Preaching Evensong this evening Sr Joanna reflects on our identity as disciples of Christ.
In our Old Testament reading tonight, the prophet Jeremiah speaks to the people of Israel in frustration. ‘I called you, but you did not answer.’ The people of Israel seem to spend the Old Testament caught in a negative cycle: they live faithfully for a while, the Lord protects them; they forget him and let him down, and when calamity strikes, they repent and briefly start again. You do not have to flick through many pages to find a passage where God, through the prophets, weeps for his disobedient nation.
We often use phrases like ‘God’s people’, but I think the cultural distance and semiological differences between ourselves and the people of pre-Christian Israel has reduced the impact of this phrase. I know that, coming from an easy start in a white, British household, national and ethnic identities meant very little to me; only when I found out about my Jewish heritage as a teenager did I start to think about how national identity had shaped my life. For much of the world, the privilege of forgetting or ignoring one’s nationhood and ethnicity is not a possibility. But issues of conflict over collective identity are not new. The Old Testament is in many ways a story of the changing identity of a people, and the struggle between religious, cultural and ethnic identities in establishing dominance as the primary mode of identification. By what mark do the people of Israel identify themselves as God’s people? Is it by their presence in the Holy Land, or by possession of Jerusalem? Is it by following the laws and rites of the Torah exactly? Is it by circumcision? Or is it, first and foremost, an identity in the Lord?
In this passage from Jeremiah, the prophet speaks to a people who believe strongly that they arethe people of God. But they are disloyal to God in their behaviour, and no longer know or love him. They have forgotten that being the people of God means being of God – living in him and following his way.
Whilst I was at university, I became involved with the student Creative Writing Society. We had great fun putting on workshops, socials and creative activities, and I considered that group of kind, creative people to be my family. But after a while I lost interest in turning up to the workshops, and only went to the socials. And then I dropped out of the socials, and just talked to the friends I had already made. But I still called myself a proud member of the Creative Writing Society, and because I’d been there a while, I felt pretty important. Eventually, I was one of the longest-standing members! But when I did go back and join in a workshop, I realised that I hardly knew any of the people attending, and I’d missed out on all the projects the society was working on. I wanted to belong without giving anything back.
The early Christians in Rome were wrestling with questions of their identity. The Jewish believers in the community were part of a diaspora flung far from their homeland, which was so strongly connected to their identity as God’s people. And then there were the Gentile converts, uncircumcised, and part of a nation which was then oppressing the people of Israel. How could either of these groups call themselves the ‘people of God’? And with that doubt in mind, how could they be sure that the resurrection was meant for them, that this Jewish messiah’s message was for them at all?
Paul’s strategy in challenging this is to quote the prophet Hosea.
Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people’, and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved’, he says, and in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God.
By referring to one of the great prophets of the old testament, Paul connects the believers in Rome to the prophecies given to the Jewish people; he affirms that these prophecies, these promises, are made for them as well. Just as the Israelites lost their identity as the ‘people of God’ through their behaviour, so the new believers could gain it through their faithfulness.
So we have two models of how we can look on our identity as the people of God. The disobedient believers of Jeremiah’s time, who take that identity as a right; and the uncertain, self-deprecating believers in Rome, who understand what a gift it is to be known as one of God’s people.
As we come to understand what it means to be one of God’s people, it can feel like the bar has been set far too high for us. But what we must understand is belonging to God is not a qualification. It doesn’t come with a list of pre-requirements. It doesn’t rely on your ancestry, your place of birth, your marital status. It is a way of being in God and with God, suitable for rough and ready, and entirely reliant on God’s grace. Paul says in this passage: ‘Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!’; there is no injustice – we must learn to trust in the judgement of the Lord, and not on our own understanding. The message is this: I will choose whom I will choose. And if I choose someone, who can say, ‘not them?’. No flaw, no degree of difference, no inexperience, no background, is insurmountable to God. And he is also saying: If I chose to forgive you your sins, who are you to hold on to them? If I chose to call you, who are you to hang back?
Growing up in a church family, it came as a shock to realise how uncomfortable people who have not been brought up in the faith can feel around church. If you’ve been to funerals, weddings or baptisms where the majority are not regular churchgoers, you may have noticed that some people are shy about entering the building. They may not know if they can take communion, may not feeling worthy or able to join in. And some do not participate because they don’t feel it’s for ‘the likes of them’. How often have you heard of, or even witnessed, the distance between those ‘in the know’ about faith, and those who are as yet untaught?
And yet God is absolutely calling them. He will chose whom he will chose. Those who do not feel that they are his people will be called his people. Every uncomfortable stranger, unchurched bloke who doesn’t join in at the funeral, every noisy parent and toddler, gawping tourist, too-loud coach tour, every one of them are God’s called and beloved. How do we welcome the stranger in our midst and tell them that they are the beloved one of Christ?
The truth is that none of us deserve to be called the people of God, because it is not a title we have to earn. And as God sees and calls the stranger and outsider, he also calls the stranger and outsider within ourselves.
In my journey through faith, there have often been times when I have not seen my own value, and I find it hard to understand why and how God could love me. I often feel that my faith is too small to even deserve to be called a Christian. But to this St Paul says: ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy’ – to paraphrase, ‘I want you, so deal with it!’ During Lent the community read about the prophet Jonah, whose life is characterised by fear of the calling God has sent him. But no matter how far he runs, and how often he insists that he is unable to do what God tells him, he cannot escape from that call – and when he accepts it, he is able to transform the lives of all the people of Ninevah.
In the Benedictine monastic tradition, three promises are made at life vows – not poverty, chastity and obedience, but stability, obedience, and conversion of life. Conversion of life; life transformed in response to God’s love, not as a precondition, not as a requirement, but as a response. We do not have to be ‘good enough’ or get all the rules right to be called as one of God’s people, but we must respond to that call. The love extended to you and to each of us is a challenge to change our lives.
In the places in your lives where you say ‘I am not one of God’s people’; in the places where we say to others ‘you are not one of God’s people’, God replies: ‘There you shall be called children of the living God.’