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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Who Are We?

Who am I? That depends on who you ask. 

When I was in Grade 9, I discovered that a girl in my class had a brother who was married to a former girlfriend of my older brother. “You should tell her you know me,” I said.

A few days later, she said, “Well, I talked to my sister-in-law. She said your brother was mean and horrible, and you were a little brat.”

Generations of Sunday School children have learned the story of Zacchaeus, the wee little man. Who is Zacchaeus? It depends who you ask. The people of Jericho, Zacchaeus himself, and Jesus all had different answers to that question.

Who is Zacchaeus? If you asked the people of Jericho, they would say that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, a sinner, greedy, dishonest, corrupt, cruel, a Roman collaborator. And on top of all that, he’s short!

Who is Zacchaeus? If you asked Zacchaeus himself, he would say that he was disliked, confused, misunderstood, disrespected, ashamed, tired of feeling like an outcast, searching for a better way to live.

What about Jesus? What did he see in Zacchaeus? A man with the potential to change, the capacity to give, not just take; hungry for belonging and acceptance, a dinner companion – meaning an equal – and, in Jesus’ own words, “a son of Abraham” – part of the family.

According to Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, “Who are we?” is one of the basic questions every church should ask itself. What if we were to ask this question about our churches from a variety of perspectives -- the community, ourselves, and Jesus?

Who are we? What would the community outside the church say? We might be surprised. I was going to a meeting at a church in a small town. It was pre-GPS days and I didn’t really know where I was going. Three times, I stopped and asked a passerby, “Do you know where the United Church is?” And three times, I received the answer, “No idea” If we asked the community who we are, they might say, “Beats me,”
I once heard an Anglican priest describe attending a neighborhood BBQ. “What do you do?” one of his neighbors asked. “I’m a pastor,” he replied. “Wow, it must be hard to be so closed-minded and judgmental all the time,” the neighbor said. Is that how people outside the church see us? 
I know the answer the community would give about my former congregation. “That’s the church with the great flea market every April.”

Who are we? What would the members of our church say?

Statistically, it’s likely they would say “We’re friendly.” All churches think they’re friendly. Or “We’re a family.” Many churches say, “We’re aging.” Or, “We aren’t what we used to be.” Almost all churches would say, “Flawed.”

Recently, I led a workshop at a church and asked them to describe their main strengths. They came up with answers like, “loyal,” “devoted,” “caring.” Then I asked them to describe their weaknesses. They said things like, “superficial,” “judgmental,” “afraid to change.” Isn’t it interesting, I thought, that they would say all those things about themselves at the same time. We love our churches and we’re proud of them. But we also know how deeply imperfect our churches are, and how far short we fall of who God calls us to be.

Who are we? What would Jesus say? 

Scripture gives us some ideas about that. First of all, Jesus would see us exactly for who we are, with no illusions. He had no illusions about his disciples, and he has none about us. He knows us better than we know ourselves.

But Jesus sees us as God sees us, created in God’s own image. Jesus sees us  differently from the way others see us, or we see ourselves.

The First Letter of Peter was written to scattered, struggling churches whom Peter called “exiles.” They didn’t count for much in the world’s eyes. They felt inadequate and discouraged – like many of our churches.

But Peter wanted them to see themselves as God sees them. So here’s what he said:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[c] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
    but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
    but now you have received mercy.”

Who are we? How different Jesus’ answer is from that of the surrounding culture, or ourselves. 
We are invited to find our identity in Christ, to see ourselves as Jesus sees us.  Because that’s the deepest truth. We are precious, valued, beloved, called and chosen. It’s that identity that identity that Jesus wants us to embrace, and it’s out of that identity that Jesus wants us to live.

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