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 people

Ephesians 2-3

I mentioned last night that I had been reading some things on South Africa recently.
It is interesting that many missionary organisations would argue, and I would agree with them, that we should have the indigenous people leading the churches.
What is interesting is that the theological side of apartheid argued the very same thing.
They argued that nations were created by God and therefore national distinctives should be preserved.
Churches should be led by indigenous people.
In South Africa that meant having white churches led by white South Africans, Black churches led by black South Africans and coloured churches led by coloured South Africans.

Is this the vision of the church that we find in the New Testament?
A racially monotone church?

Well, before we criticise them too much, how do our churches in the UK fair?
I look around our churches and I see very monotone churches.
Sometimes racially, but also along lines of class.
Evangelicalism in this country is largely middle class.
People feel they need to fit in to that culture to fit into the church.

Sometimes we might have monotone churches in the way people act.
People wear the same clothes, talk in the same way, do the same things.
Some churches very deliberately base themselves along these lines and it is called the ‘homogenous principle’.
If we base our churches around our preferences, our likes and dislikes, what we feel ‘comfortable’ in, then our churches will be very monotone indeed.

But that is not the glorious Technicolor picture we get in Ephesians chapter 2.

In groups read through chapter 2 and list what we were and what we are now.

1. Identity – when it’s all about me

There is a problem in our world and that problem is alienation.
It’s everywhere.
As we build our identities around ourselves and who ‘we want to be’ we alienate ourselves from other people.
As my identity clashes with your identity there is conflict.
As your identity stops me fulfilling my identity there is division.

One person’s identity as a Nazi who thinks the Arian race is supreme will come into conflict with someone else’s identity as a Jew.
Someone’s identity as a single man who can sleep around will come into conflict with someone else’s identity as that man’s wife.
Someone’s identity as ‘church is made for me’ will come into conflict with someone else who’s identity is the same!

There is conflict everywhere.
There is division everywhere.
There is alienation everywhere.

Why?

Because deep down we think this is my world and I’m God.
Why do you think you get so annoyed when people don’t keep to your house rules?
Or when they take the last bit of steak you were saving for yourself?

Why do you think you get annoyed when someone cuts in front of you on the road, or puts in a bad tackle on the football pitch?
It’s because we think this is my world and I’m God and therefore I should have the world the way I want it to be.

A while back I had a toilet epiphany.
You may know about toilet epiphany’s from ‘Scrubs’.
It’s that moment you’re sitting on the toilet, thinking, and something becomes very clear to you.
Well I was sitting on the toilet one day getting really annoyed at our lodger.
You see our lodger, yet again hadn’t put the new toilet roll on the toilet roll holder.
Can you believe it?!
I caught myself thinking this and I realised it’s not so much ‘it’s my world and I’m God’ for me, but ‘it’s my house and I’m God’!
That’s why I was getting annoyed at our lodger.
I wanted my house and my world to be the way I wanted it.

Our identities are all about us and this brings conflict and alienation.
The ultimate act of alienation is of course death.
There is no greater destroyer of relationships.
And when did death enter the world?
When Adam and Eve acted as if it was their world and they were God.

And what a horrible result:

Dead;
Living in transgressions and sins;
Following the ways of the world and Satan;
Gratifying the cravings of the sinful nature;
Following its desires and thoughts;

People think that they are so free.
But none of us are free at all says Paul.
It’s like the smoker who says ‘I can give up any time I want to – I just don’t want to!’
We don’t realise how trapped we are.
We are slaves to our sin.

The Bible is very clear that what rules us is the passions and desires of our hearts.
Our desire is for self-rule, for the world to serve me and so that shapes and defines our lives.
We know it brings hurt as we see conflict as a result of our quest to fulfil our desires.
But we place the blame on other people.

‘I got angry because of what you said’
‘I snapped because I’m tired’
‘If you had just done what I asked there wouldn’t be this trouble’

Our hearts are deceitful above all things says proverbs, so we find neat ways of excusing what we do.
But what is actually happening is our desires are ruling.
We don’t fulfil our desires so we get angry, we snap.
We are bound to obey the call of our desires.
And ironically we call it freedom.

But the list goes on:

Objects of wrath, separate from Christ;
Excluded from citizenship;
Hopeless;
Far away;
There is division and hostility;
Foreigners and aliens.
It’s disharmony, a discommunity that Paul is describing.

Is that an attractive life?

But that is the identity we have when our identity is all about us.
That is the identity we create.
That is our identity when it is all about us.

2. Identity – it’s all about being part of God’s people

What Paul is describing in the first part of chapter 2 is the very opposite of what we see in chapter 1 is God’s plans and purposes for the cosmos.
God’s plan is that of bringing everything together under one head, Jesus Christ. But all we see is everything divided, not together, living for self, not under Christ.

So what has God done about it?
He’s ended the alienation, with the result of discommunity, and brought reconciliation with the result of community.
There’s both vertical reconciliation between us and God and also horizontal reconciliation between each other.

Look at the result:

Alive
Raised up with Christ
Saved from that wrath we faced
Created to do good works – no longer living for self but serving
Brought near
United (made 1)
One new man
We have peace
We have access to God
We’re fellow citizens
Members of God’s household
Built on the Bible and Christ
Growing together to become a holy temple
A dwelling for God by his spirit.

Isn’t that an attractive life?!

That, says Paul, is your new identity.

Note first of all you have a new king.
Previously we lived as if it was our world and we were God.
Our king was our passions and desires.
They ruled and we had to obey.

Not any more says Paul.

Now that you have been rescued from death through the death of Jesus, and you have been raised to life through his resurrection to life you have a new king.
It is God that you serve and he has prepared good works for you to do.

Secondly you have a new nationality.

Previously, says Paul, we were alienated in nationality from God’s people.
That meant separation from hope and God, from the promises of life.
Apparently in the temple there was a wall which was the final barrier to Gentiles – they could not go beyond it.
On it was a sign which read ‘No foreigner may enter within the barrier. Anyone caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.’
We were separate from any hope of being part of God’s people.

Not any more, says Paul.

Now that you have been rescued from death through grace – the free gift that you did not earn, you have a new nationality.
Not as Jew or gentile, Brit or Yank, but as God’s people.
You are citizens of the gospel of Christ, as Paul is to tell the Philippian church.
That dividing wall of hostility that kept you out has been destroyed.
Jesus himself did it when he died.
You are reconciled to each other and to God, fellow citizens and members of God’s household.
You are a new people, a united people, God’s people.

There was a real danger at this time of the church being split.
There was a decision made by the Jerusalem council that the Gentiles didn’t need to become culturally Jewish.
Great.

Problem could be that the church becomes two distinct groups.
One Christian/Jewish, the other Christian/gentile similar to what was conceived and implemented in South Africa.
But Paul says – that’s not what God’s church is about.
God’s church is about there being one people, united under the King.

Because who’s central to this new identity?
It’s not me any more, it’s not my nationality as Jewish or gentile, but it’s Jesus.
It is his blood that brings you from far to near, it is in him that you are now part of the people of God, he himself is our peace, Christ is the cornerstone of the building that God is constructing.

This fits in with what Paul revealed was God’s plan in chapter 1.
It is all about God bringing everything under Jesus for the praise of his glory.

3. The church – God’s wisdom on display

In groups:
I want you to imagine for a moment that you’re building a display that will show how great God is.
What would you build?
What do you think best represents who God is and what he’s done?

Read chapter 3

We saw in chapter 1 that God’s plan is to bring everything under Christ.
That is the plan according to his good pleasure.
Paul says there are spiritual forces that are against that plan.
That’s what we saw at the beginning of chapter 2 – Satan is about disommunity, disharmony. He wants people to follow him and live for themselves.
He is desperate to thwart God’s plans.
But Paul says, 3:10 – Satan, your time is up.

You know the church?
That bunch of sinful, broken people, who have been rescued by God?
You know that group who were dead and are now alive, who were enemies but are now united around Christ as one people?
You know that group who are still broken people?!
That ragged bunch of smelly misfits?
God says – that is proof that I can fulfil my plan.

The church, those communities of God’s people, determined to love God and each other, living under the lordship of Christ – they are God’s plan for the cosmos in miniature!
They really are heaven on earth.

Isn’t that an exciting view of church?!

Church is not the building.
It’s not even just the meeting on the Sunday.
The church is people from different backgrounds, classes, sexes, tastes in music, clothes, films – all united under Christ.
And that is a slap in the face to those spiritual forces opposed to God and his plans.

The church is the people among whom Christ dwells v17.
The church is the people who are rooted and established in love, the love that he has shown them in rescuing them, the self-giving, self-effacing love of Christ v17-18.
The church is the people who know that love, v18, and they display it by doing it.
The church is the people whom God works in and through by his awesome power v20.
The church is the people in whom God is glorified v21.

Is that our view of church?
Is that our identity?

We saw in chapter 1 that Paul is passionate about God’s glory and so should we be.
In chapter 3 we see that God is glorified in his church.
Put two and two together:
If we are passionate about God’s glory then we will be passionate about his church.
We will be passionate about being that redeemed community who are united around Jesus as our king.
We’ll be passionate about being that community that is built on God’s word and is being built up in Jesus.
We’ll be passionate about being that community that is marked by love because we know real love.

Remember we always act in line with what we believe.
Do we believe this?
Are we passionate about this?

What a fantastic privilege we have to show the world just how effective Jesus’ death really was as we love God and each other, as we grow together as a community, as our lives are turned upside down by what we believe.

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