Philippians 3: 4b-14
Who are you?
We all define who we are in a variety of ways. We may define it by answering what our heritage is; where we grew up, went to High School or College, who our parent and grandparents are, what our profession is, where we go to church and our faith. Maybe we answer it with a title; mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, wife, husband…Some of these labels we were given at birth and we are very proud to take as our own. I know when I meet a group of people for the first time, especially at Conference Church events- someone inevitably says “your Sara’s daughter!” and I happily accept that comparison because I love my Mom and she is well respected and loved by others.
Some of them we spend our whole lives running away from.Maybe an angry Mom mumbles under her breath to her son- “You’re just like your father”. Either way, we are guilty by association.
As I get to watch my now teenage nieces and nephew grow up, I get to see them live out how to answer this question. They try on different attitudes, taking risks, seeing exactly what they can get away with and if they really believe what their parent’s told them to believe. They cut their hair, color it bright pink, get piercings, try a beer, say a cuss word- trying their hardest to go against what their parents taught or said they weren’t allowed to do- just to test the water. Find their identity. They aren’t any different than other teenagers in that respect. They slide around on the continuum of normal until they find out who they are and where they fit in this big world.We have all been there- very few people know at a young age exactly what they want to be when they grow up and do just that. Some of us still have an identity crisis on occasion as adults. Maybe it’s the proverbial mid-life crisis- we change jobs, get sports car, or learn a new hobby.
In our scripture lesson today- Paul is doing just that. He is explaining his decision to change his identity from Jew to Christian. He has been challenging the Jewish culture and belief system and has gotten a lot of flak for it. He has been very critical of their exclusiveness and their desire to keep everyone out who doesn’t look and think the way they do so he makes sure they know who he is and why he has a right to criticize-He once believed exactly what they believe. He was them- he is not only criticizing the religious status quo- he is criticizing his own past beliefs, his own heritage. It is easier to dismiss someone who is an outsider- who you can accuse of making stuff up or not understanding what really goes on here.
Paul goes out of his way to say- nope- I know this because I was there. We are one in the same- same heritage, same faith, same practices, I did everything I was supposed to do- all my life but I was wrong-I have learned something better a better way and a better life. It is an evolution of thought and belief that takes place in all our lives.
All that stuff, which the Jewish faith required of them to do. And, all that stuff that was being used to falsely elevate the status of some and make others seem to be unworthy was garbage.I am not who I once was- It is Paul’s claim and is our claim. There is no rule that says our identity is set in stone. Paul was the worst of the worst and became the most zealous spokesman for the Church.
Because of Christ, we are no longer defined by who we once were and the mistakes we’ve made. We do not get our true identity from our successes and failures in life and we are not defined by the reputation of our parents and the choices they made- good or bad.Instead, we are defined by who Christ is, what Christ did for us. We are children of God, we are loved, and we are forgiven. It is not a love we can earn- it is given to us, balance paid and however we chose to respond is not to bring us glory and recognition but to direct that praise away from ourselves and become a reflection of Christ alone. Paul wants us to understand that all things come from God and the only thing worthy of claiming is that we are loved enough that Christ was willing to die for us.
Paul has realized through his encounter with Christ that nothing we do matters without a relationship with Christ. There aren’t enough rituals, prayers, and good deeds to equal what Christ did for us on the cross.Paul goes on to say that this relationship with Christ is not an intellectual one. Memorizing scripture, study and education, although are good tools, are not necessary to know God. It is a personal and intimate connection that can never be broken, forsaken or lost.
We often hear the relationship between Christ and the Church explained as a marriage. It is the most intimate relationship we as humans can understand.Fred and Gloria had that ideal marriage. They were college sweethearts, inseparable from the beginning, never one without the other. They were married at 22 and quickly started a family and a business. Times were hard at first but they made it through- he would pick her flowers when he couldn’t afford to buy them and she would cook him breakfast, even if it was just a piece of toast to express their love for one another.
They raised 4 boys and were blessed by a successful company. They were active in the church, well known and well-loved in the community and it didn’t seem to matter where they went they were hand in hand.Even as they aged the spark never seemed to fade. At 82 years old Gloria got sick. Fred was still healthy and cared for her daily even when he was no longer able to do it on his own, he never left her side. After 60 years of marriage they had a bond that could never be mistaken. They could understand each other with just a glance. Words weren’t necessary when they understood the language of love.
Right before their 61st wedding anniversary, Gloria passed away from her illness and Fred was lost. They had been together for so long he didn’t know who he was without- her. His identity was Gloria’s husband. Even though he was healthy, within a few weeks, Fred died too, some say it was of a broken heart- maybe he really couldn’t live without her.Not every marriage is a fairytale like that one but that is the kind of relationship we are called to have with Christ. Life is not worth living without him. Thankfully, Christ has promised to never leave us- in times of our deepest sorrow, greatest joy and beyond the end of our physical days, Christ will be there.
Just as Gloria didn’t do nice things for Fred because she wanted to earn his love and Fred didn’t bring her flowers because he thought she would love him any more- they did these things to show their love for one another and deepen their relationship.The same is true with Christ. We cannot do anything to earn the love of Christ but he blesses us anyway. We each have gifts from God some tangible skills, the beauty of nature, a unique personality and we respond out of love by using them to bring glory to God. It is the circular and deeply intimate love of God that urges us to live a life which is honorable and pleasing to God so that the relationship will continue to grow and deepen.
Fred and Gloria didn’t have a perfect relationship- there were bumps along the way- couches slept on, arguments had- love wasn’t easy but their identity was intertwined with one another- their love for each other was who they were- it was worth fighting for.Life with Christ isn’t easy- mistakes will be made, some days are easier than others, there will be shouts of joy and cries of agony but when we claim our identity as Christian we know that Christ will never leave our side.
Christ doesn’t expect us to be perfect but what he wants is for us to keep trying, practice, learn from the mistakes, confess, repent and trust that we are still loved no matter what. The marriage vows through our baptism are sacred to Christ- until death do we part- except with Christ there is no death- there is life eternal in an even more wonderful relationship with him- it just keeps getting better and better.Our mistakes and the challenges of life are what make us need a savior. A life of faith brings us to the foot of the cross but it is the Love of God alone that allows us to share in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through the resurrection of Christ.