06/18/23 “Know Who You Are”

John 1:1-5, 10-13

I’ve been going through all my files recently, and I came across some notes I took when I first arrived at Zion six years ago. As part of the getting-acquainted process, I called on community leaders to learn what they thought about the strengths and needs of the Whitehouse community. I also asked each of them this question: “What do you know about Zion UMC?” Their answers were pretty consistent.

* The funeral director: “Is that church still open?”

* A local financial planner didn’t know where Zion was. (We met at an event at Local Thyme.)

* The owner of the preschool that meets in our building said she didn’t know the church existed until she started the preschool, even though she had lived in the area since 1988 and her husband was a life-long resident. She added that when she tried to tell people where pre-school was, they said they didn’t know church still existed.

* The police chief and his deputy said they didn’t know anything about the church except where it was.

*The former pastor of Hope UMC said that people wondered how Zion even kept going.

No one seemed to know who Zion was then, but the Whitehouse community certainly knows who Zion is now! They know that Zion feeds the hungry. They know that Zion works to protect God’s creation. They know that Zion has cared for babies who need a diaper change at the local festival, children who need a merry Christmas, students who needed tutoring, and families who needed a break and a home-cooked meal. They know that Zion recognizes the work of public servants with Valentine cookie deliveries. They know that Zion offered community and fellowship during COVID as we worshipped in the parking lot for more than a year. They know that, in spite of COVID, Zion maintained the beloved tradition of ham/turkey and ham loaf dinners. They know that Zion offered support to hundreds of healthcare workers during COVID and hospital patients afterwards with our prayer squares. And they know that Zion serves as a connecting point where the entire community can engage in generous sharing of their gifts with others. Whitehouse knows who Zion is!

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that they know what Zion does. Sometimes we identify a church by what it does rather than what it is. We do that as individuals, too. We forget who we are and start to evaluate ourselves by what we do. We forget that our value comes, not from what we do, but from who and what we are. Today, I want to remind you of who you are.  I want to remind you that you are children of God, with all that that means.

First of all, that means that you are created in God’s image. Genesis tells us that, as the finale to God’s creation of all things, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image . . . So, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” You are created with God’s image stamped on your hearts.

You are God’s beloved. God said through Isaiah, “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” God loves you so much that God is willing to give anything to draw you close—peoples, nations, even God’s own Son—all to give you abundant life spent eternally in God’s presence. That love, shown to us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, is the fertile soil in which we grow. As Paul says, we “are rooted and grounded in love.” You are the beloved of God.

You are created to love. Relationship is embedded in the nature of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and so it is embedded in you. Human beings can’t exist apart from relationships—with each other or with God. We live in relationship with others, just like the parts of our bodies live in relationship to each other. From the commandment to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength to loving our neighbors s ourselves, loving relationship is our natural habitat—the environment in which we can thrive and grow closer to each other and to God.

Relationships can be rocky, and love can be hard. Even loving God can be challenging at times, when life is full of pain and grief and confusion. But, great love is both God’s nature and the image in which you have been created. That means that you have an enormous capacity to generously share love with others, even those who are unfamiliar, even those who are unlovely, even those whom we count as our enemies—all the ones Jesus tells us to love, because you are created to love.

You are blessed. In Genesis, we hear God say to Abram, “I will bless you, and make your name great.” We find blessing all through the Old Testament, and we hear it in Jesus’ words. We enjoy blessing upon blessing—far more than so many in the world—with family and friends, enough to eat and roofs over our heads and medical care when we need it. But, the greatest blessing of all is our redemption in Jesus Christ. “Do not fear,” God says through Isaiah, “for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” John’s father Zechariah echoed the prophet when he spoke of God’s people: “They shall be called ‘The Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord.’” We are blessed indeed by the great gift we are given in Jesus.

But, these blessings are not for us alone. You are blessed for a purpose. You are blessed to be a blessing. “I will bless you and make your name great,” God began, and then added, “and you will be a blessing.” There are lots of ways to be a blessing, and you are examples of that. You share your material wealth and possessions. You share your labor and your time and your talents. These can be the means by which you offer the greatest blessing of all: to bless others with the assurance that they, too, can experience God’s grace. Because we are blessed, we are to bless others with the good news of Christ’s forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. God has blessed you, Peter says, “in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” You are blessed to me a blessing to others.

You are heirs to God’s kingdom. Our redemption in Christ changes our status before God. Through our redemption, Paul tells us, we are “no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir. You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” We have an inheritance unlike anything that’s stored in Grandma’s attic or stashed in a bank account. It is our hope in abundant life, now and forever. It is freedom from the power of sin. It is freedom from the fear of death, for we know that our lives will continue after our earthly lives end, in the place Jesus has prepared for us. This is an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, for you are heirs of God’s kingdom.

You are God’s temple. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Paul asks. This may be a scary prospect when you look in the mirror. It’s hard to imagine that the Spirit of God would take up residence in a body with a roll of belly fat, stretch marks and surgery scars, a face lined with wrinkles and hair streaked with gray, hands and feet that don’t cooperate, and minds that seem a little less sharp with the passage of time.

And yet, our bodies are the place the Spirit chooses, maybe because of our weaknesses, not in spite of them. After all, God came to us in the human body of Jesus—a body that could be and was broken. Yes, we do have a responsibility to care for the bodies which God created and called good. But, as Christ’s love for the world was seen most clearly on the cross, it is often through the broken places in our minds and bodies that our faith in Christ and our reliance on the presence and power of his Spirit shine most brightly. When you look in the mirror, what you see is God’s temple.

You are witnesses. You are witnesses to the extent of Jesus’ love and the power of his resurrection, because you have experienced it in your own lives. You are witnesses to how faith in him, and the desire to please him in all things, can shape lives, including yours. You are the salt of the earth, which will season the world with grace. You are the light of the world, which will lead others to Jesus. You are a lamp burning brightly, dispelling the darkness in the world. You are a city on a hill, showing weary travelers in what direction their true home lies.

Jesus said, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations. You are witnesses of these things.” Then he gave you the power of his own Spirit so that you could tell others what you have witnessed in your own life. You are his hands and feet—his words and deeds in this world so that others may see and come to know him through you. You witness to the power of the resurrection by being what Paul calls “a letter of Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts”—a letter that witnesses to the Good News of love and grace and forgiveness and new life in Jesus.  To these things, you are witnesses.

You are a royal priesthood. That may sound kind of mystical, with images of fancy robes and words and rituals. But priests are simply people who represent God to others and represent other people before God. In ancient days, priests offered sacrifices in the temple; today they offer “spiritual sacrifices.” They strive to live holy loves—not judgmental holier-than-thou lives, but lives devoted to the worship of God with heart, hand, and voice. They follow the example of God, hearing the distress of God’s people and acting on their behalf, in prayer and in service. They invite others into the same kind of relationship with God that they enjoy. In the United Methodist Church, some people are called to literally devote their lives fulltime to the service of God and God’s people in ordained ministry. But, we affirm the priesthood of all believers, clergy and lay, lived out in mission, ministry, and witness in the name of Jesus Christ, which means tha you are members of a holy priesthood.

 You are a holy nation. You are not alone in your task. You are a community, formed and shaped by God. You are members of Christ’s Body, each with different gifts and abilities and strengths. God has so arranged the Church that it has need of each and every person’s contribution. No one should be left out, for no one is expendable. We are not independent of one another. We are interdependent, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which, when connected, form a beautiful picture. You are that picture for together, as a community of faith, you are a holy nation.

It is also true that, in our humanness, we are yet sinners. We often fail to live as the people Scripture tells us we are. We have the Holy Spirit’s power to resist sin, but our sinfulness is still in us. We can succumb to it, and we often do. Sometimes this sin takes the form of being quick to label others as sinners while forgetting that we are indeed sinners ourselves. We are a people in the process of being sanctified, and it can be a long process, with many stops, starts, and U-turns on the journey.

But we know what we are created to be, and we know that God will perfect us in love, even though we stumble along the way. The Good News is not that we are no longer sinners. The Good News is that “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

You are a new creation. We are made new in the moment when we accept Christ’s forgiveness and are justified by grace through our faith in him. But, when we stray from our Lord’s side and have forgotten who we are, we can return to the cross. We can hear Jesus say once again, “You are forgiven” and again be made new. We remember who we are, and we recommit ourselves to living in ways that show how we have been made new.

You are people of the Book. Lee told me that, one time when he told someone he was a member of Zion, they said, “Oh that’s the Bible church.” He asked them what they meant, and they said, “All of those people carry their Bibles to church with them.” That wouldn’t be a bad thing to be known for, on one condition: that your lives reflect what is in that book. There are lots of people who haul around a Bible, waving it whenever it’s convenient or expedient, but whose lives bear no resemblance to what Jesus taught. I would love to hear one day that Zion is again known as the “Bible church,” not because of what you carry in your hands but because of what you carry in your hearts and carry out in your lives.

You are children of God. You are beloved, blessed, accepted, redeemed. Jesus came to you and all people, for you and all people, so that you might have eternal life in him. To you and all who receive him and believe in his name, he gives the power to become children of God, to be reborn by water and the Spirit.

When we think about who we are, we tend to think in terms of what we do. But I challenge you to think differently about who you are. In spite of weaknesses and mistakes and failings, I challenge you to know fully and deeply, that you are who Scripture says you are: that you are created by God, in God’s own image, redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Know that you are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, rooted and grounded in love. Know that you are blessed to be a blessing. Know that you are Christ’s witnesses and his Body. Know that you are a letter of Christ to a world that needs to hear from him. Know that you are loved, you are redeemed, and you are sent out into the world in Jesus’ name. Know that the Holy Spirit dwells in you. Know that the Spirit empowers you to become what God created you to be and to live and love as your Savior lived and loved.

Who you are is written on your hearts, ready to be revealed through your words and deeds. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing that truth as you go out to live lives that reveal to the world that you know that who you are. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young