Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, ‘Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. When they had examined me, the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor—even though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.’ They replied, ‘We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you. But we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.’
As a nation we’ve struggled since the end of Empire with what our identity is – a struggle put off during our years in the European Union but one which comes to the fore now. Many English people conflate Englishness and Britishness, whereas many Scots don’t use the term British about themselves. Those in the North of Ireland can self define as Irish, or British, or both. On a personal level we have a range of identities that are adopted, or imposed. We may define ourselves by our sex, our sexuality, how we express our gender, our ethnicity, our politics, our age, or our physical abiltiies, or lack thereof. Identities abound and we’ve fought some fierce battles in our society to ensure equal rights, regard, and responsibilities.
In today’s passage Paul’s speaking to a group of Jews and is clearly identifying himself as a Jewish man who’d fallen foul of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. I wonder if Paul was carefully exploiting different identities as the Jews in Rome had to tread a careful line as a religious minority in a way the Jewish leadership in Palestine didn’t have to. Yet Paul wasn’t just Jewish; his Christianity led him to adopt quite unJewish positions on inclusion and dietary observance.
It’s always painful when identities, or ideologies, clash. In contemporary society we contest how rights and responsibilities play out – where do my rights end and yours start? Where do my rights and responsibilities as a Christian, or as a gay man, contradict other rights? These dilemmas are played out in our national debates and, sometimes, in our courts.
Paul’s teaching that we are “in Christ” may help here. This is ritualised in some funeral liturgies where the coffin is draped with a simple pall – like the baptism garments some of us wore. The idea is that all other identities, rights, and responsibilities are subsumed into our identity as being in Christ. This crowns, but not negates, all our other identities.
Lord Jesus, you call us to find our ultimate identity in you, above the calls of nation, class and race, deeper than the labels of sex, sexuality and gender, richer than the myriad number of identities we adopt, you call us to dwell in you, to express our diversity in your love, and to find unity even with those who loathe us. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the Minister for Digital Worship and attends the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney.