Who or what defines your identity? That is the question the first followers of Christ ran into and a question that dogs us yet today. School mascots come to mind. Do you identify as a Gator? As a Clipper? As a Mustang? Political parties come to mind in big ways. Being a parent or grandparent come to mind. There’s a whole lot of people who are now about age 33 who don’t know my actual name but instead call me Megan’s dad. And no doubt occupation comes to mind when we think of identity. When you’re a pastor some would say that becomes both who AND what you are. That’s true for a number of occupations, I suspect. Which still begs the question, who or what defines our identity?
It’s an important question because it becomes the root of so much that divides us. When it is a school mascot it isn’t ordinarily such a strong division. Maybe the division is strong while the game is on but most of us put our human hat back on when the game ends. Most of us. But when it comes to something like politics we enter into another realm of deeply entrenched opinions that these days don’t allow for much in the way of discussion.
And the subject that causes the most division? Religion. Absolutely. Wars continue to be fought and people still die over questions of religious division. Whatever else I know or don’t know about religion I’m reasonably certain this isn’t how it is supposed to work. Unless you are from ancient Greece and are worshiping the god of war Ares there are so many reasons to go to war over religion. Division is not the desired outcome for humanity.
The early church was no stranger to division. They had their own issues of sorting out who was in and who was out of their communities of faith. One school of thought figured you had to obey all the rules of their Jewish heritage in order to be in God’s kingdom. The other said, “Well, those rules are good ideas and all and nothing wrong with following them. In fact, it’s probably an excellent idea to follow all the rules but they cannot be a requirement to be included in the Kingdom of God.”
So the debate rages on about who is identifiable as being in and, lacking that identification, who is out of their community of faith. What is missing in all this is locating the source of our true identity. That’s why all these other things become ‘fightin’ words’ where differences create division rather than unity.
What it all comes down to is that faith in Christ gives us our identity. Not our faith tradition, not our denomination and certainly not the congregation we attend. It is Christ and Christ alone in whom our faith rests.
This has not always been clear. Like any movement that is 2000 years old, the church of Christ has done some things really well and some things that needed updated, shall we say. Reformed, even. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that Martin Luther sparked in 1517. We’ll be recognizing and commemorating this event in a number of ways this summer and fall but you’ll note that we do not call it a celebration because we cannot properly celebrate the historical event that caused a division so deep that its significance still bounces around today. We could spend years talking about the different historical impacts but perhaps the most evident for us today is the division that separates the Catholic Church from the Protestant churches. This division has and does run so deep that the adherents of the two faith tradition have gone to war any number of times. Imagine killing one another in the name of Christ.
It would be easy to be dismissive of the division that was going on in the early church over who was in and who was out except in the big ways it continues today. The early church leaders wanted their roles as gatekeepers to the Kingdom of God and they wanted their rules as the criteria for the Kingdom. In many places and in many ways, Catholics and Protestants continue doing the same thing today. Each with their own assurance that they hold the keys to the Kingdom. This is another reason why we don’t ‘celebrate’ the Reformation.
Was is necessary for people of faith to have their church reformed? Yes, it was. But painfully necessary. There is a phrase, Semper Reformanda, which is Latin for always reforming. The church is always in need of reforming. If we think we have all the answers to being the people of God, then we’re in big trouble. Since we don’t have all the answers to being the people of God, we then need to constantly seek those answers and continually reform ourselves.
In this ongoing process of reformation, maybe we’re learning. There is hope on the horizon, which is kind of what being a follower of Christ is all about. We always have a future hope. The hope here in discussions that began between Catholics and Lutherans in 1964. The fact that they would even officially talk to each other is pretty impressive. Since that time we have made some progress in recognizing each other as true people of faith and sharers in the kingdom of God. Much work needs to be done but we’re making progress. There was a joint Lutheran and Catholic prayer service in Omaha last week with another one scheduled for September 11. Then, in an act of extraordinary generosity, the diocese of Omaha and Creighton University are allowing Lutherans to take over St John’s Cathedral on the Creighton campus for the Nebraska and Western Iowa Synod’s Reformation Sunday worship on Oct 29.
These kinds of activities go a long ways toward pointing us to the hope we have with our identity in Christ. Five hundred years seems like a long time for us to work on healing the wounds caused by division in the church. It seems like a long time because it is a long time. And yet, hope remains. Hope in Christ’s every present work in our world. Hope that would not have been recognizable to people of faith just 100 years ago. Perhaps for most of us, even 50 years ago.
As people identified with Christ our task every day is to see where our lives point toward the hope we share in Christ Jesus. Do our thoughts and actions point to healing and reconciliation or do they continue division and separation. The early church had to answer this question and we continue to seek the answers. Answers to living our lives in the hope of Christ Jesus.