What is our identity? What difference does that make to our lives? And how does a change in our understanding of our identity make a difference?
This sermon tries to answer these questions, reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It was preached at our joint Swadlincote Minster service, where the four Anglican churches that serve the town come together.
I quote Bishop Rachel’s discussion of Setting God’s People Free, which is the Church of England’s “programme of change” to help us to discover more of what God is calling us to be and do.
Identity; Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:1-14
In just a few minutes we will declare together our common faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We will declare that who we are, our identity, is given to us by God. And in the reading we heard Paul tell the Christians in Corinth that to be able to do so, to be able to declare that “Jesus is Lord” is in itself a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Dawn has talked about, and gives us an example with her life, of what a few of the gifts of Holy Spirit can look like, of what making use of those gifts is about, of the difference that can make.
And part of this passage is that encouragement to seek and use the gifts that God the Holy Spirit has given us. To seek to serve God with the different gifts that we’ve been given, to work together for the growing of God’s kingdom.
That’s why we’ve formed Swadlincote Minster in the first place. It’s not because we enjoy more meetings or need to be a bit more busy. It’s because we know that God is calling us to work together to make a bigger difference to the area, to work together so that more people see and hear the Good News of God’s love for them. But it’s about more than that as well.
The Bishop of Gloucester, Bishop Rachel, was talking recently about the changes that need to happen across the Church in England, to help us to make that bigger difference. Bishop Rachel talked about how following Jesus, being a disciple of Jesus is about living and sharing a Jesus-shaped life. A Jesus-shaped life. A life we can’t lead without the Father sending us the Spirit to help us.
Bishop Rachel went on to say:
This is about being the seasoning of salt throughout our world; the shining of light in places of immense pain and struggle; being the fragrance of Christ wherever we are and whatever we are doing. Living and sharing a Jesus-shaped life. And this is not about super confident people walking round with big cheesy grins and slick words and set formulae about how to do evangelism…
“This is about our identity in Christ – being more fully who we are as we continue to go on becoming who we have been called to be – it’s about authentic discipleship in places of pain and struggle as well as places of ease and joy.
Our identity in Christ. That’s what Paul talks about in our reading, that’s what is even more important that the gifts that we are given, and far more important than what we do.
So our identity is that we are each a beloved child of God. We are each loved by God, welcomed by God, brought into the body of Christ by God. God our Father loves us, God the Son has saved us, God the Spirit gives us God’s gifts. We are loved. We are loved by God, whether we feel that or not. We are loved by God we don’t have to earn it.
But we’re not simply a beloved child of God. We are also a beloved part of Christ’s body. And Paul uses that picture to help us think about how we all need each other, how we are all called to get involved. We’re all called to use our gifts together. Together, we’re called to explore what difference the God of love makes to our lives, and the life of our town, our country, our world.
As the Corinthian church grew larger it outgrew the first building it met in. It multiplied into different buildings around the city. But it remained part of the Corinthian church. It remained part of Christ’s body, part of the worldwide Christian church.
We’re not asked, not called, to give up our identities as individuals, or even as individual churches, because our identity is rooted in who we are in Christ. That means that as we grow in Christ’s love, as we explore what God desires for us, we become more truly ourselves. We become more truly the people who God longs for us to be. We discover new things we can do, new ways of thinking and being. We become more truly ourselves as individuals and also as the parts of Christ’s body meeting together in different places at different times.
And, yes, there are going to be set-backs and problems and disagreements and wrong paths taken and mistakes made and a lack of communication. And that’s just in our own lives in Christ, let alone in our shared lives as members of Christ’s body in different places, and in our shared life as part of Swadlincote Minster. There were all sorts of problems and disagreements in the Corinthian church as well. We’ve only got the letter because people were struggling and arguing and asking difficult questions. That’s why Paul wrote the letter. That’s why Paul wrote most of his letters. Not because things were going well, but because things needed sorting out.
And so Paul spends a lot of his time in these letters showing these Christians where they’ve gone wrong and what they need to do about it. Which is why he talks at length in this chapter about who we are in Christ, and the gifts that Christ gives us. And which is why he talks so much about love. Most famously in the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. I’m sure we’ve heard that at weddings or similar. But, Paul didn’t write it for that purpose. He wrote it to a bunch of squabbling Christians who thought that their group was the best one, that their way of doing things was the way that God preferred, and that the gifts that they had been given were clearly superior to the gifts that those others had to put up with having.
So, as we come together, as we try new ways of reaching out to people, as we welcome new and different people into our churches, as we change how we do things so that more people can know God. As we do all of those things, we are going to need to rely ever more heavily on God. We are going to need to make more use of more of the gifts that God gives us. And, we are especially going to need to seek ever more of God’s love. Not least because, well, I’d just about got used to the irritating things that that person does who sits on the other side of my church from me. But now I’ve got even more people to be irritated by, and the ones who normally go to that other church are just weird. Why don’t they do things properly, like we do?
All of which is why when we come together as a Minster we take Communion together. Because that’s one of those places, one of those actions, one of those things, where we can encounter God together, where our identity as a beloved child of God can be strengthened, where we can be reminded of and reformed into Christ’s body.
None of this makes sense unless there’s a God who loves us. None of this makes sense unless there’s a God who lovingly gives us the gifts we need, who lovingly calls us to love him, love each other, and love those who don’t know him. This doesn’t work unless we’re praying together, worshipping together, working together for a God who is more powerful and more loving than we can imagine, a God who draws us ever closer to him, to send us once more out into his world to show his love. That’s what we’re called to do, in our own lives and in our shared lives, in our own individual ways, and together as one body. Here, we have the gifts we need. Here, we have the love to share. Because of Christ we have an identity, a hope and a purpose. So let us go to love and serve the Lord. Amen.