Who is Jesus without God and the Holy Spirit?
Who is the Holy Spirit without Jesus or God?
Who is God without Jesus or the Holy Spirit?
Without all three, the picture is incomplete. We do not understand God without Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Unless we understand God in terms of community – Trinity – we do not understand God. That’s by design – there has never been a time when God was not Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All three are an essential part of the identity of God.
Now – who am I without the church? Who is the church without me? I don’t mean the pastor part of me, I mean me. Has the church contributed to my identity? Have I somehow contributed something to the church? Because it seems that from the beginning, God was community – and if that is true, that should say something for the value of finding ourselves – even our identity – in community.
Identity is at the core of so many things with which the Western church struggles. It is at the core of politics (am I conservative or liberal? Right or left? Republican or Democrat?), our cultural shift in the way we understand human sexuality and gender identity (am I LGBTQAI? Am I straight? If I am one of these things, how am I to understand myself?), citizenship (to which nation do I belong? What is required of me for citizenship?), etc.
We define ourselves in many ways – but I wonder if we are starting at the wrong place.
An essential part of being a follower of Christ is finding our identity in Him. That’s our starting point. When we’re talking about politics, there’s a tendency to say something along the line of “I am Christian, therefore I belong to x party.” Or “I belong to x party and I am a Christian, therefore that party is Christian.” Or “Y party does not share my values, therefore it is not Christian.”
(By the way – can a party be a Christian? Does a party have a soul? Doesn’t a party serve a nation, and aren’t we Kingdom citizens?)
The problem is that we’re starting with us – and however we define ourselves – and then making our way to faith issues. But part of being a Christian is putting away the “old self” (Eph. 4:22-24) and finding ourselves in Christ. Jesus’ instructions to his disciples is “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24). Jesus instructs that a person cannot see the Kingdom unless they are “born from above” (John 3:1-10).
Put away the old self.
Experience rebirth in Christ.
An essential part of being a follower of Christ is finding our identity in Him. That’s our starting point. Not our partisan affiliation, or sexuality, or gender identity, or national heritage – we find ourselves first in Christ.
Then we begin to make sense of the rest of it.
Instead of saying “I am a Republican, therefore I am a Christian,” we say “I am in Christ – how does that call me to engage in politics?”
Instead of saying “I am gay/lesbian/bisexual/questioning my sexuality/straight, what does it mean for me to be a Christian?” we say “I am in Christ – now what does healthy sexuality look like for a Christian?”
Instead of saying “I am a woman/man/transgender/wrong gender/questioning my gender identity/etc., we say “I am in Christ – now how does that inform my perception of myself?”
Listen closely – I am not coming to conclusions for anyone on these questions. I’m simply asserting that as Christians, Christ is our starting point. Because “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28).
When we find ourselves in Christ, Christ becomes our starting point.
We do not just find ourselves in Christ – we find ourselves a part of the community of Christ – the Church; a body of believers which together pursues the now-and-not-yet reality of the Kingdom of God. And the Church is a plurality of voices, which are seeking to wrestle with what it means to live out our faith.
And we need the Church.
We need it because it grounds us. Because it helps us to recognize where the core of our identity is. It reminds us of our starting point.
Last week, when the United Methodist Church was debating issues at its General Conference, the denomination could not agree on a few contentious issues. Interestingly, the American church found itself at odds with the International church – most notably the African church. As I watched it unfold, I recognized in a new way the value of being a part of an international denomination (the Church of the Nazarene) which values a Big Tent approach. Whether you want to argue that the American church is trying to pull the International church along, or whether you want to argue that the International church is keeping the American church in check – the reality is, we need each other. We need to hear each other’s voices. And our most contentious disagreements, which result in part due to our Big Tent approach, are incredibly valuable.
At the local level – we need community because it reminds us of the source of our new identity, and helps us to pursue Christ.
At an international level – we need the global Church because it keeps us balanced, pulling us away from cultural biases, and reminding us of the God we serve. It helps us pursue Christ. The plurality of voices are a good thing.
We need community – not just because it points us to God, but because God is only God in community. As the hymn affirms, God is “God in three persons, blessed Trinity!”