- If it’s not about your sexual orientation, it’s about your biological sex.
- If it’s not about your race, it’s about your nationality.
- If it’s not about your socio-economic status, it’s about your intersectionality.
The Challenge for Us: Knowing Our IdentityThe major challenge for us apart from Christ is that we try to find our identity in ourselves, and this comes in two primary ways:
- Identity in what we do.
- Identity in how we appear.
Let’s just say I struggled with my identity.
It wasn’t just a name struggle; it was deeper. The name issue was the tip of the iceberg of a struggle with identity.
The Problem with Looking Within OurselvesWe struggle to find our identity especially when we look for it within ourselves only. As I mentioned, the two most common go-to answers for identity challenges are to try to find:
- Identity in what we do, or
- Identity in how we appear.
- You are what you do, and
- You are your appearance.
When we look to ourselves—what we can do and how we appear—we will always struggle to find rest in who we are.
So let me ask: How’s your journey with identity going? Another way to ask this is: Where is your locus of identity? Your gravitational pull for understanding who you are? What is the primary way you perceive yourself? Do you locate your identity primarily in:
- Your job
- Your performance
- Your appearance
- Your skills
- Your hobbies
- Your interests
- Your music taste
- Your family
- In another person
The problem with all these identity markers is that they’re things, not a person.
So walk with me through Ephesians 2–3 for the answer to the identity question we all long for at the deepest levels.
The Challenge for Them: Knowing Their Identity in ChristWe see our challenges today present even in the Ephesian community to whom Paul wrote. Check this out:
Ephesians 2:11–13: Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.What’s missing from almost all the conversations I hear today about identity is Christ, and without him, we’re left with a massive void in our souls. But even if we have him and don’t let him take center stage in our identity, we’re still left wanting. As a result, we go looking to fill that void by modifying externals, by changing our job, by adjusting our appearance, our hobbies, our music. On a deeper level we might even change our community, our spouse, or even our bodies to fill the void.
But this is identity without Christ at the center.
The issues today are not about “gender” or what makes a man a man and a woman a woman. Those can be worthy discussions to have, but the discussion goes far deeper than that. And what I’m concerned about for Christians is that we’ll get sucked into playing the world’s game, using the world’s terminology, and finding ourselves without an adequate alternative. Doing that would be like trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle using the game pieces of Scrabble. It’s just not the same game. We have a totally different answer to the same challenge everyone faces, and it’s not found in ourselves but in Christ. So we should bring people into God’s reality, not play exclusively in theirs.
Christ draws us near to the Father, and God becomes the center of our identity.
Now, let’s back up to verse 11. Paul says, “Therefore, remember.” He’s reminding them about who they were before, to remind them of their change in identity. So he’s affirming the non-Jews of their new identity here, but he’s also speaking to the Jews because they had placed their identity on externals:
- 11: circumcision (physical): the Gentiles didn’t have the right appearance. This represents the three main Jewish external markers of identity: Sabbath, circumcision, and food laws.
- 12: citizenship in Israel (political): they didn’t have the right affiliation.
- 12: foreigners to the covenants (ethical): they didn’t have the right religious tradition.
They needed Christ.
Like them, in our search for identity, we don’t need to look for something else to do or something else to add to our identity. We don’t need any thing; we need a person, which Paul describes more fully in the next verse, showing us how this is not just an individual thing but also a group thing.
The Solution for Them: Jesus Christ
Ephesians 2:14–18: For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.They had been struggling with group hostility, but in Christ, they found peace. Today we see conflicts continuing to rage in the Middle East. Will there ever be peace? The answer for them is the same answer for us:
Apart from Jesus Christ, we will never find peace with each other nor peace within ourselves.
One implication of this is that we can’t expect the world to be at peace with us or within themselves until they have been converted to Christ. That is, before they can rightly understand the truth about who they are, they must be converted to Christ. For us, we can’t rightly place our identity until we’re reoriented to Christ.
We must fully accept the gospel before we can rightly accept ourselves.
Then God bestows identity on us because of who Jesus is, not because of who we are or who we’ve made ourselves to be. Paul goes on to talk about the implications for us as a community by anchoring our identity primarily in Christ:
Ephesians 2:19–22: Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.First, you’ll notice the emphasis on the phrase “in Christ.” It’s in Christ, not in anything of ourselves that we find our identity as the people of God. Then I love that this says “being built,” not “having arrived.” Because:
Learning to live in Christ is a process.
This process involves our participating with God’s sovereign hand, who builds us up to become what he’s called us to be. So what’s the solution to the identity challenge?
The Solution for Us: Accepting Our Identity in Christ as the ChurchThis passage shows that in Christ everyone who comes to the table through faith in him is accepted as a full citizen and member of the family. Track with me on this to the end because what I’m about to say needs to be heard in context of the whole.
God calls the church to be the most inclusive group on the planet.
When you look at specific Scriptures throughout the New Testament you get this picture. God welcomes us to the table regardless of our:
- Accept you if you agree with one thing, but if you say the wrong thing, believe the wrong thing, or post the wrong thing, then you’re out.
- Even if they offer acceptance, it’s often just lip service—not true acceptance. They often don’t really know you; they just accept your category, your kind of person, or your application on paper. Externals.
The only community on planet earth that can contain the breadth and the depth of the diversity of the people of God is the church.
The church alone, unlike any other organization, entity, or group, has the capacity to open wide the doors and welcome people from all walks of life into a transformational relationship with Christ and the church. And we’re called to do that. The world tries to offer acceptance, but at the end of the day it’s not deep community. Instead, it’s often faux inclusion, false advertising, or fake community. Only the church in Christ can live out the real community that everyone wants. But this is very important because it’s the key difference and it’s hard for many outside the church to swallow:
God accepts us as we are, but he doesn’t leave us as we are.
The world has the first part right—acceptance—but they don’t want the second part. The world looks to the church and says, “Why are you so exclusive? Why do you hate?” While some churches are exclusive and hateful and should repent, the truth is the world doesn’t know what to do with a God who accepts people as they are but also wants to change them to become holy like he is. They ask these questions partially in ignorance but also because we’ve sometimes led conversations with the wrong thing:
- We’ve led with sanctification, not salvation.
- We’ve led with getting your life in order before giving your life to Christ.
- We’ve led with doing the right thing before becoming the right kind of person.
We wrongfully expect the holiness of Christ without the person of Christ.
What’s missing today in all these conversations about identity, identity politics, equity, inclusion, and acceptance looms large: the name of Jesus Christ, in whom we have redemption. In Christ, we accept those with external differences from us:
- The person who grew up differently than us
- The person who feels attraction to the same sex
- The person who is not native to our area
- The person who doesn’t make much money
- The person who is older than us
- The person who is younger than us
Until we’re found in Christ, we’re lost.
As my two-and-half-year-old daughter likes to say, “First things first.” Salvation first, then sanctification.
The Purpose of Our New Identity as the ChurchOnce we’ve accepted Christ and have been accepted by Christ into salvation, we not only gain a new identity but also a new purpose in the world. It’s no longer about what we do, how we appear, or even what particular group we’re a part of. It’s about being in Christ and making him famous—together as the church. The difference is we’re no longer focused on ourselves and our differences; we’re focused on Christ and point to him. This leads to the last two verses in our journey through Ephesians: Ephesians 3:10–11: His intent [in bringing together Jews and Gentiles] was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. I love this passage because it reveals the amazing, cosmic role of the church in the world. Now it’s helpful to know the phrase “in the heavenly realms” here doesn’t mean some place far off in the sky, but the spiritual realm all around us that correlates to our daily existence. So Paul says the church makes God known to the powers that be, both in the spiritual and in the earthly realms.
The image of the church is of a multi-faceted diamond refracting God’s glorious light into the world as it turns and reveals his diverse array of colors.
Each ray of light represents the masterpiece God has made us as individuals in Christ, and each glimmer of light represents the glory of God in us because of what Jesus has done in us—with Christ as the glory of God shining through us. So while we have an identity in Christ as radiant individuals, when we combine together, the effect is astounding. That is what we have to offer the world together as the church. We live with Christ in us, the church, the hope of the world. When we stand together in our identity…
Christ makes us shine as a radiant church in a dark world.
Let’s go back to Ephesians 2:13: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” When it’s dark at night, one light can make the biggest difference, but what about a city of lights? It cannot be hidden. I remember when I was a kid, and we’d fly into Calgary, Alberta, where I grew up until age eight. When we’d fly into Calgary at night, I was amazed to see the whole city lit up—from all the street and house lights together. That’s what the church can be for the world. The world doesn’t need another collection of individuals doing their thing; the world needs the church in all her radiance shining brightly. That’s who we’re called to be as the church. Now let’s live in it. Let’s find our identity in Christ and in nothing else.
To learn more about the role of the church in the world from Chad Harrington, read his book with Jim Putman, The Revolutionary Disciple, which you can purchase here.