For Paul and the Jews, and Jewish Christians of his time, identity found its soul and traced its embodiment back through a long history beginning with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and ultimately through their membership in one of the twelve tribes -- the tribes that were themselves identified as the descendants of one of Jacob’s twelve sons.
When Paul instructs the Philippians as we find in the current reading (Phillipians 2:1-4), he is reminding them of that communal identity, one which no longer turns on their association with a tribe but which is grounded in their common union (communion) with Christ. This tension between individuality and communality is given voice in Les Miserables.
None of the multiple options for social networking have ever been more than curiosities to me. Still, as I hear about and observe from the sidelines what appears to be happening through these electronic interpersonal connections, I can’t help but feel that a large portion of it is strange, even creepy. Some of its uses are simply modern forms of previous, more limited and slower methods of communication. But other social media uses go well beyond an updating of past technologies and make available never before seen peepholes into individual lives. People invent personas with little relationship to who they really are; and it is the persona that they share on the internet. Others share, not just the intimate details of their lives, but even the most trivial details of their lives. Some converse in language they would never consider using face to face.
In a slightly different forum, it would seem that the current model for a "cheap date" is exemplified by the scene of a couple, sitting across from one another in a coffee shop and talking via the cellular transmission of text messages. And, in still another electronic forum, the archetype for modern man appears to be found in the whole notion and enactment of the "selfie" — digitally instantaneous, no less.
It didn’t use to be so. And it was not so for reasons totally unconnected to the technical advances of today’s science.
There was a time when men saw themselves, thought of themselves and believed their identity to exist in terms of their community rather than their individuality. Today we might give solace to the remnants of that way of thinking by posting a ‘smiley face’ or commanding others to "have a nice day." But for Paul and the Jews or Jewish Christians of his time, identity found its soul and traced its embodiment back through a long history beginning with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and ultimately through their membership in one of the twelve tribes, the tribes that were themselves identified as the descendants of one of Jacob’s twelve sons.
When Paul instructs the Philippians as we find in the current reading, he is reminding them of that communal identity, one which no longer turns on their association with a tribe but which is grounded in their common union (communion) with Christ. This tension between individuality and communality is given voice in Les Miserables.
Jean ValJean, the central figure of the novel/musical/movie is a convict who has jumped parole. His life and his vision of life have dramatically changed because of the unexpected, but overwhelming kindness of another. He has become the town mayor and operates a major enterprise in the city. But trouble comes when the authorities capture a man whom they think is their former convict. Jean ValJean struggles in song with what to do. His initial thoughts are totally selfish as this suspect may complete Jean’s freedom by offering a red herring to the authorities so they will stop searching.
He thinks that man is me
He knew him at a glance!
That stranger he has found
This man could be my chance!
Why should I save his hide?
Why should I right this wrong
When I have come so far
And struggled for so long?
If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!
Then he turns to the social aspect of the dilemma, thinking himself important enough to justify letting the innocent other take his place in prison.
I am the master of hundreds of workers.
They all look to me.
Can I abandon them?
How would they live
If I am not free?
But he challenges the previous solutions; and wonders in the words of the song how those alternatives will play out in the long run. Can I condemn? Can I pretend? Can I conceal and live a lie? Will I eventually be nothing more than a fiction of my own imagination?
Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not see his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself forevermore?
Pretend I'm not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
Ultimately he remembers his true identity and recalls that it is outside his self. His soul, and with it his very self, belong to God. Living for self alone is not enough.
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He [God] gave me hope when hope was gone
He [God] gave me strength to journey on.
We feel this same tension today. Not just from a shift in our philosophical perspective, but also from an even more dramatic shift in the cultural milieu in which we live. The immediate family remains somewhat intact; though the divorce rate seems to rise every year. The extended family has had it worse. It seems to linger as if awaiting the order to cease and desist. Villages become ghost towns and communities are absorbed into the metropolis. Is it any wonder that the religious community suffers as well.
The core human community was created because God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone. From that moment on man’s principal identity was found in community. Who can even count the centuries in which that fact remained true. On the other hand, it’s only been four centuries since the self began to supersede the community as the source of identity. In Scripture that community identity was coextensive with the tribal identity of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It reached its fullest, though flawed expression in the twelve tribes of Israel.
Community was the foundation for Christ’s Church. But communal identity was no longer to be anchored in a tribe or a group of people. Rather the anchor was to be Christ. This is the comm-unity which Jesus was creating and to which Jesus referred in stating: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." (John 12:32) From this fact flows the sense of so many of Paul’s teaching regarding Christians as the Body of Christ.
It is the comm-unity to which Paul constantly refers. “He [the Father] has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22-23) This is the comm-unity through which our salvation is accomplished. “In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)
This is the comm-unity which supersedes differences. “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 neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28) This is the identity which demands that we should “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14) This is the comm-unity and the identity which has the potential to “Complete my [Paul’s] joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Philippians 2:2) An identity which flows from our comm-union with Jesus and a community which shares a single identity — brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, children of one Father — are both essential.
Self identification through bloodlines, culture, nationality, human relationships, status, or any other methodology is meaningless. Finding our principle identity rooted in this world makes us unworthy of an identity in Christ. (Mark 10:29,Luke 14:26) So, in the Gospel Jesus talks about who to invite. While I would not claim that this is the only interpretation of his words, it would certainly seem appropriate to apply them here.
When Christians gather as a community to celebrate the Supper of the Lord, they should invite, associate with and engage with, not just those whom we judge to be similar to ourselves according to human standards, but with all those who are similar to ourselves in their comm-unity with Jesus.