The following blogs are the talks I gave at a weekend away for a church in Leeds called ‘Four’. The theme was idenditity and we worked through the book of Ephesians to see what Paul had to say on the subject…

Identity: it’s all about God’s glory
Ephesians 1

Issues of identity have plagued humanity for centuries.

I’ve recently been reading about South Africa and the rise of apartheid and the issue of identity is right smack bang in the middle of things.
The Afrikaans desire to have a distinct national identity led to the separation of peoples in South Africa.
In the 1930’s the German national identity led to the suffering of the Jews and others as Hitler pursued his ideal of the Arian race.
The issue of identity has caused wars and untold suffering.

But it plays itself out on the smaller stage as well.
The issue of identity effects where we chose to go to university, or what job and career path to take.
Issues of identity effect where we go to church, how we act in the church, how and to whom we do evangelism.

We are constantly asking ourselves ‘who am I’?
When we meet people who choose to describe ourselves in a certain way.
We say I’m so and so married to such and such a person.
Or I work as…
All of these express how we see ourselves, what we see our identity as.

And when we become a Christian we get a real identity crisis.
We had previously been one person, but now it is quite clear that we’ve got to change somehow.
But how?
Does becoming a Christian mean I’ve got to become middle class?
Do I need to learn how to make quiche?
Do I have start wearing certain clothes, going certain places, or not going certain places?
We often ask ‘how can I still be ‘me’ with all my personality traits and preferences and be a Christian at the same time?

I think this kind of question actually betrays certain cultural assumptions we have in the west about identity, and before we get into the rest of Ephesians this weekend we need to look at those assumptions and overturn some of them.

1. Identity: when it’s all about us

What is distinctive about the Western quest for identity is that it is massively individualistic.
We have a concept of self that is seen as distinct to other people and our relationships with them.

This is very different to many other cultures around the world.
The Xhosa people in South Africa for instance have a saying called ‘Ubuntu’.
Ubuntu is this:
A person is a person through other people.
That is, my identity is about who I am in relation to others.
I’m first of all a son or daughter, then a brother or sister, a husband or wife, a mother or a father, a grandfather or grandmother and so on.

But our western culture works on the basis that:
A person is a person in isolation to other people.
We talk about ‘finding our true self’.
We don’t want to be known simply as a mother or father, or brother or sister.
We want to be ‘a person in our own right’.
We want to express ourselves in whatever way we want to.
We want to be seen for our distinctiveness.
We want to be free to be ourselves.

True identity in our culture is being who you want to be.

Recently, Christine Aguilera has revelled in the fact that she is beautiful, no matter what others may say.
She has been keen for others to enjoy the same confidence.
Her video powerfully reinforced the message with all manner of apparently marginalised individuals and groups being included: gays, geeks and nerds.
Don’t worry about who you are, or what you do, or what your lifestyle is: you are beautiful.
The song is in response to all the negative publicity she received with her strident displays of sexuality.
People should be free to be who they want to be, she preached.
It’s about you as an individual no matter what other people think.

A person is a person in isolation to other people.

And this has become a human right in our culture.
We have the right to be who we want to be.
And it doesn’t matter who you want to be – the key thing is being ‘true to yourself’.

Identity is really all about us.

2. Identity: when it’s all about God’s glory

However, this is a long way from what the Bible talks about when it comes to identity.
Let’s read Ephesians chapter 1 together.
Paul in Ephesians, as we’ll see over this weekend, doesn’t stop talking about who we truly are.
He doesn’t stop talking about how our identity works itself out in action.
In fact it is vital for the churches that he is writing to that they understand who they are, in order to live out the lives that God intends them to live.
Right belief = right behaviour because you always act in line with what you believe.

So who are they?

Chapter 1:1, To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:
3, 3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
4, 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
5, In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ,
7, 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins
11, 11In him we were also chosen,
13, 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,

That is their identity.
They are in Christ.

But Paul’s idea of identity is very different to what we saw on Quantum Leap, or read in the magazines.
Our identity, says Paul, is not all about us.
It’s all about God and his glory.

Chapter 1:6, 6to the praise of his glorious grace,
11, according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,
12, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory
14, to the praise of his glory.
20ff. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

We have to get this right if we’re going to understand anything else that Paul has to say in his letter.
Some people approach the Bible as another form of self-help literature.
Jesus saves us so that we can reach our potential, achieve our goals, live the life we want to live.
The problem with viewing the Bible in that way is that we are just putting a Christian veneer on what is in reality a very worldly and self-centred identity.
Christianity just becomes the thing that gives me what I want.
But that is no different to Buddhism or the religion of materialism giving me what I want.

Now I do not deny that as a result of the gospel we will be truly fulfilled, but that is not the goal of our identity in Christ.
If we read the rest of this letter as if it is another ’10 steps to self fulfilment’ then we are way off the mark.
Paul wants to get his readers straight on who they are and what that is all about from the start.

But the reason for doing that stands out a mile from our western way of thinking about identity.
Paul says you are who you are, and you’re to live a life that reflects that so that God get’s the glory.
You are who you are because of God’s mighty work.
You are a child of God because of Jesus Christ’s death on your behalf.
You are being changed into the likeness of his Son through the mighty work of his Spirit.
And God wants to hold you up, with this new identity in Christ and point at you saying ‘look what I’ve done!’
He points at you only to point back to himself!

But it’s important to emphasise, as we’ll see more over the weekend, your identity is not about you as an individual trophy of grace.
Chapter 2-3 tells us that our identity is all about us as part of a new people, a people who were once divided, now brought together through Christ’s blood – that is what the ‘church’ is in 1:22 – it’s Christ’s ‘gathering’, his ‘body’, the temple, the King’s people.
You can’t be in Christ and not in church.
I don’t mean being in some sort of building.
But if you are in Christ then you are by definition part of his people, part of his body, you are in church.
I am in Christ, you are in Christ and so we are united as his people.

Chapter 4-5 tells us that our identity will shape how we live as we seek to imitate God.
We’ll see that God’s new community is about loving him and each other in a way that stands out a mile to the world around us.

And finally on Sunday we will see that our identity is about standing firm as the people of God.
Hopefully this weekend our ideas about our identity will be radically turned upside down by God’s word.

We will find that we’ve been called to be a radical community of lovers – lovers of God and lovers of others.
So enjoy this weekend as we really try and get to grips with this letter and as it changes and shapes us and makes us more like the people of God that he wants us to be.