1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Rene Descartes declared these famous words – in Latin of course – Cogito ergo sum. That is, “I think, therefore I am.” According to this famous philosopher the ability to reason and to think defined human identity. Many people, especially today, would find his definition rather limited, because it seems to exclude a lot that makes us who we are. But who are you? What makes you, you?
I can’t answer this question for you, but I can say something about my own identity. I do like to think, but I’m more than my ability to reason.
I am a middle-aged, well-educated, middle-class European-American male, who has been happily married for going on twenty-nine years and who is a father of one adult child who also happens present in the room. My maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Holland, while ancestors on my father’s side came to Massachusetts’s Bay Colony not long after its establishment. I’m a Christian, a pastor, a historian, and a writer. I was born in LA and grew up in Northern California and Oregon. Except for a short period spent in Kansas, before we moved here, I lived my entire life on the West Coast. I’ve been an Episcopalian, a Pentecostal, a Presbyterian, and a Baptist. I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and I like the music of Neil Young and Miles Davis. Of course, I enjoy all things Star Trek and Big Bang Theory. I love pizza, Mexican food, and of course, I like pie!! I could add to this list but you’‘d get really bored!
Last week I asked the question: Who is Jesus? This week our scripture asks a related question: Who are you in Christ? That is, what difference does Jesus make to who you are as a person?
Paul answers this question in terms of his vocation. He declares: I preach the gospel, not out of choice, but out of obligation. Therefore, I have no reason to boast, and the reward I receive comes from the fact that I preach without charge. As you can see this is a very dangerous passage for those of us who preach and get paid, but I think we understand the point.
What Paul is most concerned about is that the good news of Jesus gets preached. This is his passion and it defines his identity to such an extent that he says that he’ll do whatever is necessary to recruit Jews and Gentiles, strong and weak, into the body of Christ. Therefore, he will become “all things to all people, so that I can save some by all possible means” (1 Cor. 9:22). What guides him in this course of action is the Law of Christ, which Jesus identifies as having two planks: love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Paul has offered his answer to the question of who he is in Christ? But the question for us is: who am I in Christ? What is Christ compelling me to be and to do?
Knowing who you are as a person helps answer the question of who you are in Christ. Paul has a strong sense of purpose. Perhaps that Damascus Road experience imprinted on him a sense of calling that he couldn’t get away from.
Although you may not have had a Damascus Road experience, or like Augustine heard a voice saying to you: “Pick it up and Read,” which led you to pick up Paul’s letter to the Romans, perhaps a still small voice has spoken to you, inviting you to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and you have responded – Here I am, send me.
As we think about this question of identity in Christ, I’d like to suggest four possible markers of identity. Although I’m not a fan of using acronyms and acrostics in sermons, I think that the words Disciple, Inclusive, Sharing, and Healing are good defining words of Christian identity. So, when you think of your identity – think DISH.
I realize the word DISH has no theological meaning, but maybe it will help us remember this definition of our identity: We are Disciples of Jesus who seek to be inclusive of all people as we share the good news of Jesus Christ and engage in healing ministry.
We are DISCIPLES of Jesus
We are disciples of Jesus, which means that we are marked by our allegiance to him. As the revelation of God for us, he defines who we are and what we do through his life and teachings. We may not have had the luxury of personally walking with Jesus, but the gospels serve as our guide, and the Spirit of God empowers us to live this life of discipleship in the world.
Who Seek to be INCLUSIVE of all people
It’s possible that I’m stretching this phrase “all things to all people,” but I hear in it a call to be inclusive of all people. Exclusive groups build walls and set rigid criteria for membership, while inclusive groups focus on people. They put out the welcome mat and treat people with honor and respect, whether they are rich or poor, male or female, young or old. Ethnicity is not a barrier nor is what we consider to be disability.
An inclusive community is hospitable, open minded, willing to learn and grow, to forgive, and when necessary to forget. Although it is open, it’s also tethered to Jesus. Like astronauts taking a walk in space, in our freedom we remain tethered to the gospel. An inclusive community focuses on what holds us together rather than on what divides us. Now as we know, this isn’t easy. As one of our own pointed out in a meeting this past week: “Worship is easy, Church is hard.”
As we SHARE the good news of Jesus
As disciples of Jesus who form an inclusive community of faith, we are called to share the good news in all its forms. In his sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus defined the good news as a word to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19). This is a message of reconciliation that can change lives and liberate our creativity and imagination.
We may not have a program for every issue, but we can love people with the love of Jesus. The world outside these walls isn’t looking for an institution to join, it’s looking for a community that loves God and loves all that God loves.
I remember going with high school friends to a bible study, not because I felt separated from God or because I was looking for answers to questions. I went because I was lonely and needed a place to belong. I found that and more, and it changed my life. I’ve continued to grow and change over the years, but that was an important starting point on a very interesting journey with Jesus.
And engage in HEALING Ministry
Healing has a variety of definitions and as followers of Jesus we may be engaged in a variety of healing ministries. It can mean touching bodies, minds, spirits, and relationships. Healing means to making whole that which is broken, and our focus as God’s people is engaging in ministry that leads to reconciliation and wholeness in all of its dimensions.
On one occasion when I was making a pastoral visit at a nursing home a woman wheeled herself into the room I was visiting. She asked me: Are you a minister? I said yes. And when I told her the name of the church, she told me that many years before she had been a member of that church, and from that day on I became her pastor. What’s more, through her I gained the opportunity to minister to her friends in that nursing home. Isn’t it amazing what God does when we’re just out and about in the community? Without expecting it, we can become instruments of God’s healing presence.
As disciples of Jesus we’re called to include the excluded, share the good news, and be God’s instruments of healing. We don't have a magic wand that can instantly take care of everything, but if we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, things will happen.
And as we hear from Isaiah, when we get tired God is there to lift us up and empower us:
Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary. (Isaiah 40:28-31 CEB).
Who are you as a disciple of Jesus Christ? What is your calling? What is your passion? Where is God leading you? What is, that is, your identity?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 5, 2012