Desires: To Be Someone
11/18/2019 3:06:04 AM
1 Corinthians 7:21-23; Ephesians 3:14-19
November 17, 2019
Rev. David Williams
I want you to imagine that you’re at a party at a friend’s house. You meet someone new who is a friend of your host’s. You start to engage in small talk. How long does it take one of you to ask, “What do you do?” How long do you think you could last at a party full of strangers without either asking the question or answering it yourself?
20 some years ago I listened to a sermon by Christian sociologist Tony Campolo who pointed out that tend to do this in Western society. We want to categorize people based on their profession, or if you’re in university, by what someone’s studying. If at that party your new acquaintance says that they’re a brain surgeon, you will think differently of them than if they say they’re a garbage collector! But for the Christian, our primary identity should be as a follower of Christ, both in how we view ourselves and how we view others!
We’ve all been asked as kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As parents, we often talk to our kids about this and we actually mean what they want their profession to be. But maybe this shouldn’t be our focus!
What we want to “be” should be different than what we want to “do”. Our culture wraps too much of our identity into what we do to earn a living, or how we provide for our families and makes that determinative of what we “are.” One example of this is the devaluation of being a stay at home mom! Regardless of the economic factors that necessitate that many moms work, societally I think we tend to see less value in a mom staying home with her kids than if she worked outside the home. But our jobs are not who we are. Our character is a better reflection of who we are. That’s certainly more important than our profession!
Imagine, instead, when asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we taught our kids to answer, “Kind. Hardworking. Loving. Generous. Brave.”? What kind of values would we be instilling in them? What would that say about people’s identity? Wouldn’t that be interesting?
If we consider how different that would be, what does that say about the way we are doing things now, wrapping our sense of what we want to be around questions of profession, income, and job status?
We all have a desire to be significant. We all want to “be someone”; to be significant to someone. To be valued. To be loved. This is a core component of our identity.
Let’s read two texts that speak to the question of our identity and our value. Turn to 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 and then Ephesians 3:14-19.
What It Says
Our first passage, from 1 Corinthians, is addressing an important situation in Corinth from which we can draw some principles about our contemporary questions of identity. Speaking first of culture, leading up to our passage, Paul tells new believers that if they were Jews before coming to Christ, they should not convert to being Gentiles. Similarly, if they were Gentiles, not following all the Jewish laws about food and washing, they need not become Jewish now that they are following Christ.
In our text, Paul addresses slaves. We must remember that slavery in the Roman Empire was not what we think of when we picture the Southern US before the Civil War. As much as 1/3 of the population of the Empire was made up of slaves. Slaves worked for their masters and were cared for physically in return. In some ways, they had more security than a free person who had to provide for themselves. Sometimes they also earned a bit of money, but on the whole their lives were not their own. They were still the possession of someone else and many slaves yearned to be set free.
Here, Paul tells them their status as slaves fades on comparison to their new status in Christ. While it is ok for them to choose freedom if they are presented the opportunity, their new status in Christ is more significant than their slavery. The slave who comes to Christ is Christ’s freedman.
Your calling in Christ eclipses your social or cultural conditions. This works the other way, too, Paul continues. For the free man, or even the Roman citizen, coming to Christ is more significant. The allegiance and service one owes Christ is greater than ones status as a free person or even ones loyalty to Rome!
The next verse is famous, and is something Paul actually says twice in 1 Corinthians! “You were bought at a price.” “Bought at a price” is the language used of purchasing a slave’s freedom. Paul is saying that you have been set free from sin- your slavery to sin and the eternal consequences that go with it, is over. But there’s another nuance to this image that we often don’t realize. In the Roman Empire, when a slave purchased his freedom, he did it through a particular pagan temple. He would give the money to the priests of that temple and they would then give the money to the slave’s owner, (minus a cut) thereby purchasing the slave on behalf of their god! The slave was now legally a free man in human terms, but he belonged to that god now. Think about that in relation to Jesus purchasing our freedom! We belong to the God Jesus serves!
Now consider our passage in Ephesians. Jews stood to pray. Kneeling in prayer is a sign of deep emotion or earnestness. Paul is passionate about his requests on behalf of the Ephesian Christians, and by extension, us as well.
God the Father is the definition of all fatherhood. All fatherhood derives its meaning and inspiration from God. The failures of fatherhood in our world and in our lives are the result of sin and fallenness in our world. Paul prays that out of God’s glorious riches, which are infinite in nature, he would strengthen believers without limit because his glory is without limit and is infinitely beyond the measure of our human minds.
Paul prays that believers be strengthened in the core of who they are: heart, mind, spirit and will.
What is the immediate effect of God strengthening our character out of his glorious riches? So that Christ may dwell in our inner being! That is, in our hearts through faith. It is an act of God within us to bring us to faith. It is an act of God that Christ comes to dwell in us.
When Christ dwells in our hearts, then our characters are rooted and established, we have deep roots and a firm foundation, in agape love, which is the very character of God himself!
Paul continues to pray that, in the context of Christian community, we will begin to grasp the overwhelming dimensions of the love of Christ. We must not miss that the context for this knowledge of God’s love is the fellowship of believers, in relationship with the Christian community. This is not a knowledge we can come to solely through personal study. It is a knowledge that comes through relationship because love is a relationship word!
The ultimate goal of this knowledge of love is that we are filled to the brim with God’s fullness. This fullness is the expression of God’s character, his love for us, as displayed in the scope of God’s redemptive plan.
As we start to grasp the scope of God’s plan of redemption, we start to grasp the scope of his love expressed in that plan. The scope of God’s love is seen in the scope of his plan. Paul’s prayer is that our hearts would be able to grasp the dimensions of God’s love as seen in his plan of redemption and that this would then transform our character, every aspect of our inner being, the core of our identity!
This transformation through coming to understand the scope of God’s love in the context of fellowship with other Christians is so thorough that, referring back to 1 Corinthians, it dwarfs all our circumstances and conditions, like social status, marital status, or ethnic identity! It doesn’t erase these, it just dwarfs them.
So what are we to do with this in our day? How does this apply to questions of identity? We don’t have the same social conditions that the first Christians did, so how do we apply these truths to our present day context?
Let’s apply this to a few different messages we hear in our culture about who we are. First, we wrap up our work in our identity. But that is not appropriate!
Our identity in Christ dwarfs any career path we could choose. Whether you are a garbage collector, or a brain scientist, a stay at home mom or a billionaire stock trader, none of these things are as significant as being a follower of Christ. A billionaire has not amassed enough wealth to compare to the price that was paid for us by Christ to buy our freedom and make us the possession of God.
We are often tempted to pursue a career as a way to define our identity. This is wrong. This reflects a lack of understanding of the scope of God’s love for us as expressed in his plan of redemption in which we are taking part! It seeks to substitute something we do for the identity we have in what God did.
Our character is more important to our identity than our career. Who we are is not wrapped up in our career, but neither is it wrapped up in our ethnicity! Nor our marital status. Nor our gender. Nor our political affiliation. Nor our education. The kind of person you are, as reflected in your character, is more significant than diplomas, certificates, pay stubs, bank balances or anything else we can achieve.
This brings us to another way our culture tells us to find our identity- looking within ourselves and then living out what we see! In some ways, the first way, finding our identity in our careers, is allowing what others think of us to define our identity. In this second example, we are the sole judges in our identity. We look within and decide who we are.
Now, we are to look within ourselves to examine our “inner being” but not in order to determine our identity. I touched on this last Sunday evening in my talk on gender identity. Our culture’s narrative is that “true human flourishing” comes from looking within, identifying what you like in there, and then living that out. This process, though, is fraught with dangers, not the least of which is that much of what is within us is tainted and contaminated by sin! Looking within ourselves, identifying same sex attraction, and then choosing to live that out is NOT a road to human flourishing! That’s not our identity! That’s not “who we are”! That is what we desire. And our desires are fallen, along with the rest of our character.
Look within to see what God would transform by his overwhelming love. This is Paul’s prayer in Ephesians- that our inner being, that what we see when we look within, would be strengthened and empowered by the Spirit to make room for Christ to dwell in there. And when Christ dwells there, this sets a firm foundation of love in our character. Standing on this foundation we can live in community and fellowship with other believers and in that context begin to grasp the vast scope of God’s love for us. We start to see his redemptive plan being played out in the lives around us and it changes who we are!
We’ve been using this image as a tool to help us understand why we struggle with bad habits, with habitual sins that ensnare us. Remember, everybody has a need to feel both significant and secure. Our sense of significance is intertwined with our identity. If our significance is threatened, it is an attack on our identity, who we think of ourselves as being. This makes us insecure, which pushes us around the circle to our “favourite” or habitual sin. This often sends us in a spiral of sin and shame, making us feel insignificant again or on a new level and around we go again.
Putting our identity in Christ, in our status as slaves of Christ, bought at a price, belonging to God gives us an unshakable sense of significance. Our greatest significance is that Christ paid a great price for us. He paid that price to secure our freedom from sin, but also to make us a possession of God. He didn’t set us free to our own devices. That’s what got us in trouble in the first place! Rather, he secured our freedom to become the possession of God Most High! That we are God’s is significant. That God paid a great price for us is significant.
When our identity is rooted and established in Christ’s love for us, our significance is unshakable! When we start to fathom the scope of God’s redemptive plan which includes us, that secures our significance in Christ and establishes our identity in Christ.
When we look within for our identity, we should see the dimensions of God’s love for us and others.
This is our true identity- firmly rooted and established in the love God has for us as demonstrated in the scope of his plan of redemption, purchased at great cost to himself and expressed in the context of loving one another. This is our greatest source of identity, transcending but not erasing, our culture, our ethnicity, our gender, our status, our education, our employment and anything else we can think of. This is why we are someone. This is why we are someone special- we are special to God! And this is why the person next to you is someone, someone special. They are precious to God as well!
So, the next time you’re at a party or anywhere that you meet someone new, don’t be interested in what they do for a living. Rather, be interested in whether or not they know the love Christ has for them. When you speak to a child or young person, instead of asking them about their career when they grow up, ask them about the character they want when they grow up. Tell them about the kind of character that is being transformed by the overwhelming love of God. Tell them that their significance in Christ is great and that allowing this to transform them is the best thing to pursue in their life. Amen.
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