[Reflections on Romans 4]. It was the morning I lost my identity. My family was visiting Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, and I had a great idea. “Let’s get up early and drive over to the Highland Games!” Of course, this suggestion met with consternation and confusion from my family. Everyone wanted to know why on earth we would do something like that, especially when we didn’t have to wake up early. I explained to them that I descend from the McDowell’s and as a McDowell, I wanted to learn more about my heritage. I had visions of buying all kinds of Scottish bling to show to the world my identity as a Scotsman. I told my kids that I would likely be wearing a kilt the remainder of the trip and they should get used to it. Then the Gaelic walls came tumbling down.
It was raining pretty hard when we arrived at the Games. These conditions led to increased whining from the peanut gallery. “Be quiet! This festival is our heritage. It’s about time you kids learned a little something about where we came from and who we are!” Channeling my inner William Wallace, I forced, and this word, unfortunately, is not hyperbole, the family into the elements and around the massive now muddy track where every clan had a tent. We were looking for the McDowell tent where I was sure to find ancestral affirmation, and my kids would embrace their identity with pride in a nirvana of clan fellowship.
After about 45 minutes of searching for the tent with no luck, I finally stopped to ask for directions to MY clan. The man I asked sat for a moment and then asked how to spell it. “That’s the Irish spelling…,” he said, awkwardly adjusting his kilt. I’m not positive, but I think he said these words with a little disdain and judgment in his voice as if to say that we didn’t belong.
How could this happen? I spent my whole life thinking I was Scottish. I would feign interest in Scottish things thinking it was part of who I was. I even tried haggis once for goodness sake!
What did I do? I did what anyone with a freshly smashed identity would do. “Let’s get out of here. Too many damn Scottish wannabes around here. You know my mother was a Chelf…that’s Irish.” I immediately went in search of a new identity.
Paul’s identity was in shambles when he fell off his horse on the road to Damascus. He built his life on being a faithful Jew, a Hebrew of Hebrews he said. (Philippians 3:5). He was a Pharisee who demanded strict adherence to the rules and persecuted others when they didn’t toe the line. It was his life, and then he had an encounter with Jesus. In an instant, all that he thought he was and who he was supposed to be, disintegrated. If he wasn’t who he was because of his groupings in life, birthright or what he did; who was he?
I once heard Episcopal Priest Paul Zahl preach on identity in Romans, specifically chapter 4, and his ideas forever changed the way I look at this chapter and embrace the identity freely given to me by God. In Romans chapter 4, the Apostle Paul fleshes out this new identity. He uses Abraham as an example of this saying God’s love and approval of him isn’t a result of what Abraham did for God. He’s not “justified by works.” (Rom. 4:2) God’s acceptance of Abraham, Paul says, comes from Abraham’s trust in God’s promises. He “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:3, 22). Identity as the beloved of God is a gift birthed out of trust. This identity of love is extrinsic, not intrinsic.
This is a revolutionary way of looking at the acceptance of God. In a few sentences, Paul turns the worldview of his ancient Jewish audience on its ear. This view saw birthright, accomplishments, and adherence to the strictures of the law as what makes someone lovable to the Almighty. Instead, Paul says it’s the trust of one who is unlovable, with nothing to give, that results in the acceptance of God. God deems the one with trust and belief lovable and gives him righteousness which becomes his identity.
Identity that comes from our ancestry, what we do, race, religion, sexuality or anything but that found from God, begins with the wrong question. It asks the world to analyze and answer questions of meaning or feeling about a status that derives from something other than God. This form of identity is fluid. The way both the one holding that identity and those around engaging that identity is constantly changing and depends on situations and circumstances of life and experience. The way one views even untransmutable identity factors may change with experience, age, location, etc. This fluidity leads to self righteousness when we possess something others don’t or despair when others hold the desired identity. It’ s a vicious circle. It often begins relationship and conversation with division. But the identity that comes from God is secure and solid. It does not change as a result of our weakness or inability to measure up.
The good news for all of us is that God gives us this gift of love and acceptance, not based on our strivings, but our trust. It’s a gift of grace not a reward of the law. When we place our trust in God and his promises we get a new identity as children of the living, loving God. The sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of Jesus covers us. What an incredible gift.
So, whether we are Scottish, Irish, male, female, black, white, straight or gay or any other identification of this world, we are the beloved of God. That’s an identity for eternity.
The search is over.