Who are we?

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh at Choral Evensong, on Sunday March 26th 2017
ISAIAH 43. 1- 7; EPHESIANS 2.8 – 14

Who are we?

We may think it’s obvious who we are. But there are many ways of answering this question ‘who are we’?

NATIONAL IDENTITY

The question ‘who are we?’ as a nation is rather important at this moment in our history. We are British, but what would it mean to be ‘British’ if Scotland gained independence? We are British, but are we also European, whether or not we belong to the European Union? Is Norway European? Is Switzerland European? And if they are, despite not being in the EU, how does it affect our understanding of ourselves that we are European as well as British?

Or that, as well as being British, we are English rather than Welsh?

‘Who are we?’ The answer doesn’t seem simple, even if we look just at our national identity.

FAMILY IDENTITY

There are many other ways of answering the question ‘Who are we?’ We start our lives as sons and daughters. That doesn’t change, but what it means to be a son or a daughter changes greatly through our lives, until we can reach a moment when our parents feel almost like children in their need and dependency. We remain sons and daughters even beyond the old age of our parents, but as a memory rather than as a lived experience. And through all those years, we acquire at the same time new identities: brother, sister, husband, wife, father, mother, grandparent, great-grandparent.

NAMES

So who are we? Who am I? When someone asks me the question, my answer is normally simple: ‘I’m David.’ We identify so closely with our names that for me to say ‘I’m David’ is more than passing on information about my name. It sums up in one word the whole bundle of memories, characteristics and emotions that make me ‘me’. And although I’ve changed, my name hasn’t. It provides continuity, enables others to identify me with the baby born in the Royal United Hospital, Bath, in February 1959.

And yet names not only reveal identity: they also conceal it. Yes, our surnames say who we are by identifying us with a family stretching back hundreds of years, all sharing the same name. But surnames only tell half the story, failing to identify us with our mothers and their families. And for many married women their names mirror the disruptions and lack of continuity in their lives, as they lose one name at marriage and acquire a new one.

So names, at first sight so simple a badge of identity, turn out to reflect the changes and complexities in our identity. They also make it clear that our genes and our families are far from being the only noteworthy thing about us. Although our surnames have been fixed for centuries now, often they bear witness to a time when someone’s name and so identity was wrapped up with what they did for a living: Smith, Mason, Wright, Butcher, Baker, Potter, Cooper, Taylor, Thatcher, Miller, Cook, Fisher, Shepherd.

ASCRIBED AND ACHIEVED STATUS

There’s been quite a lot of public conversation in recent months about different kinds of identity.

One way to make sense of the current disagreements in our country is to identify two different types of people: on the one hand those whose identity comes largely with things they were born with: a nationality, a language, a family, a town; and on the other hand, those whose identity is largely a matter of what they have achieved, through education and work, often by moving away from a town, from their family, sometimes even moving nations and learning a new language.

Sociologists have their own words for these two types of status in our society: ‘ascribed’ status and ‘achieved’ status. But there are simpler ways of putting this: we could instead see the divide as being between people who come from somewhere in particular, and people who could come from anywhere, whose roots and origins seem almost irrelevant.

The way we see ourselves – and the ways others see us – are important because they shape the way we behave.

THE IDENTITY OF CHURCHES

And so it’s not surprising that Christian faith raises questions about our identity. Of course who we are is shaped by the particular Christian tradition to which we belong. If instead of being an Anglican priest, I was ordained into the Coptic Orthodox Church; or the leader of an independent charismatic church, then I would understand my role, and so my life, in rather different ways.

The earliest Christian communities had within decades developed their own individual character or identity, and this becomes clear when we read the letters written to them by the apostle Paul’s, when we read the very specific way he addresses each church, revealing something of its character and identity:

To the church at Corinth, Paul writes: ‘We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.’ (2 Cor ‪6.11-12‬)‬

To the churches of Galatia, Paul writes: ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ Did you experience so much for nothing?’ (Galatians 3. 1a, 4a)

To the church at Philippi, Paul writes: ‘You Philippians know that in the early days of the gospel, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.’ (Phil 4.15)

To the church at Thessalonika, Paul writes: ‘We boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.’ (2 Thess 1.4)

THE LETTER TO THE EPHESIANS

But Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, from which we heard earlier, lacks anything addressed to its recipients this specific. And although book of the Bible has always been known by its title of ‘Ephesians’, we now know that the very earliest copies of the letter are addressed simply ‘to the saints who are faithful’, missing out the words ‘at Ephesus’.

So it seems quite likely that the New Testament book we now know as the ‘Letter to the Ephesians’ started life as a general letter and that what ended up in our New Testament was a version of the letter which found its way to Ephesus.

OUR IDENTITY BEFORE GOD

But this doesn’t stop the letter from exploring issues about identity and reaching conclusions presumably not only for Christians at Ephesus, but also in Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonika and Kettering. It’s true for Christians in all these places and others because it’s talking about something more fundamental, our relationship with God, our standing with God.

The Letter to the Ephesians, in words we heard earlier, makes it clear that for God our identity is not something we achieve ourselves, but something ascribed to us, as a gift: ‘by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God … For we are what he has made us.’ (Eph 2. 8, 10a)

‘We are what he has made us.’ There is no such thing in the spiritual life as the self-made man or woman.

The big identity issue troubling the early churches was the divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians, and the letter to the Ephesians addresses this issue head on:

‘Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near … For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us’. (Eph ‪2.13-14‬)‬

In other words, their identity as Jews or Gentiles has now been transcended by a new identity they share in Christ. And this might remind us of the apostle Paul’s words in the Letter to the Galatians:

‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3.28)

We don’t completely lose our identity when we accept our place in the family of God. But we are given a surname which transcends our differences.

In the book of the prophet Isaiah God addresses a foreign ruler, Cyrus, whose actions will unwittingly play a part in the history of God’s people, of his family:

I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me. (Is 45.4)

If God calls by name someone who doesn’t know him, if he gives him a new name – surnames him – as he becomes part of God’s purposes, how much more will he do so for those in his family, his people? And just two chapters earlier, in words we have heard this evening from the Book of Isaiah, God addresses his people and says:

‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine. ‘ (Is 43.1)

Each of us here today has their own unique identity. For each of us it is complex and embraces family, place of birth, nationality, language, work and so on.

But ultimately through all the changes in our life, our true and ultimate identity is hidden with the God who made us, who loves us, who calls us by our name. ‘Who are we?’

The answer is ‘God knows’

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