The Rev. Gordon Lindsey
In that beloved children's story Alice in Wonderland, Alice comes upon a large mushroom on top of which a caterpillar is sitting. He is smoking a hookah pipe.
Alice tries to start up a conversation with him. He looks down at her contemptuously and asks, "Who are you?"
" I — I hardly know, sir, just at the present," says Alice, "At least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."
Who are you? That is a question people are asking us all the time. Sometimes, like the caterpillar, they ask with a tone of contempt, for they are not sure we are someone worthy of their attention.
Sometimes they ask because they are simply curious. Sometimes how we answer the question will determine whether they welcome us as a friend or regard us as an enemy. That is especially true in the highly polarized political climate of America today.
There are various ways to answer the question. A very popular one in modern America is to tell someone what kind of job we have. "Oh, I'm a product manager at Raytheon." Oh, I am a second-grade teacher at Walden School." "Oh, I run an ice cream shop on Valley Street."
Defining who we are by our job carries risks. When we lose that job, do we cease to exist? That happened, I think, for a couple of managers I knew when I was working in the corporate world. When these managers retired, they died a few months later. I often wondered if when they relinquished their jobs, they felt they no longer existed as persons.
Another popular way of answering the question "Who are you?", especially in small rural towns like the one where I used to pastor the Presbyterian church, is to refer to our family ancestry. "Oh, I'm a Miller. I belong to the Miller family."
I was fascinated when I first came to this town and began visiting people, one of the first things people wanted to know was what was my family background. That's important information in putting us into our proper place in a community where families go back several generations, as they did in that town.
Other popular ways to answer the question is to refer to our nationality, our race, our educational background, or even our type in the Myers-Briggs personality inventory.
Who are you? Oh, I'm an I-N-T-J. In Myers-Briggs terminology, that means I'm basically an introverted, intuitive, thinking and judgmental personality.
In the New Testament we find that one of the big debates going on in the earliest years of the church was a debate on how to answer the question: Who are Christians? It was a debate over the identity of Christians.
There was one party in the church who answered that question by saying: Christians are Jews. Christianity is just a branch of Judaism.
From that answer they drew the conclusion that if Gentiles became Christians, they needed to live out a fully Jewish lifestyle. That would mean men would be circumcised, families would follow a kosher diet, and everyone would observe the Sabbath strictly.
Their great opponent was the apostle Paul. He argued that Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and we can never escape those roots. But Gentile Christians did not have to live like Jews. For in Christ, we have become something new, a new people who include both Jews and Gentiles.
He drew the conclusion that Jewish and Gentile Christians do not have to live the same lifestyle. They can live diverse lifestyles. Jewish Christian can live by Jewish traditions, Gentile Christians by Gentile customs. But-and this is a big but-they must recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We need to keep that debate in the back of our minds when we listen to what Paul writes to the church in Philippi in our epistle reading today. For the debate has come to the doorstep of this church and is agitating its congregational life.
It's a debate about who are you. Paul's opponents are making a big deal about the necessity of becoming Jews in order to be Christians. They are laying claim to all those things that define a Jew: circumcision, diet, law keeping.
Paul knows all about that, for he too is a superior Jew. He says in effect: If you want to compare Jewish credentials, I have you all beat. I was born a Jew. I was circumcised on the eighth day as Mosaic Law requires. I am member of the elite tribe of Benjamin.
I was a Pharisee. In fact, I was blameless in my strict observance of the Law. And he could have added on his elite education. He had been a student of Gamaliel, one of the most renowned Jewish teachers of his day. He had attended the Harvard of first-century Jerusalem.
In all these ways, Paul could claim a superiority over his opponents. Who are you? Answers Paul, " I am this full-blooded Jew."
Yet notice the amazing thing Paul does with this claim of superiority. He says that he counts it all useless rubbish. In fact, the Greek word might be more accurately translated "manure."
Why is it useless rubbish? "Because of the overwhelming gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." He has confined everything that defined his identity before to his spiritual dust bin.
Who are you, Paul? " I am a new creation in Jesus Christ," he responds in another of his letters.1
And that new identity means he has acquired new ambitions. What he cares about now is getting to know Christ in ever deeper and richer ways, to experience the spiritual power that raised Jesus from the dead, and amazingly, even to share in Christ sufferings.
His values and his desires have all been turned upside down. "Let God remold your minds from within," says Paul in chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans. And we see here how that has indeed happened for him.
His Christian life is now all about striving to be faithful to this new identity, which he has received in Christ. He does not claim to have reached perfection.
He continues to strive for the true maturity that he sees as defined by the life and character of Jesus. He knows he has much more distance to travel.
Yet he is on the road, on the road to that full transformation of his character that will be his destiny in the kingdom of God when it arrives in its full power and glory.
When I read all this and spend some time thinking about it, I find myself marveling. Paul seems to think that the Christian life is an experience of progressive transformation. As we live into our identity in Christ, we are being changed. We are becoming something new.
Paul is not the only one who thinks this way. Recently I was reading a book by Cynthia Bourgeault, an up and coming voice in the world of Christian spirituality.
In the book she says something that caught me up short. She writes: "Among the worldwide religions, Christianity is surely one of those most urgently and irrevocably set upon the total transformation of the human person." 2
"Urgently and irrevocably set upon the total transformation of the human person." Is that what the Christian life is all about for me? And for you?
Why in fact are we Christians? What do we expect from our Christian experience?
I suspect that if I were really honest with myself, I would be forced to answer: What I expect is God to bless the life I live, to make it work better, to make me happier. But don't change my life. Just make my current life better. And it sure would be great if you could make me more affluent and successful.
I don't think, however, that Paul or Cynthia would agree with me. They would respond that what the Christian life is all about is undergoing a deep, inner transformation.
It's about new Christian values coming to replace the old values that define my identity. It's about, Paul would say, coming to make the welfare of the community a value equal to my own personal self-interest and success.
It's about accepting that suffering is a part of my spiritual journey. It's about my character being reshaped in the pattern of Jesus, who told his disciples that he came to serve, not be served.
I think what we hear Paul talking about in our Philippians passage today is one of the miracles of the Christian life.
Our life of obedient behavior to Christ's law, to Christian ethics, is an important component in our Christian life. We are called to action, especially in service to the needy and vulnerable in our own society.
But I am not sure we can change our inner values and desires by our own deliberate effort. What our heart truly values or desires is something we don't, or at least don't fully, control.
The change that transforms our inner heart, including our values and desires, is something that happens to us. And it will happen to us as we deepen our relationship with Christ.
That is the reason we are called to a life of Christian discipleship. That life of discipleship includes its active components, our service to others, whether that be through things like Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, hospital visitation, work with the homeless, and other such service. It also includes our striving to be faithful Christians in doing our secular jobs and in running our businesses.
This is the way of doing.
The life of discipleship, however, also includes its inner components. I like to call these the contemplative components of a spiritual life. When I use that word "contemplative," I don't mean what we often call mystical experience.
I mean those experiences in which we set aside time to be with Christ, to get to know Christ better. That may include Bible reading. That may include prayer time.
And for me it certainly includes partaking regularly in the Lord's Supper.
For if we think about the sacrament, we can begin to understand that the Christian life is about an experience of Christ feeding us. Feeding us, yes, in the sacrament, but feeding us as well through our relationships with each other in the church. Around the table of the Lord, we become one family in this Christ who has claimed us all.
Doing and being—two ways we live out the life of Christian discipleship. And God uses them both to change us, to remold us and reshape us.
"Behold, I am doing a new thing," says God to exiled Israel in Babylon. "I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert." 3
God continues to speak that word to us today. In Jesus Christ, we have the opportunity to experience rivers of living water flowing out of our hearts. Life can spring up anew every day, even when we feel we are growing older in years.
That is the miracle of the Christian life, if we are willing to open our lives to this transforming power of God, the power of spiritual resurrection as Paul calls it in our reading today.
That's why, I believe, we should hear the Philippians passage today as words of hope. We are not trapped. We are not stuck in a life that will never be anything different, weary year after weary year.
Our lives can change, for God can—and does—continue to work miracles of transformation. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. 2 Corinthians 5:17
2. Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. New York: Cowley
Publications, 2004. Page 9.
3. Isaiah 43:19
~ The Rev. Gordon Lindsey