By Pastor Tracey Leslie
As some of you are aware I was on vacation last weekend in Cincinnati with my sister. On Saturday we visited the Freedom Center. At the museum I read the remarkable story of a young African man born the son of a tribal king and then snatched up by traders, stored in a slave castle, carried across the ocean chained in the hull of a ship and subjected to slavery on a southern plantation. Can you imagine being born a prince and becoming a slave? While in Cincinnati, my sister and I rented the movie Saints and Strangers, the story of the settling of the Plymouth Colony. A character in the story was a Native American named Squanto from the Patuxet tribe. He too was captured and enslaved during an early European expedition to America. It’s estimated that he made the Transatlantic voyage six times during his life. On his first return voyage, he discovered his tribe was nearly extinct having been wiped out by disease. In the movie, there is ambiguity surrounding Squanto’s cause of death. He was ultimately viewed with suspicion by the natives and the pilgrims. Squanto spent much of his life in a sort of cultural “no man’s land”; no longer belonging to the nearly extinct culture of his birth, but never finding a home in the culture of the European settlers. In one scene in the movie he speaks to a pilgrim about his feeling of longing for home even while physically present in his native land.
Identity is a powerful thing. Today more than ever in history, people find themselves moving among cultures. Immigrants, in particular, often struggle to define and describe their identity. Where does identity come from and to whom do we belong? Is identity about nationality; our family of origin; our ethnicity? How is it influenced by our level of education, our economic status or the belief system in which we are indoctrinated? What prejudices, stereotypes and biases do we carry in relation to the various categories that combine to construct identity for ourselves and others? Studies reveal that many who are unable to establish a clear sense of identity succumb to substance abuse and depression. Likewise, those prejudices and biases we hold with regard to the identities of others often play out through violence and oppression. Few questions are of more critical importance than the question of identity.
For several weeks now, I’ve been leading a Sunday morning study on the gospel of John. All of the gospel writers – and especially John – seek through their gospel narrative to reveal the true identity of Jesus. The decision we make about the identity of Jesus is critical to our own identity. In naming ourselves “Christian,” we reveal that who we are is dependent upon who we understand Jesus to be. Our identity is wrapped up in the identity of Jesus. Certainly, there are many factors that contribute to identity. But, if we name ourselves “Christian,” it means that no other influence – no other factor, no other role, no other relationship – can be allowed to take precedent over that primary identity established through our relationship with Jesus. We may be children, parents, spouses, teachers, bosses, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals… but none of those can be allowed to take precedent over our primary identity: Christian; an identity discovered and established in the context of relationship with Jesus. To the fundamental question of identity, the question “Who are you?” we respond “Call me Christian.”
So, what does it mean to you, to us, to be called Christian; to define ourselves in relation to Christ? Is it truly the identity that supersedes all others; the primary identity that shapes, guides and defines our words, our values, our thoughts, our behaviors and our character?
Today begins a new sermon series called Built to Last: How the Church Can Thrive in Today’s Culture. Friends, today in America, fewer and fewer people attend church. Research has shown that some view that label “Christian” in a very negative light. They feel no attraction to Christ because they have had hurtful, harmful encounters with those who bear his name. And research has shown that for many people, the definition of Christian may have little to do with how that identity is described and defined in scripture. Today in American, there is cultural confusion about what a Christian is, what it means to self-identify as Christian and that is exercising an enormous – and sometimes negative – impact on those already in the church and, especially, on those we are trying to reach. We are now in a culture where we can no longer afford to assume that people share a common, biblically-based understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
So, what does it mean? Even for many of us raised in the church, the biblical and theological understanding of Christian may be ambiguous.
Now in truth, in our gospels, Jesus never uses the term “Christian” and the word “Church” appears only a couple times in the gospel of Matthew. But I do think that today’s gospel reading sheds important light on the meaning of Christian because it incorporates two terms or titles that would have been crucial to understanding the identity of Jesus and, therefore, his followers within the early Church. Those two terms, those two titles are “teacher” and “Lord.” Jesus affirms that those two terms are appropriately descriptive of who he is. He says to the disciples, “You call me teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am.”[i] And so Christians, folks like you and me, are unable to understand our own identity without having a clear understanding of what it means for Jesus to be our teacher and our Lord.
The scripture I read this morning is John’s account of Jesus’ final evening with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus is sharing a meal with them. Now, feet got especially dirty in the ancient Mediterranean world. The average peasant’s only form of transportation was their own two feet; shoes were open sandals, and roads were dusty. Feet got pretty nasty. Usually, people washed their own feet when they arrived at someone’s home. It was common courtesy to have water and a basin available for ones guests to wash their feet. If a guest was especially important, their host might honor them by having a servant wash their feet. But Jesus shocks his disciples, in fact he makes them quite uncomfortable, when he – their teacher and Lord – gets up from the table and begins to wash their feet. One would never wash the feet of a subordinate. Now Jesus knows the disciples are struggling with this; finding it hard to accept. Peter comes right out and objects. But after Jesus has served them in such a humble way, he interprets his own actions. Jesus will clearly explain what those humble, sacrificial actions he has just performed imply for them and for him. You see, by this point in the gospel story, the disciples – and the gospel readers for that matter – have come to some conclusions about who Jesus is. They do consider him their teacher, their Rabbi, and they acknowledge he has great authority. They call him “Lord,” a word meaning master or one who is in charge of another, who has authority over that one. By calling someone Lord, the one who employs the title gives up their individual rights and independence; they acknowledge that the one who they have addressed as Lord is the one who has the power to call the shots in their life. “Lord” in the first century Mediterranean world was a position of power and influence and so, the disciples don’t have a way of mentally merging the “power title” of Lord with the demeaning, humiliating act of foot washing. The two simply do not belong together. They are polar opposites… until Jesus makes clear that they are not. He is their Lord; he is everything he says he is and everything they have acknowledged him to be. He is a Lord and a Master; but the way in which Jesus has demonstrated and taught the meaning of authority is through humble, sacrificial acts of love and service. And yes, by the way, he is also their rabbi; a word that means “teacher.” They are his disciples, his students; learning from him how to behave toward others. And this is the master’s lesson: if he considers it fitting and appropriate to perform such a humiliating, lowly act of service; then they, as his students and followers ought to also demonstrate their association with him and their commitment to him through humble acts of loving service. To name ourselves “Christian” means we live in loyal commitment to and in faithful imitation of Jesus, our Teacher and Lord.
Friends, just imagine for a moment what our world might look like, might be like, if all who identified themselves with Jesus allowed Jesus to truly be Lord over their lives, to exercise authority over them. And imagine for a moment what our world might look like, might be like, if we learned from Jesus, our Rabbi, that even the mightiest and most influential are to follow the example of Jesus and seek out ways to serve others both humbly and sacrificially. That is what it means to call ourselves Christian; to live as Jesus lived. “I have set you an example,” Jesus says; an object lesson in what it means to tie our own identity – Christian – to that of Christ, our teacher and Lord.
Many of you have heard me talk about how important it is for us to use our resources wisely at Trinity. Our church – like many others – is not as big as it used to be and that’s why it’s more important than ever before that everything God has entrusted to us is focused on loving and serving others; on following the example of Jesus. It’s about relationships. That’s why our Vision Statement is “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.”
Friends: buildings, committee structures, budgets… all of those things exist as resources for what is of ultimate importance: living out our commitment to Jesus as teacher and Lord by living, loving and serving others just like Jesus did. Today is as good a day as any for each of us – individually and as a church – to examine our lives to determine: are we loving and serving in ways that reveal our loyalty and obedience to Jesus.
As I close my sermon this morning, I want to give a couple ideas for ways we can put the teachings of Jesus into practice here and now.
Here’s one: Look around the sanctuary before you leave this morning and don’t just look; see. Perhaps you see someone new you don’t recognize. Welcome them, introduce yourself, find out who they are, invite them to join you for lunch after worship.
Or, perhaps as you look around, you see someone you know has been going through a tough time – difficulties with their health, their finances, or a family member. Jot yourself a note and call them this week and let them know you care, pray for them over the phone; ask if there is anything you can do to help.
Here’s a second idea: Think of a young family you know that is struggling – here in our church, in your neighborhood, where you work. Maybe they’re having trouble making ends meet or maybe one parent works out of town and the other parent feels like they’re at wits end. Do something gracious this week to serve them. Do a McDonald’s run and drop off dinner for them. If you used to teach, offer to help one of the kids with their homework. As most of you know, we’re working toward becoming a site for Head Start this fall. But we don’t need to wait for something “official” to show the young families of this community that we care about them.
Here’s a third idea: in two weeks we’re going to recognize local law enforcement. It’s tough to be in law enforcement these days; it’s often dangerous and thankless. So, along with some other churches in our community, we’re going to have a brief service of thanksgiving and blessing on May 15 & 17. All the details are in your bulletin and your newsletter. So, get involved in a way that allows you to serve those who “protect and serve.”
Friends, those are just a few ideas. But don’t stop there. When we name ourselves “Christian” we need to love and to serve others in humble, sacrificial ways because how we love and how we serve will show the world what it means to say “Call me Christian.”
[i] John 13:13 NRSV
On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
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