The Source of Identity

Colossians 3:1-4, 11 Paul considers believers to be in Christ

In the town of Stepanavan in Armenia is a woman known as Palasan’s wife. She has her own name of course, but the town’s people call her by her husband’s name to show her honour. When the devastating 1988 earthquake struck Armenia Palasan was at work. He rushed to the school where his son was a student. The facade was crumbling but he entered and began pushing children to safety. After he had helped 28 children an aftershock hit that collapsed the building on top of him and killed him. So the people of the town remember him and honour his widow by calling her Palasan’s wife.
Sometimes a person’s greatest honour is not who he or she is, but to whom he or she is related. Likewise it is the highest honour to be called a disciple of Christ for he laid down his life for all people everywhere. 
Speaking to Christians Paul said ‘You have been raised with Christ … you died and your life is now in hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory’ (Col 3:1).
Christians have an identity in Christ. But often they don’t realize the importance of it. So today we are going to take a little journey in identity formation.
What is identity? It is usually described as two things. First, it is what is common about you in all the roles you play. So if you are a father, a businessman and an amateur golfer, what part of you comes through consistently in all these roles? Secondly, it is what gives you a sense of worth. But here we need to distinguish between two types of people; people of traditional culture and people of modern western culture. In Kenya people are strongly influenced by both. In fact when people get married they usually have two weddings; a traditional one and a modern western (or Christian) one.
In traditional culture a person gets their identity from being a part of their community. You play the role that your community has cut out for you. In Kenya the Masai tribe is known for herding cattle. They take pride in this tradition and expect the generations following to do it too.
A few generations ago in Europe it was the same. My great grandfather’s family ran a butchery in Penzance, Cornwall. The entire family, which was very large, played their part in running the business. The children learnt their trade from their parents.
In Jesus’ day it was this way too. We assume he was a carpenter because Joseph was a carpenter. Your family was known generation after generation for the role it played in the community. In traditional societies your role is laid out for you and you do it with pride.
Modern western culture is very different. Here a person gets their identity from who they are as an individual. Each individual finds out what makes them tick and expresses it. They follow their desires and dreams. So if a Masai woman came under the influence of modern western people and started thinking in a modern western way she may decide that she would like to become a lawyer. But if her community insisted that she work in the home as all other Masai women do, she may choose to move away from her community so she can explore her dreams. This is now happening more and more, especially to people living near Kenya’s big cities.
Of course, a person with modern western values can also be dedicated to their community. After getting an education a Masai lawyer may return to help her community in fighting land issues. But she will do it because she chooses to, not because she is required to; which is quite different.
So are you more traditional or more modern western? If you are a member of Vineyard Mombasa you are most likely a modern western African because those are the kind of people our church tends to attract.
So now, what does an identity in Christ have to do with all this? Well, there is a problem with both the traditional and the modern western ways of forming identity. Both these ways rely on performance. Traditional people have to conform to their community’s expectations and modern western people have to decide what they want to be and then work to become it. Both sets of people work to gain an identity. But gaining an identity through performance is very dangerous because if you do well you become prideful, and if you do badly you feel you are nobody. The person that creates themselves gets big headed and the person who fails to create themselves has no identity. So what’s the solution? As usual, it’s God.
As we saw at the beginning, if we come to God through Christ we receive an identity. God sees us as being inside Christ and therefore we are sons and daughters because Christ is God’s Son. It’s an identity we don’t have to work for. Scripture says we are God’s children by grace not by works. And because it is not by works, no one can boast about what they have achieved, and no one is crushed for under-achieving. The cross reduces the proud and elevates the broken. It’s the perfect solution. And because being a son or daughter of God is a higher calling than any other, if we lose our career or community somehow, we are not reduced to a nobody; we can stand strong because our main identity is intact.
Something that brought this home to me happened in Nairobi a few years ago. A football fan committed suicide when his team lost a game. I’m a big football fan, and a strong supporter of my team, so I understand the disappointment if my team loses, but if a fan takes the game so seriously that they commit suicide, then their main identity is in the wrong thing because it is in something that can be taken from them.
But having an identity in Christ doesn’t just help us, it also helps those we relate to on a daily basis, because it stops us comparing ourselves with them.
If we base our identity on our performance, then we automatically look down on those who do not perform as well as us, and feel like we are less than those who perform better than us.
Imagine you are an architect and you attend a meeting of architects. As you walk into the room, if your identity is in how well you are doing, you will immediately note those in the room who are doing better than you, and those in the room who are doing worse than you, and you will rate yourself accordingly. This isn’t healthy for relationships as you will quickly despise those who are worse, and possibly hate those who are better. But in Christ we cannot be better or worse than others. Paul says ‘Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all’ (11).
Perhaps this is why Christianity travels so well. It is the only religion to have a major impact on all five continents. All other religions are only big on one or two continents. Christ brings relief to every culture because it relies on grace instead of performance or compliance to a set of rules.
What Christians have in Christ is really powerful. Often they themselves don’t realize just how powerful it is. They walk around like Clark Kent forgetting they have the identity of Superman.

This sermon is based on a talk by Tim Keller in his 2014 ‘Questioning Christianity’ series

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