Our identity in Christ supersedes all others.
No allegiance is more important.
This is the basis for our unity in Christ.
In the Gospel of Mark, 1:14-20, we witness Jesus calling four fishermen (at least one of whom was also a disciple of John the Baptist) to become disciples of his. He does this by rooting the call in their identity – “You are fishermen. I will make you fishers of men.”
Our identity in Christ derives from and is rooted in our identity before Christ, with a continuity that bridges the gap., as Paul says, “4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Cor 5:4). Our transformation is becoming more fully ourselves.
As Paul was writing his early letter to the Corinthians, it was early in his ministry and he believed that Christ would return very soon. This led him to urge people to not try to move from one station in life to another “for the time is short.” (1 Cor 7) Slaves and masters, husbands and wives, whatever your situation, seek to make the most of it. That’s a hard pill to swallow today, because we are so interested in liberation from oppression – as well we should be. If we thought that the world we know were going to end within months, we might set different priorities, as Paul obviously did.
Paul says there is no longer Jew or Gentile, Male or Female, Slave or Free (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). He’s not, of course, speaking literally. Christ does not eliminate these distinctions. He enfolds, encapsulates, eclipses. He takes down “the dividing wall, the hostility” that was rooted in these distinctives. God obviously loves endless variety and complexity, even within the church. Every snowflake and every face and every personality are similarly unique and wondrous. But no longer does our individualism or our group identity become cause or justification for our separation from others, our oppression and rejection of others.
Again, it is important to recall that Paul believed his world was coming to an end shortly: “…in light of the impending crisis…. and the appointed time has grown short…” (1 Cor 7:26, 29) This both energizes and tempers his thoughts on identity. Had he known that we’d still be here 2000 years later waiting for the second coming of Christ, might he have addressed the inequity in relationships, particularly between husbands and wives, masters and servants, differently? We can’t know. We do know that he urged Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother rather than as a slave (Philemon 1:16-17). This may hint at what Paul thought ought to happen more broadly. “Brother in Christ” trumps the identities of “master” and “slave.”
What might this understanding do to our political landscape? Imagine if our politicians who consider themselves followers of Jesus were to join hands as sisters and brothers, owning the truth that their identity in Him trumps any political affiliation, ideology or “ism”?
What if in our social interactions and community conversations we looked first at people as sisters and brothers? Granted, many around us are not professing disciples of Jesus. We are called to love them just as much. For the moment though, let’s just consider those who are. When we look at those across town who are in need, and we realize that many of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ, how does that change our feeling, thinking, and acting?
What relationships do we intentionally cultivate with those who look and live differently from us? Those in whose neighborhoods we would not immediately feel at home? Might Christ be calling us to more than a passive and tacit acknowledgement of our filial love? Might God want a proactive and energetic engagement? What would that look like? Where would we even start?
If we actually took our identity in Christ seriously, how would we disagree differently? How would I listen more and worry less about convincing you of my point of view? Paul is so serious about this that he chastises the Corinthians for suing and taking a fellow Christian to court. Better, Paul says, to let yourself be cheated than to violate your relationship in Christ (1 Cor 6.1 ff). Can we bring forward the fullness of our unique identity AND affirm our unity in Christ?