‘tribal grouping’. It isn’t. It must not look like it is!
And I am called to lay down my life for my brother.... Is this true? Do I live it out?
When under threat the instinct is to retreat, at the very least to ‘cut off’ or ‘exclude’ the other who has transgressed. How naturally the hierarchy of loyalty comes in to play. When hurt burns the flesh how quickly the withdrawal begins in order to protect - self and others (family, tribe, friends) who are extensions of self - and find allies to share the complaint and lessen the isolation that comes from pain.
Theologically the answer is complex. The church, constituted and empowered by the Spirit. It shouldn’t be possible for any ‘lesser’ bonds to overwhelm the corporate identity in Christ: the worldwide body of Christ: the Church. Ontologically, it’s not possible.
This is, rather, the great and beautiful - and extremely costly - theology of embrace. Of Spirit-filled Body. Of the Interdependent Community that is in Christ.
The Jesus factor is the only thing that makes true community possible. This is ‘community’ in the global, ontological sense that Worldshare is part of: Together, Building the Church. But community, also, in it’s particular, no less ontological, sense of the local body of Christ, ‘here’ or ‘there’. WorldShare Partners and each of the Worldshare staff are part of this in their own distinct localities. And we each need to play our part in fulfilling its mandate.
Sacrificial, self-giving love; a de-centred self is the way of true freedom
It’s only the element of Spirit-enabled forgiveness and ‘love your enemy’ which actually makes it possible to live in true community. We all hurt each other, we all have ideas which are contrary to one to another, and the only way to maintain a ‘posture of open-handedness’ in the face of being hurt is ‘in Christ’. Only the call of discipleship to follow Jesus is sufficient to lead a person into forgiving whatever the cost and giving beyond that which is comfortable. Only because His Holy Spirit lives within us is it possible to give without needing to receive and to be filled by Him so that we don’t ‘require’ others to somehow ‘return’ whatever we give out. We ‘are filled’ and therefore we are able to ‘overflow’. Only in Him is that truly possible.
There are many many fresh wounds that human beings inflict on each other and even more old wounds that re-open and fester and which we infect again and again on a moment by moment basis. But, in the true community of Christ, we do love each other. And we do want to live out the forgiveness of God in the places it really matters most. Forgiveness bites us. And we need to let it.
Closer to home now, during communion, someone confesses their feebleness to God that, so significantly, they had failed so often to believe in the enormity of his forgiveness and the depth and breadth of his Grace for themself. Because of this they found it hard to offer that onwards. They confessed that they don’t understand his grace. How astute.
Having been offered so little unconditional love and real grace in early life, they didn’t believe it personally and therefore, and despite having been a Christian for many years, struggled to pass it on. They really didn’t understand grace. And when it was offered to them, found it oh so difficult to countenance. Directly because of that, they found it so hard to offer to others. Indeed, they could barely go to the place of acknowledging the sin done against them personally because they didn’t really know how to forgive for it. Therefore they must ‘deny’ the damage - or pass it elsewhere.
Actually, the reality is freeing. “I hurt you! You hurt me! We can’t ‘get it right’ for each other all the time! We transgress against each other. And then we forgive. As in Christ we too are forgiven. That’s the point of the Cross and Resurrection!! That really is the point!! Grace is bigger.”
In a grace-filled Body, it is vital to experience this as an ongoing reality that suggests there is something bigger than the constant agony of always ‘trying to get it right’ and then dealing with the tumultuous emotions of either having ‘got it wrong’ and facing the terrible fact that someone might be cross, or someone else ‘getting it wrong’ and then facing the dreadful reality of anger without knowing what to do with it.
Often the result is personal confusion combined with giving out fury in every tiny way until it all burst out in confrontation and accusation and blame. It’s a pattern that is repeated continually. But it’s a marker of what great work that God was doing and it couldn’t be done anywhere less intentional than that Safe Place of His Body. To strive, however imperfectly, to forgive and to be forgiving is to grapple to be real and live out the truth of the gospel.
And, little by little, after years together, it might finally be seen that the Grace of God isn’t dependent upon our feeble human desires or efficacy or, actually, much to do with us at all. It is about God. God the giving and forgiving God who gave the very essence of Himself and the treasure of his heart, his only Son, Jesus the Christ, to be poured out that we might live.
Working into any community made up of real, ordinary, people is a miracle of God’s grace. Practically speaking, so much wouldn’t survive without the Spirit of Jesus, through His people, ministering into it. In almost any group enterprise there will be a share of murky manoeuvring amongst particular interested parties, spectacular ego clashes, fallings out, horrors of different people clashing and being selfish and arrogant and ungracious.
It will always be a roller-coaster nightmare and it is only, truly, the grace of God that anything survives and is built to endure. Working for Christ so isn’t about being magnificent in oneself, but about praying one’s way through the mine field and forgiving and offering grace into any and every objection. Things are done only when His people draw on Jesus to give courage and patience with the petty smallness of daily life and the enormous privilege of sharing deeply in people’s lives. And it is all very miraculous.
The further miracle is to remain uncynical and soft-hearted in the face of so many disappointments. So many. In the face of many many people who have been offered the grace and love of Jesus: to (re)engage in the face of rebuff and backlash and exclusion. It’s a miracle to persevere and remain open-hearted to any who would come. That’s God. It’s a dynamic bigger than ‘merely’ the human heart. It’s possible only because of Him.
The utter miracle that we in the Body of Christ are as strong and united and real as we are. The blood on the carpet has been thigh deep on so many disastrous occasions and yet we can stand together knowing that our forgiveness is real and our yoke strong. We’re a unit forged, truly, in the refiner’s fire and it’s the greatest miracle which shows that community in Christ works. We’re a product of God’s mercy and give him glory for that.
And this isn’t culturally specific. It isn’t relevant to Doncaster in a way that’s different to South Africa in a way that’s different to Haiti. This is human life in a broken world. Who is my brother? Who is my neighbour?
There’s a ‘creation’ relationship which unites me with every other person on the planet. We were made by the same Father. So we share, regardless of religious orientation or creed or colour.
“Our purpose is twofold: to flourish ourselves and to help others flourish.... We are givers because we are made that way, and if we don’t give, we are at odds with ourselves.... [Regarding God’s gifts] to the extent that we are their intended final recipients, we should enjoy them and benefit from them.... To the extent that we are channels of gifts, however we can’t just do with them as we please. They come to us with an ultimate name and address other than our own. Though in our hands they are on their way elsewhere." (Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)
And it’s the way that Worldshare Partners across the world work hard to live out God’s original mandate:
Blessed to be a blessing.
Click here to read about Dr. Sue Sainsbury.