Text: Galatians 2:15-21 (“Christ lives in me”)
Questions of identity often confront us. This summer, with the sacraments of the church in the background, we have reflected on physical, emotional, and intellectual identity.
Do we base our identity on ancestral heritage? On feelings and desires? On how we articulate perspectives and ideas?
For Paul, the answer is “none of the above.” In the passage we just heard, Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Having encountered the Risen Christ in a moment of crisis, Paul’s ego has dissolved and his identity merges with the universe.
Paul’s words describe a state in which normal concerns about aches and pains, feelings and relationships, or ideas and values have faded into the background. In their place, rises the Source of Love known to him as Christ.
In such an ecstatic union with the Divine, it does not matter if one is Black or White, gay or straight, young or old. When we are grasped — if only for a moment — by an awareness that ego is an illusion, we are freed from concerns about family and nation, pain and pleasure, or right and wrong. We have entered the eternal now in which we know that our Source is in Love and it is to Love that we return.
A writer who has helped me think about St. Paul’s startling words is another theologian named Paul. Paul Tillich wrote the following in 1955. “The greatness of Christianity is that it can see how unimportant it is.” This quote, which inspired the title of this reflection, is from a book of sermons by Tillich called, “The New Being.”
Tillich is not only my favourite theologian. He was also my father’s teacher when he studied in New York in 1949 at Union Theological Seminary.
Tillich had moved to New York from Germany in 1933 after being fired by the Nazi government from his position as a theology professor in Frankfurt. As a Lutheran minister, Tillich was the first non-Jewish professor to be removed by the Nazis after their election victory that year. They did so because Tillich had disciplined some Nazi students who had beaten up anti-racist students.
Nazism has been in the news lately because of a rally by neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists in Charlottesville Virginia last weekend. One of the racists drove a car into the counter protestors injuring 20 and killing one.
When this fascist murdered Heather Heyer with a tactic borrowed from ISIS, most of us reacted with unequivocal sorrow and anger. But in his response, the U.S. President, blamed last weekend’s terrorism not just on the Nazis who had gathered to spread hatred with torches, swastikas, and Confederate flags, but also on people like Heather Heyer who rallied against hatred and fear. The President then joined the call of the far-right to preserve monuments to the pro-slavery revolt of the Confederacy in the 1860s . . .
Some people have complained about the frequency with which I mention the U.S. President, and I think I understand. Not everyone feels about the President the way I do; and even some who do feel the same might want Sunday to be a sanctuary from the rancour that has characterized North American politics for so long.
Nevertheless, I speak again about the U.S. President today. The fact that 63 million Americans last November voted for a candidate who panders to racism highlights the difficulties we face in knowing who we are today.
The success of racism as a political brand in the U.S and elsewhere is what motivated this summer sermon series on the stages of spiritual growth and identity formation.
I also speak about the President today because of the support his immoral and racist brand has received from the white church. That support was crucial to his election victory and it helps explain why one third of Americans still support the President despite what looks to me like an uniquely disastrous seven first months in office.
Last week amid a flurry of resignations by key advisors to the President, Rev. A.R. Bernard, a pastor of a New York megachurch, became the first member of the President’s Evangelical Advisory Council to resign. I applaud Rev. Bernard for doing so and urge the others who remain to follow suit.
Racism has gained new traction, many believe, because of globalization, post-colonial wars, and the spread of digital technology. Amid ever-increasing social change, many of us are confused about who we are. And so, politicians who appeal to a pre-modern culture when people on different continents had no connection with one another find resonance.
In times of fear, the colour of our skin, the nation in which were born, and the religion of our grandparents can become key markers of identity. Racism asks us to retreat to our tribe and to fear the stranger.
I can understand the appeal of racism. Those of us who are not of Native descent may feel uncomfortable to realize that we live on stolen land. Those of us who are not Black may feel awkward to realize that much of today’s wealth is founded on 350 years of the cross-Atlantic slave trade.
In the face of relentless social change that erases pre-modern markers of identity like skin-colour, religion, and gender roles, we may feel relief when racist politicians urge us to turn our backs on these changes.
Take, for instance, the question “who am I?” A racist politician might urge me to identify myself as a white, Christian, Canadian, heterosexual, cis-gendered male. All these adjectives are true, but is this the best way to define myself?
At times, my heritage can seem terribly important. But at other times, these markers fade into the background.
It is true that eight generations ago my ancestors came to Canada from Ireland and Scotland. But thousands of generations before that everyone’s ancestors lived in Africa. And millions of generations before that, our ancestors were non-human. All human are kin; all branches of life are kin.
With effort, any of us can identify with the lives of all people. Through shared work, conversation, and cultural encounters we can learn from people of all languages, sexualities, and nationalities. As humans, we can seek and find unity through shared values like beauty, truth, and love.
Racism seeks to divide us. But spiritual growth, at its best, helps to dissolve differences in the struggle for justice and in the work of healing and compassion.
The two Paul’s help direct us away from division and towards universal love. St. Paul finds ecstasy when his ego dissolves and the Risen Christ takes its place. I don’t imagine that such a state can be sustained for longer than a moment. But they point us to our connection to all of life and to the Source of Love we call God. They also remind us that no matter the joys or pains of our individual lives, we have nothing to fear in death.
Paul Tillich makes the startling claim that the greatness of Christianity is found in how unimportant it is. By this he means that Christianity points beyond itself to God as Source. Jesus of Nazareth helped his friends find a path beyond their religious heritage towards something closer to Love. In a similar way, the Christian church at its best is always about what is coming next. This is the Protestant principle of a reformed church that is always reforming.
When we remember our connection to the Cosmic Christ, the markers of identity upheld by racists fall away. In Christ, we are neither Jew or Greek, American or Mexican, Christian or Muslim, male or female. We are human beings who follow a spiritual path that, with Grace, unites us with our cosmic past and points to our cosmic destiny.
Any of the stages of identity formation can trip us up and throw us away from faith and towards fear. If we can’t accept our physical fragility; if we are not grounded enough in our ancestry to be able to move beyond it; if we struggle to handle our emotions; and if we can’t build families marked by respect; we are more apt to listen the siren songs of racism and hatred.
Happily, there are beloved communities like this one in which to confront the challenges of identity and to help us stay on a path of compassion, justice and unity. So, as we struggle with social change and with difficult social problems, may we help each other to focus on the Crucified Christ who lives within us and who leads us towards a universal love that trumps even the strongest hate.
May it be so. Amen.