Who do we think we are?
In the last letter we asked the question: ‘Who do you think you are?’ The focus was on our individual identity as Christians. From feedback, it is clear that the item is of great interest to many readers of the Record, whatever their age. So I thought it might be useful to say a little more on this subject.
The question of identity is a matter of life and death. When, as a very young boy, I would go weekly to football matches with my father I would sometimes be lifted over the turnstile, as would others of my age. My father always paid for my admission. Some older boys would imitate this method of entry, though usually when the man operating the turnstile was not looking! However, we can only enter through the turnstile of the gate of heaven on our own, one by one. No sneaking over, or beneath, the barrier when the gatekeeper is not looking. His gaze operates on a 24/7 basis (God never slumbers or sleeps (Psalm 121: 4)). Only one person can help us through the celestial turnstile. Jesus Christ. He has paid for our admission at a price none of us could afford, taking on himself our sinful identity in his death on Calvary’s hill, and allowing us in exchange his identity as one who had lived a perfect life. However long we have been Christians, we must never lose sight of our roots in the cross of Christ or cease to marvel at such an exchange of identity. As the hymnist Edward Mote put it in a hymn we do not sing so much these days:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus' Name.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
A New Identity
Becoming a Christian means taking on a new identity. As Paul stated: 'if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new.‘ (2 Corinthians 5: 17). Jesus refers to this new identity as ’being born again' (John 3: 3).
The Christian concept of self-identity is so different from the one which is placarded in the media today, which encourages us to be like everyone else. A recent study of the creation of modern icons showed the lengths the fashionistas would go to create images which would last in our visual memory. All of us can be influenced by the image-makers. But such identity is man- or woman-centred. The identity which the Christian has is essentially God-centred and comes from God. The image which matters most is how we appearbefore God. As Paul writes, it is not the image of our old self, but of the new self, which Jesus has given us:
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Colossians 3: 9-10)
No need for pretence, then, or for any attempt to clone ourselves on others who seem to be spiritual (what a delusion as none of us are!) or popular. Being our forgiveness-seeking, Christ-dependent, redeemed selves is what promotes liberation, joy and peace.
God values us as we are. We were reminded this week in the first of a new series of studies in the book of Numbers at our Wednesday Bible Study/Prayer Meeting just how much God cares for us as individuals. The people of God were numbered one by one, as well as according to their clans and families. Similarly, in a much neglected chapter in the life of Joseph (Genesis 49), Jacob gives an individual portrait of his 12 sons, predicting the consequences, both good and bad, for each one of them and the impact that their particular identity would have for the tribes named after them. In blessing them, he points forward to their 12 separate identities coming together as one.
Our Church Identity
Similarly, our personal identity as Christians cannot be separated from our corporate identities. I debated giving as a title for this letter that of ‘corporate identity’, but I feared that on the web it would trigger responses from advertising agents offering their business services! Obviously, there are many corporate identities (not least, family, nationality, ethnic). But the one which is the most important here is our church identity. Nobody should be a Christian on his/her own. It would be like asking a new born baby to look after itself! In the New Testament, it is recorded that those who became Christians were ‘added to the church’. Some see church as a particular building. While the place in which we meet is not unimportant, the essential characteristic of the church is the fellowship of God’s people. In that light, we have to ask ourselves: ‘Who do we think we are?’
The personal identity crisis in our day is reflected also in that of the church. How difficult it has been for those coming from abroad to understand the way we organize ourselves in terms of denominations in Scotland. Even some who have been in Sandyford for many years struggle, particularly with all the new Christian Fellowships which announce themselves on posters in the city with disorientating regularity. In former days, we might have been able to use a shorthand descriptor of Presbyterian or Church of Scotland but these terms have increasingly been susceptible of many different interpretations. This is one of the reasons for the inclusion in every Order of Service of the rationale for our existence, which gives an indication of our corporate identity.
The present confusion with regard to denominations should not prevent us from identifying with a group of fellow believers. In fact, church membership was not an optional extra for believers in the early church. Admittedly, we can be a follower of Jesus without formal links with a congregation (we must not fall into the error of confusing denomination with salvation – Voltaire, the eminent French eighteenth-century satirist and philosopher, made that mistake in commending England for its denominational breadth which ‘permitted an Englishman 30 different ways of going to heaven’).
However, most of the metaphors about the church emphasise our corporate identity, the church being portrayed, for example, as a ‘body’, in which every member is a vital part, a spiritual ‘building’, constructed from precious stones, all of which are vital to its proper functioning, or to a ‘sheepfold’, in which every sheep matters.
One problem which afflicts the church in the West in particular, and undermines attempts at a corporate identity, is the consumerist approach to church attendance. This is tantamount to treating the church as a commodity. It is a significant issue, but I do not think that this is the main problem we face in Sandyford. In fact, we are so grateful to God for the encouragement given by all who attend and who willingly commit themselves to us in membership, and who engage in three of the fundamental aspects of our corporate identity, in worship, evangelism and fellowship.
While we are striving to enhance our contribution in these latter three areas, there is one aspect of our corporate identity to which we need to give more immediate attention: how best to pray for one another? The letters in the New Testament are mainly addressed not to individuals but to the churches in a particular locality, to the ‘saints’ (those set apart by God and ‘called out’ for his service). I cannot imagine anyone in individual churches named in the New Testament not knowing anything about those cited in the letters by Paul. It is hard to believe, for example, that the Christians in Colosse (Colossians 4) would not have known who Tychicus or Onesimus were, or Aristarchus, Mark and Barnabas, or Epaphras, Luke and Demas; or of the prayer requests of the churches at Laodicea and Nympha. Part of the identity of the church at Colosse would lie in their partnership in the gospel with those mentioned.
However, while Sandyford is committed to praying for folk beyond its immediate circle (and we are very grateful to Patrick Smith for the weekly prayer bulletin and the encouragement in intercessory prayer), it would be challenging to ask ourselves how much we engage personally with those in our prayer diary, and the extent to which we share the prayer burden of the church. Sandyford is probably what Tim Keller might call a medium-sized church. But one which is still sufficiently small for us to share with and pray for one another. We have (thanks to George Chalmers) a new issue of the Let’s Pray diary, which includes all in membership, those attending regularly, and the various ministries within and beyond the Church of Scotland, and the missionaries who have either been sent out by Sandyford or who have had contact with our church. However, the question I am often asked (by both young and old) is: ‘who (s)he?’.
It is a real privilege to have an all-age church on a student campus, to have students from many different backgrounds and nations, and to have so many people in the 20s and 30s group. We are encouraged by the many prayer meetings, some small group, some accountability, some intercessory. The challenge for us, however, is to find an interface between the various ministries of the church and to ensure that we can all share the joys, sorrows and needs, and, indeed, the vision of the church family to which we belong. It is a problem many of the churches of our size are experiencing and one to which the Kirk Session is giving particular attention at this time, and on which we will report in subsequent issues of the Record.
In the meantime, let us make every effort to get to know the Sandyford family better (and the many related to it), as we worship and pray together and work to extend Christ’s kingdom. In so doing, we will discover more fully who we are ourselves and reflect the image of Jesus and the glory for which He prayed in John 17.
With very best wishes
Noël Peacock (Session Clerk)View All Letters