Identity–Those Known by God–Aug. 24/14

Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s something different about you.  I don’t mean that you’re a weirdo, although if the shoe fits… No, there’s something different about you.  It’s not your hair… not a new sweater… I know what it is!  You changed your heart, didn’t you?  You may never hear those words from your spouse, parent, or child, but they’re the words that God longs to have true of you.  A changed heart.  God is in the business of changing people’s hearts – because He knows what a human heart is otherwise, and because He knows what it can become.  God, who spoke Creation into being, is recreating it.  St. Athanasius said it like this: The renewal of Creation has been the work of the self-same Word that made it at the beginning.

The question is sometimes asked, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  And maybe that’s the place to start.  Where is your heart today?  What is your heart today?  How has God changed your heart – how is He continuing to work in it, today?

We need to be clear about what God changing the human heart looks like.  Jesus doesn’t set us free from the power of sin, which is death, in our lives so that we can uninhibitedly mould our lives around the standards and expectations of the cultural contest we find ourselves in.  He doesn’t set us free for the purpose of conformity to the world.  Rather, He sets us free so that we can be open to the Spirit’s work in us, transforming us to be like Him.  As Scripture says elsewhere, it is for holiness, for righteousness, that you have been set free.  Sanctification, it has been said, is a gracious work of God whereby He gradually divests from sin the inclinations and dispositions of the regenerate and clothes them with holiness.

Consider the midwives in Egypt at the start of Exodus.  It would have been easy for them to just stick to the Pharaoh’s plan, wouldn’t it?  I can’t imagine it was a comfortable conversation when he summoned them back to ask why the babies were surviving.  Kill those baby boys; conform to the standards of the surrounding, dominant, culture.  Not in God’s Kingdom; not to the midwives.  They chose, therefore, transformation from the world rather than conformity with it.

Thomas a Kempis put forward this challenge: Let us arm ourselves against all sins, against pride, against hatred, against ambition, against envy, against covetousness, against sensuality.  Let heaven see that, even on earth, it has those who stand on its side.  Let hell know that, even on earth, there are those who make war against it with the Word of God.  And let earth itself know that it is still capable of once more growing green and of giving much fruit.

And so God calls us to transformation by His Spirit’s work in us, not conformity with the world.  And He calls us to transformation as members of a transformed community.

Paul talks about living together as one, though we are many.  The image he uses is of a body with many members.  Last week I talked about a stained glass window that has many pieces of glass fitted together in it, or a number of pianos all tuned to a single tuning fork.  This is another way that we’re different – God changes our hearts to include one another.  In a similar way to when a couple gets married and they learn to think as a unit, rather than as two individuals.  They consider one another: feelings, commitments, responsibilities.  They plan a future that includes them being together.  They spend joint resources for joint benefit.  So it is for us, in Christ’s Body, the Church.

Richard Baxter represented Christian one-up-manship like this: For one sect to say, “Ours is the true church,” and another to say, “No, ours is the true church,” is as mad as to dispute whether your hall, kitchen, parlour, or utilities room is your house; and for one to say, “This is the house,” and another, “No, this is it”: when a child can tell them that the best is but a part, and the house contains them all.

And so God changes our hearts by transforming us to be like Him, by putting the rest of His children in it, and by teaching us to be reliant on His goodness rather than our own ability.

As He changes hearts He also teaches us to trust and rely on Him – not on ourselves.  And that’s a significant thing.  My heart is naturally disposed to myself.  I’m naturally self-confident, naturally full of self-ambition, naturally self-promoting above others (even at their expense, when necessary).  Yet as God remakes my heart I find that I’m more and more reliant on Him.  More and more I trust in Him: in His abilities, His goodness; because of what He’s done in the past I trust Him for the future.  He moves me to praise Him for His mighty deliverance, as the Psalmist does.

But do not let reliance on God’s goodness, rather than your own ability, lead you to neglect doing what God desires!  Martin Luther observed, “It is not from works that we are set free by the faith of Christ, but from the belief in works – that is, from foolishly presuming to seek justification through works.  Faith redeems our consciences, makes them upright, and preserves them, since by it we recognize the truth that justification does not depend on our works, although good works neither can nor ought to be absent, just as we cannot exist without food and drink and all the functions of this mortal body.”

And so God changes our hearts, inclining us to Him in everything.  And more than that, He gives us a new name.  There was maybe a time when you lived to make something of yourself – to make a name for yourself so that you’d be remembered.  It didn’t matter if the attention you got was positive or negative – it just mattered that you got it.  I was once like this.  Now, because of His work in my heart, however, I live so that He can make something of me.  And that makes all the difference.  Jesus wouldn’t be conformed to the world around Him, but was an agent of God’s transformation in it; Jesus considered others in all things – truly loving His neighbour as He loved Himself; Jesus trusted in God’s power at work in Him in everything, even to the point of death on the Cross.  God changes our hearts to be like Jesus’.  And on top of that, He gives Jesus’ precious Name to us.

We are called Christians.  We bear His Name.  People see us and they understand Him to be something like this, something like us.  Our lives are our witness of His work in us to the world.  In spite of suggestions to these ends, we are not known by the name of any other – not by an English royal or a church official.  Neither is the Baptist Church known by the name of John the Baptist, even though they joke that way at times.  We are not known by the name of Elijah, or Jeremiah, or any other prophet (which names Jesus’ disciples gave to Him as comparisons people were making).  We are not even known by our own names, any longer, if you can accept it.  But we are called Christians – we are Christ-bearers to the world.  he gives His Name to us, and because He knows us and reveals Himself to us, we are able to know ourselves as we become more and more fully who we are, and have been created to be, as He works in us.

Our lives are our witness to Christ.  It’s been said that “the holiest moment of the church service is the moment when God’s people – strengthened by preaching and sacrament – go out of the church door into the world to be the Church.  We don’t go to church, we are the Church.”

God calls us out of who we have been.  He took our flesh upon Himself, He knows all that we go through.  He knows us.  He made us.  It is because He knows us so intimately – our Creator, who alone knows what we were each created for – that we find our identity in Him.  And He reveals it to us as He works in us, changing our hearts.  Jesus, who gave Himself for others; who brought God’s Kingdom to the darkness of the worlds kingdom; who taught and exemplified faith in God’s promises above all accomplishment; who gives His Name to us: Jesus comes to us today, and it is in knowing Him that we find ourselves – and all of this stems from Him, who first knew us.  Amen.

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