Knowing who we are through Word and Sacrament
I read with great interest Caleb Morrell’s recent American Reformer article “Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ.” His argument was engaging and provocative, as I’m sure was intended by the title. Documenting the explosion of the phrase identity in Christ within Christian circles in recent years was revealing and sobering. His work in exposing the very real dangers of an improper understanding of identity in Christ, and providing meaningful, more historic alternatives was quite persuasive. Thus, here I respectfully offer a complement, and hopefully an enhancement, to his timely warning about how we understand our identity as Christians. If, as Morrell warns, we use identity in Christ just to “fit the modern mold of life as a quest for personal fulfillment and self-discovery,” then I agree with the thrust of his analysis. When we take our cues from the culture and import unbiblical concepts of self-identity and self-esteem to talk about the faith, we all lose. However, if our vision of identity in Christ goes further than subjective, constructivist concepts of the self, and is fully informed by the biblical message and deeply anchored in the historic sacramental practices of the church, then we find the greatest gift: a meta-identity that transcends all others, allowing us to face whatever may come with the same confession of consummate and definitive identity made by the ancient martyrs: Christianus sum. “I am Christian.”
Identity in Christ: A New Testament Focus
The question of Who am I is perennial and long predates the search for modern selfhood. Certainly, our understanding of the self has changed, and dangerously so in the modern world (take your pick of analysts: Charles Taylor, Alasdair McIntyre, Carl Trueman, Alan Noble, to name a few). But the Christian tradition has always offered a rich understanding of selfhood. It’s not that Christianity has no interior self, it’s that, as Trueman recently noted in First Things, “self-knowledge is inextricably linked to knowledge of God.” In other words, “the move inward ultimately only makes sense because it simultaneously involves a move outward.” Interior life finds its proper ordering towards an exterior summum bonum, or highest good, namely God himself. This is what lies behind Augustine’s prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and we are restless until we find our rest in thee.” The New Testament itself connects these interior and exterior aspects into a rich Christian identity found, yes, in Christ.
When faced with temptations “to continue in sin so grace may abound,” St. Paul doesn’t tell the church in Rome to try harder or look inside themselves—or even to look to God in some abstract, intellectual, or emotional way. He tells them concretely who they already are objectively coram Deo, by reminding them of their true identity as those baptized into Christ: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
When faced with ethnic tension and division, St. Paul reminds the church of Galatia “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-29). Baptism created real community—with God and each other.
St. Paul’s epistolary accounts of identity in Christ are grounded in the objective work of God in Word and Sacrament. Perhaps the problem with the modern Christian concept of finding one’s “identity in Christ” is that there is no accompanying sacramental understanding and liturgical practice of the Christian life. When much of American Christianity doesn’t even use the term sacrament to refer to baptism and communion, hedges their bets on what God actually does in both, and abandoned weekly communion generations ago, no wonder the phrase “identity in Christ” gets subjectivized into oblivion and reflects the world’s understanding of identity. In such a setting, Christianity itself easily becomes just another identity-category among many that make up your “true self.”
Alan Noble explains in Disruptive Witness, “I may try on Christianity like I try on styles of clothes or beliefs, but the ultimate focus…is not on an external being who loves me but my own search for fullness” (59-60). He further notes, “our identity and our ability to choose its features becomes the basis for our being in the world, rather than some outside authority. So that even when we believe in God’s existence and choose to follow him, we do so because of an inner decision” (44). Morrell echoes this concern: “if identity is chosen, what place is there for any other obligation than being faithful to yourself? In contrast, Scripture teaches that we are embedded in given relationships of mutual obligation to faithfully steward and embrace.” Very true. But identity in Christ is not a chosen identity. It is a given identity—through the means of grace. If we recover the rich mysterion of God’s work through Word and Sacrament, the phrase finds its proper use.
Anchoring Identity in Christ to Sacramental and Liturgical Life
If identity in Christ is just an abstract, mental, or emotional thing then Morrell’s critique is most definitely correct. As one commenter put it, such an “emphasis on identity [can] create a church of Gnostics.” But when actually tied to the sacramental and liturgical life of the historic church, identity in Christ is certainly not abstract or Gnostic, but is most assuredly real and ontological. I might suggest that here is where the rub really lies. The sacraments are absent from Morrell’s piece. Morrell’s suggestion to recover the language of union with Christ is wonderful advice, but where, how, when does this union take place? How do we strengthen it and embrace it besides just using the language? How is this teaching situated in the context of practices and habits? How is it made real, physical, tangible? By anchoring it to sacramental practice and liturgical rhythm. Tracking with Morrell’s account, the phrase union with Christ was especially prominent “during the highpoints of confessional Protestant Orthodoxy.” True enough. And why might that be? Perhaps because this doctrine was situated in Lutheran and Reformed traditions that were profoundly more sacramental and liturgical than they tend to be today.
Take baptism, which for all Christians is a historical fact, objectively done to a person with water in the name of the Trinity according to Christ’s Great Commission. No matter what one thinks about the mode (how) or subject (who) of baptism, the Scriptures describe it as an identity-gift—not an identity-choice. Baptism’s objectively given identity is also subjectively experienced in the context of a story and a community with a past, present, and future. Baptism connects us to the very source of life’s meaning; the life of God in Christ. As St. Paul describes in Colossians 2:9-14, in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” and that “having been buried with him in baptism” we too have been “made alive together with him” and “have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” His story becomes our story; his life becomes our life. Union with Christ starts with baptism and plants one in Christ and his corporate body.
So too, consider communion and the New Testament’s language of fellowship which surrounds it. As Arthur Just explains in his Luke commentary and in The Ongoing Feast, when the word fellowship (koinonia in Greek) is used, or meals are shared in the New Testament, there is more going on than just eating food together. Fellowship, he explains, is actually “a manifestation of the eschatological kingdom;” it is “the table fellowship of Jesus,” which is a foretaste of the heavenly feast to come, that we share together in mutual faith (1-2). As such, fellowship is at its core participation and union with Christ, and unity with one another around his teaching. This is the thrust of much of koinonia’s New Testament usage, where fellowship is: “in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5); “of the Holy Spirit” (II Cor. 13:14, Phil 2:1); “of his sufferings” (Phil 3:10); “of the faith” (Philemon 1:6); “with the Father” (I John 1:3,6); “with one another” (I John 1:7). But perhaps most significant of all is Paul’s use of koinonia in I Corinthians 10:16, where it refers to “participation in the blood of Christ” and “participation in the body of Christ.” Christ himself instituted this koinonia with the words “take eat; this is my body” and “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:26-28). Christians find their deepest identity around the Table of the Lord in a unified confession, and in communion with Christ himself.
All Christians, no matter their denomination, would do well to reclaim the sacramental rhythm to life as buttressed by liturgical practice of church and home, which strengthens our ultimate identity in Christ. Christianity is deepest reality: tangible and mysterious, physical and spiritual—and it is habituated into our lives through practices, rituals, and routines. Life is a sacramental experience, with a daily return to the baptismal waters where our sins were washed away (Acts 2:39), and a weekly return to the Lord’s Table where Christ’s body and blood is given to strengthen faith and forgive our sins (Matthew 26:28). Assurance is found in these objective means of grace extra nos (outside ourselves). Yet these objective gifts become subjectively ours as Christ, who came from outside of us to become one of us, is spoken and sacramented to us. When divorced from sacramental and liturgical life, identity in Christ becomes vacuous and tends towards introspection, subjectivity and emotivism. But when rooted in the habits and practices of the church’s culture, it is robust and resistant to the whims of fashionable identity trends.
Embracing the church’s sacramental and liturgical inheritance rises above time and place, style and preference, old and new. It is an objective reality of Christ for you, concretized in Word and Sacrament. A sacred rhythm begins to frame the passage of time as structured by the Church and marked by the milestones of God’s work in Word and Sacrament. The rites, ceremonies, and celebrations connected to such things become the memorials and reminders of who we really are. These are the identity-makers of the Christian life. This pattern of God’s working through the means of grace in the Church is strengthened when it resonates with the rhythms of the home through using Scripture, the hymnal, the prayers, and historic liturgies of the Church as a family. This type of deep, sacramental, embodied identity in Christ is clearly evident in the ancient martyr accounts.
Christianus Sum: Martyrdom, Eucharist and the Power of Meta-Identity
A confession of definitive identity was made by the ancient martyrs with the Latin phrase, Christianus sum, “I am Christian.” We use the word Christian so frequently and casually today that we forget its original import as a claim of ultimate identity. We are Christ-ones; members of the Christ-ian race who are no longer in Adam, but in Christ. When the martyrs confessed Christianus sum, historian William Weinrich explains that it “was not merely to state that one believed so-and-so to be true. It was a claim of personal identity that re-ordered one’s basic social, familial and political allegiances” (11).
Consider the Martyrdom of Polycarp. As the aging Polycarp was told to “Swear by the fortune of Caesar,” he replied, “If you vainly suppose that I shall swear by the fortune of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you do not know who I am, listen plainly: Christianus sum.” The same identity-claim is also powerfully illustrated in the Martyrdom of Perpetua, a young noblewoman, with an infant still being nursed. Weinrich recounts how Perpetua’s father “begs her not to dishonor her family and bring upon it ill-repute and social disgrace.” Yet when asked, “Are you Christian?” Perpetua still replied, “Christiana sum.” Weinrich notes, “The claim to Christian identity bears within itself the claim that all family ties and associations and obligations are temporal, penultimate and may not assume our deepest loyalties” (12).
The ancient church also saw an intimate connection between the confession of Christianus sum and their sacramental identity. Each martyr was participating with the Martyr, Christ, which they believed, incorporated them more fully into the Eucharistic meal. In this regard, Revelation 6:9 is intriguing at the very least, where St. John sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” Polycarp, who was St. John’s disciple, prays similarly, “I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body.…Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice.” Likewise, as martyrdom nears for Ignatius, he prays in his Epistle to the Romans, “Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
Such Eucharistic overtones show that identity in Christ ran so deep that in their bodies, they longed for union with Christ’s body—in partaking of his body and blood, and even in imitating his death. Weinrich captures this well: “To commune with the Body and Blood of Christ was to be bound with Him who was Himself the ‘faithful witness’ (Rev. 1:5)….Participation in the Supper of the Lord, therefore, bears within itself the destiny of martyrdom—should that be according to God’s will and purpose” (10). The martyrs believed that in some way, union with Christ was heightened in their participatory suffering with him. Individual and communal identity found their nexus in the sacramental eating of Christ, which was an identification not only with Christ, but also with his living body, the Church, that heralds his name to the world.
The power of Christian meta-identity grounded in God’s gift of Word and Sacrament was on full display in the ancient world: inspiring martyrs, transcending ethnic divisions, and elevating women, slaves, widows, and outcasts. Christian identity carried with it new possibilities; hopeful ones in elevating human dignity; and sobering ones in potential persecution and martyrdom—all of which expanded the church to the ends of the earth and transformed the world, as a growing number of historians are exploring (see for example, Tom Holland’s Dominion, and Christopher Rowe’s Christianity’s Surprise).The question of Who am I? will always remain essential, as the frantic search for meaningful identity on full display today reveals. When rooted in the apostolic witness, the martyrs’ testimony, and the church’s rich sacramental and liturgical heritage, Christianity provides a compelling and enchanting answer to the identity questions that are shaking societies to their very core. Today’s tendency to find our identity in our own experience and achievements contrasts with the New Testament and the ancient martyrs, who in confessing Christianus sum, found their ultimate identity not in their name or history but in the name and history of the Christ, which became theirs through Word and Sacrament. By means of this real, mystical union with Christ, their identity was firmly planted in a sacramental culture, liturgical tradition, and embodied community that enabled them to face the sting of death, knowing that what awaited them in the Eschaton would be the fullest expression of human identity imaginable: a glorified, embodied humanity in full communion with the Trinity and with each other.
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