Gospel Identity

As we continue our Eastertide series in 1 Peter, we reflect on where we find our true identity. We are so easily swayed and distracted by the voices around us that try to define who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming. Our hope is that during this series we can join together as a community to let the truth of the Gospel permeate the way we see ourselves and each other. 

Two wonderful sisters attend our church. One came first. She loved the music and the people. And, as a professional percussionist, found great delight when she soon began to participate. A Christian for much of her adult life, she had been praying her sister would join her. And one day she did.

Most of her adult life this second sister had been searching. In her own words she “tried everything.” She explored Eastern religion and various churches, independent and organized, formal and loose, orthodox and experimental. Nothing “fit.” Until she joined her sister. She said, “By the end of that first service I knew I was home.” But the third worship service changed her life.

Periodically, to “remember our baptism,” and so also our identity in Christ, we, like generations of Christians before us, dip a branch into a bowl of water and fling water into the congregation. I confess as a pastor I was first a bit anxious about this. Would folks think we’ve lost our mind?  Would it feel too showy? Would it detract from the words of confession and assurance that framed it rather than enhance and add to them? The first week my fears were set aside.

Grade schoolers reveled in the experience, some motioning enthusiastically for more water to come their way; adolescents delighted; some seniors closed their eyes as if gathering memories recent and past.

This sister remembers it well. Because it changed her life. The flung water didn’t seem any more foreign than anything else; every part of worship was new. She had no expectations. But she could not have anticipated what actually did happen. When the water hit her she felt and was new. She said, “I’ve had all kinds of highs, art and music and sex, LSD and marijuana, but this was a high of another scale. It was as if the love of God surrounded me and lifted me off my chair. As if right then, I was baptized by the Holy Spirit. Right then I became a Christian.”

More often the results of enacting the liturgy are less dramatic. Often, when we rehearse the timeless rites of worship, feelings seem minimal or absent. Even when they are present, seen through tears of recognition or deep reflection, they’re often unnoticeable.

The experience of these wonderful sisters makes me remember what the insightful orthodox liturgist Alexander Schmemann wrote: the liturgy “actualizes” the church. In other words, when we enact the liturgy, we become our true self (For the Life of the World, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973/2002). We tell our true story; we more deeply enter our identity. We are never more our true selves than when we live out the story—the call to worship, the confession, the assurance, the gospel proclamation, and the Eucharist.

A couple years ago we began to celebrate weekly Eucharist. It happened in stages. First we celebrated monthly. Then bi-weekly. Then weekly—like most of the church of all times and places. Some participants, lifelong or converted Protestants were nervous. Wouldn’t this make communion less special? Wouldn’t it become a thoughtless routine? Wouldn’t it be inhospitable to the spiritual wondering people among us?

No. Thank God, no. As it turns out, weekly Eucharist, like the rest of the liturgy, “actualizes” the church. Schmemann was right. With the two sisters, all of us come forward with walkers or confident strides, limps and custom gaits, becoming our true, gospel selves.

Going Deeper:

If you want to join us in reflecting on our true identity, here are some things to reflect on and challenge yourself with this season.

  1. Where are you often tempted to find your identity if it is not in Christ?
  2. How do our own misconceptions of our identity impact our relationship with others?
  3. Are there any liturgical practices in the church that have had a big impact on your faith?
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