One True Identity, One True Community

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26a; 27, NASB95)

Photo by Laurence and Annie

Photo by Laurence and Annie

Within these two very first verses speaking of man’s creation so much applicable insight is found to our one true identity and one true community.  Here we see the Godhead Himself as the plural ‘Us’ and further creating man in ‘Our’ image and Our ‘likeness’.  Without attempting a comprehensive analysis of image and likeness here, it will suffice to point out that there exists a sense of community acting in harmony for a creative purpose within God and that that image and likeness was intended to be reflected in created man (comprising both male and female).

That image of God as community, inherent to man, has been fractured as a result of the fall and has resulted in an alienation and separation (death) that spread throughout all of man’s relationships.  The first relationship fractured is with God and then secondarily with all other members of the human race.  While fractured and distorted, all members of the human race, still bear the image of God.  Although broken, God still loves His creation and though under no obligation to His creation, He continues to rebuild our broken relationships and to rebuild a new community rooted and built up in Christ.

In the final analysis, says the Christian ethic, every man must be respected because God loves him.  The worth of an individual does not lie in the measure of his intellect, his racial origin, or his social position.  Human worth lies in relatedness to God.  Whenever this is recognized, “whitness” and “blackness” pass away as determinants in a relationship and “son” and “brother” are substituted.

– Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the defense of a philosophy of integration, 1962

God loves each and every one of us.  We are all members of the one race – the human race.  But the fall makes us prone to identify ourselves first and foremost by whatever we perceive separates us, whether it be color, ethnicity, culture, class, or country, rather than by what unites and unifies us in community.  Rev. Howard Thurman goes further in his reflection on identity and identifying beyond man’s natural distinctions:

To experience oneself as a human being is to know a sense of kinship with one’s total environment and to recognize that it is this structural relationship that makes it possible for one to experience himself as a human being.  Being white or black becomes merely incidental and is of no basic significance….

The impact upon the individual when he experiences himself as a human being is to regard himself as being of infinite worth…

It is total, it is unified and unifying.  It is not the experience of oneself as male or female, as black or white, as American or European.  It is rather the experience of oneself as being.  It is at such a time that one can hear the sound of the genuine in other human beings.  This is to be able to identify with them…

When I identify with a man, I become one with him and in him I see myself…

The religious experience as I have known it seems to swing wide the door, not merely into Life but into lives…Through the years it has driven me more and more to seek to make as a normal part of my relations with men the experiencing of them as human beings.  When this happens love has essential materials with which to work… a man comes into possession of himself more completely when he is free to love another.

– Rev. Howard Thurman, excerpts from The Luminous Darkness (1965) found in A Strange Freedom.

Mark Deymaz in his book “Building Healthy Multi-Ethnic Churchs”, insightfully points out that Christ is exalted when we transcend diversity in our love for one another.  When we transcend the separation and alienation which divides and segregates fallen man and are truly able to come together as one body, one ‘brotherhood’, through the Spirit and love of Jesus Christ, God is glorified.  Deymaz points out that Jesus’ own prayer for the church emphasize this unity as being key for His future witness in the world:

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:20-23, NASB95)

We must learn the discipline of distinguishing between learned relational culture and true identity.  As one with some cross-cultural experience, I have learned that cultures are like clothing within a wardrobe.  The more exposure to cultures that we experience, the larger our wardrobe becomes.  But in the end, the saying is true, clothing does not make the man.  Culture should not make the identity.

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NASB95)

Through Christ we share One true identity, we share One journey, we share One destination – One true community.  It all begins with a restored relationship with Jesus Christ.  To restore right relationships with other human beings, man must first enter into a restored right relationship with God, His creator.  It is freely available – all one must do is repent of sin, receive forgiveness, and walk in reconciliation (more on that to come).

For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (Colossians 1:19-20, NASB95)

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Faithfulness, forgiveness, and freedom

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” (Matthew 18:15-16, NIV)

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22, NIV)

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me. … I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.

-Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a letter from a Birmingham Jail

I have still been contemplating the deep words Rev. King wrote and found an interesting intersect with the message Pastor Jeff preached to Cornerstone last weekend on forgiveness.  Rev. King as I have asserted elsewhere was first and foremost a minister and servant of God.  His letter was one prompted by the printed criticism by his peers of his recent actions.

I cannot fathom the daily humiliations he had been subjected to during those dark days of segregation and overt racism in our country.  It is enough to find yourself alone in a jail cell for standing up and doing what your convictions tell you must be done.  But to add insult to injury, other ministers criticism of his actions were being publicized.  I suspect that these blows, delivered not by political opponents, but by brothers in the faith cut much deeper.

Rather than launch an attack, Rev. King modeled the exhortation found in Matthew 18:15.  He wrote a very long letter detailing not only the rationale and biblical justification for his actions, but his painful disappointment in the criticism they had made publicly against him.  Having made his points he concludes with tremendous insight.  If he was wrong and had overstated his case against them – he asked for their forgiveness.  If he had come up short – he asked for God’s forgiveness.  He was simply trying to be an obedient servant, faithful to God’s Word.

Their words of criticism not only hurt him personally, but also undercut the momentum gained by the sacrifices made by him and so many others.  He did not allow that to eclipse his view of them as fellow brothers and followers of Christ. He pointed out their sin against him at the same time demonstrating forgiveness.

Far too often as Pastor Jeff pointed out – we don’t even take the first step of love towards those who offend us.  We go directly to step two but not seeking others to aid in correcting and forgiving a brother or sister, but rather to build a coalition against the offender.  I know I have done this far too often to the detriment of the body.  This must change.  Another’s sins against us never justify our own disobedience to God’s commandments.

photo by Meltwater

photo by Meltwater

If we are to demonstrate true loving correction to the lost of this world, we must first be able to demonstrate the same to those within the family of Christ. As you contemplate these words, Rev. King’s example, and that of Jesus, I urge you to take some time and consider those who have sinned against you.  If you find some hatchet handles sticking out of the ground – it’s time to make amends.  It’s never too late for repentance and healing.  Remember, it has less to do with them as it does with you.  You must be faithful and obedient – and who knows, they may surprise you.  Either way – it’s a burden Jesus never meant for you to carry and forgiveness frees us from our own self-made jail cells.

Of course, we must all start with asking forgiveness of Jesus.  He paid the highest price that can be paid, His life, for our sins.  And He now offers His forgiveness freely, to any and all who will humble themselves enough to ask.

“Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”” (Acts 10:43, NASB95)