Who are we?
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
The words are familiar enough – that Jesus has been exalted because of his obedience – but the implications perhaps less so. Paul here applies to Jesus words from Isaiah 45:23 that originally refer to God himself, and in a context where the ‘Lord’ is actually Yahweh, the personal name of God. That doesn’t make Jesus God, of course; what it does do is to extend the identity of God, summed up in his name, to Jesus, as if it were a collective family identity.
This is not the only place in the New Testament where this occurs: for example, the phrase “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending” refers in Revelation 1:8 to the Almighty, but later to “someone like a son of man” (v.11); the same thing occurs at the end of the book (21:6 and 22;13).
These cases present a challenge to our conventional individualised notion of ‘identity’. It doesn’t mean that the personal identity of Jesus, with all his individual human experience, is somehow effaced or expunged; rather, the identity of God the Father is extended to embrace the ‘son of man’ as one who ‘belongs’ with the Father, without his losing his individuality.
An analogy can perhaps be seen in the story of Ruth and Boaz: in chapter 2 Boaz’s phrase that Ruth had “come to take refuge under [God’s] wings” (2:12), and later her request: “Spread your cloak [or wings] over me” (3:9). The uprooted foreigner – or, as we would say, ‘immigrant’ or ‘asylum-seeker’ – finds a new identity because Boaz shares his with her. Hitherto liable to be rejected as stranger, with no ‘rights’ in Israel, she is now secure, covered and sheltered by the unchallengeable identity of Boaz. Without ceasing to be the person she had always been, she can now be gradually assimilated into a new way of being and thus be integrated into a new, larger whole. At the other end of the Bible story, the same fundamental idea finds its perfect realisation in Paul’s words that ultimately God shall be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28) – everything absorbed into the being and identity of God.
Something similar has happened to all of us: realising through our encounter with God in Jesus that we are ultimately homeless, like Ruth, we too have received a new identity: “Dear friends, now we are children of God” (1 John 3:2). The idea is beautifully expressed in Jesus’ image of the vine: “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5). Jesus shares his identity with us – we are all parts of him – and the ‘gardener’ ensures that we are assimilated into the life of the vine: “Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (v. 2). It’s only logical, then, that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 culminates in the wish that “they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me” (v. 22-23).
We live in a world today where personal identity is problematic. Group identities, defined by race or colour, nationality or sex, religion or political affiliation, are asserted with demands for ‘respect’ and are defended, sometimes violently. Those who belong to the wrong ‘tribe’ are denigrated, regarded with suspicion, and repeatedly required to produce evidence of their rights and identity, even when such rights have finally been granted.
Against this, we are granted in Christ an identity that is beyond challenge and utterly secure: it cannot be stolen, it needs no ID: “The Lord knows those who are his,” says Paul (2 Timothy 2:19). Jesus’ words are even more explicit: “I know my sheep and my sheep know me ... no-one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10: 14, 28).
Our new identity has nothing to do with ‘culture wars’. It is not against the world, hostile to those who ‘don’t belong’: it is open to others, welcoming especially towards the Ruths of this world, even while others hate (John 15:18). God wants to draw all men and women into the shelter of his ‘wings’.
In that process we have a part to play. For other people each of us is Jesus, we carry him around with us, he is known through us. How? This identity has its identifying marks - but not an ID, a tattoo or a uniform: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him ... Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No-one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:9, 11-12).