Our Identity in Christ
Series: We Are Citylight
We talk a lot about identity today, and Christians talk about finding their identity in Christ. But often we’re talking about an individual’s identity in Christ. Do we as a church find our identity in Christ?
Today we’re starting a short series of sermons in August getting back to who we are as a church at Citylight. So it’s a great time to join us if you’re new; you’ll get to hear what we’re all about over the next 4 Sundays. But it’s also for our members, because after a strange and difficult year and a half, it’s worth us taking a step back to remember who we are, why we’re here, and what we’re doing. Our core values as a church are worship, community, and mission, and so we’re going to cover each of those over the next 4 weeks, with two weeks on community in the middle. These core values are not just things we do, however. They describe who we are. They’re our identity.
Identity is a common concern in a place like Philadelphia today. We talk about racial identity, gender identity, family identity, and so forth. And it’s an important question, one to which the Bible speaks. If you’ve been around Christians much, you’ve probably heard someone talk about the importance of finding your identity in Christ—meaning if you want to know who you really are, the best way is, ironically, to give yourself to Christ, and live by who He says you are, not who the world, your feelings, or your worst failures say you are. That’s vital, but my observation is that we spend a lot more time talking about an individual’s identity in Christ than a church’s identity in Christ. We ask, “Who am I?” more than we ask, “Who are we?” And since a lot of today’s conversation about identity is driven by western post-enlightenment thought, which tends to be individualistic, that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. It is dangerous, though, because it may lead us into thinking that that there is no we to whom we belong, or we may begin to think of that we in exclusively negative terms. If a Christian were to only ever think and talk of themselves as ugly, dumb, and sinful, you’d probably tell them they need to find their identity in Christ, right? But if someone calls the church worldly, corrupt, and oppressive, do we say we need to find our identity in Christ? We should, because while the church’s flaws should never be covered up or minimized, our identity is not our worst failures. 1 Peter 2:9-10 teaches us that We are a new people group formed to worship God together. To understand that we’ll look at these verses to see who we are, why we are, and whose we are.
Who we are
Our reading today began in verse 9 with the word “but”…”But you are…” which tells us that whoever the “you” is in verse 9, it’s not everyone. Indeed, the preceding verses tell us of those who disobey the word, as they were destined to do, while a bit further up in verse 7 we read that the “you” to which Peter is writing here is specifically “you who believe.” So the “we” to whom I’m speaking then when I say “we are a new people” and talk about “who we are, why we are, and whose we are” is those who believe. We don’t however assume that all of you here today do believe; it is our hope and prayer in fact that some of you do not, because we want to be a church where you can come and hear what Christians believe before you yourself believe. So the way we identify who it is among us who believes is through our membership process. Citylight church is its members, those who we have recognized as “you who believe.” And if you aren’t yet part of it, we’d love for you to be. As you listen in to who we are, please know the door is wide open for you to come in. And please be aware also that this is not only who we are, but who Greater Exodus Baptist Church up Broad Street is, who Highway Tabernacle up Spring Garden is, Iglesia Bautista Internacional in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Emmanuel Baptist Church in Nairobi, Kenya, Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China, and many more. The things that most fundamentally define who we are as Citylight are not things unique to Citylight; the most important things about us are the things we have in common with every other true church, and they are laid down for us in Scripture.
So let’s take a sharper look at them in verse 9. First, we are a chosen race. Race here doesn’t mean what we mean by it today; it just refers to people with a common lineage. Here, however, verse 10 makes clear that the church is a people who were not a people, a people from all different lineages, who now form a new “race.” We are a royal priesthood, ruled by Christ but also ruling with Christ as the bearers of the keys of His kingdom, and priests, servants of God. We are a holy nation, set apart for God’s exclusive use, and a people for His own possession. Combining the ideas of race, nation, and people, we could just say we are a new people group, made up of people who were not a people, who do not exist for ourselves, who are not the possessions of some earthly nation or some other earthly group, but for God’s own exclusive possession. A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. That’s who we are, Citylight. Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. Once we were just black, white, Asian, Latino, but now we are a chosen race. Once we were subjects of sin, servants of Satan, but now we are a royal priesthood, ruling with Christ and serving our God. Once we were just citizens of America, Nigeria, China, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Puerto Rico, the UAE, France, but now we are a holy nation. Is this how you think of us? Are we living out of our identity in Christ?
Because let’s face it: We have sins. We have weaknesses. And because they are visible, it’s easy for us to define ourselves by them and forget who God says we are. We can think, “We’re the church that isn’t big enough, not diverse enough, not loving enough, not holy enough, not doing enough, not cool enough,” and on and on, and some of that may be true, and where we fail to live in line with our identity, we need to repent. But our identity is secure. We are a church, and that means we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. Do you look at your church like this? Do you see your fellow church members and think, “There’s my race”? “There’s my kingdom.” “There’s my fellow priests.” “There’s my nation.” It feels weird to think that way, right? It feels unnatural, right? It is. It is super-natural. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.
And so it takes some growing into. It’s easier in some sense to develop relationships with people who you’ve been a people with since the day you were born. I was on vacation with my wife’s family this past week, and that vacation is like a warm blanket to me. The people there just seem to like and accept my so naturally. Why is that? It’s because they’re already a people, and I naturally have a lot in common with them. But once we were not a people; so it’s going to take some work. We’re gonna have to figure out what to talk about, why you like that song and I don’t, what exactly we do when we hang out, why you care about that issue and I’ve never even thought about it, and so on, but none of that changes the fact: We are a new people group. The next question, then, is why God did this. Why did God make us a people? Why not just leave us in the people groups into which we were born? That’s where our text goes next.
Why we are
Why are we a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession? Verse 9: “That you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” God is excellent. All excellencies are in Him as their origin. He is good, wise, loving, merciful, just, righteous, holy, and He is these things with all power, everywhere, before time began, infinitely, and unchangeably. And someone ought to proclaim that. But here’s the problem: What people group out there already gets it? What racial group, nation, ethnicity, club, political party, what group of any kind that is natural among humans already proclaims God’s excellencies? None. So what did God do? He took people who were not a people and made them a people so that they would proclaim His excellencies.
And so why do we exist? Proclamation, and proclamation specifically of God’s excellencies. Now we can see the specific way this passage envisages us serving God as royal priests: Worship. Proclaiming His excellencies. So Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through [Christ] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” What is the sacrifice we priests offer to God? Praise. Lips that acknowledge His name. We cannot make God excellent, so how can we bring Him glory? We can proclaim His excellencies.
And this is something we do together. Certainly any individual Christian can proclaim God’s excellencies all by themselves, but that’s not what’s in view in this passage. First, the pronouns are all plural, to put it as our Delco neighbors might: “Yous are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession,” and that makes sense, right? An individual can be a Christian, but an individual can’t be a race, a priesthood, a nation, or a people. So when the text says that “you” may proclaim, it’s also a plural “yous”. But furthermore, follow the logic of the passage. The text is telling us why God made us a people: So that we might proclaim His excellencies. If all God wanted was for scattered individuals to proclaim His excellencies, there would have been no reason for Him to form a new people group. He could have just gone and gotten individuals to proclaim His excellencies in the privacy of their homes or wherever else. But He didn’t do that. God’s excellencies are uniquely proclaimed when people who were not a people proclaim them together.
So when we say worship is one of our core values at Citylight, this is what we’re talking about. One of the basic reasons we exist as a church is to get together and proclaim God’s excellencies. This is what we do when we gather for worship on Sundays. We proclaim God’s excellencies when we sing of them together. We proclaim God’s excellencies when we pray together. We proclaim God’s excellencies when we read from and preach His Word. 1 Corinthians 11:26 even says we proclaim the Lord’s death when we take the Lord’s Supper together. Over the past year we were greatly inhibited in our ability to do this by the COVID-19 pandemic. There were months where we didn’t gather at all, others where we had to gather in much smaller numbers than what we are used to.
It was hard, but it also gave us time to reflect, just as it gave many individuals and other types of organizations time to reflect. When you lose things you are used to having, one of two things basically happens: One possibility is you realize you didn’t really need it that much in the first place, so you dispense with it or scale it back going forward. Sports was like that for me. The other is you realize just how important it was, and how much perhaps you’d taken it for granted before, and you double down on it as soon as you get the opportunity. I talked to one CEO of a tech start-up in Center City here who started his company all remote and then moved into office space in Center City a few years ago. I asked him what they were thinking, assuming they’d be going back to remote, and he said, much to my surprise, that they were getting a bigger office, and in his words, “tripling down” on office space. I think it’s fair to say that after a year of suspended and/or restricted gatherings at Citylight Center City, we’re tripling down on gathering going forward. We still believe we are a new people group whose very reason for existence is to worship God together, and each of us worshiping God in our homes is not worshiping Him together. Our different voices may proclaim His excellencies that way, and during a global pandemic, we praise God for the ways they did, but we can only proclaim His excellencies as a people when we actually come together as a people.
Real practically for us in the coming months that means we want to be a one-service church going forward. Before COVID we typically had two services on Sunday mornings, and at one point in COVID, we were doing 3 due to gathering size restrictions. However, if God’s excellencies are best proclaimed together, then we think it’s ideal for all those God has made a people at Citylight Center City to be able to proclaim His excellencies together. We’ve already begun gathering for one service over the summer, but we anticipate with the number of new people already coming over the summer and with a possible uptick in the fall, that we will soon hit a point in this building where we can’t all gather for one service in this space. Therefore, we are planning to move our Sunday morning worship service to Highway Tabernacle’s building, just 5 blocks from where we are today, starting September 12. They simply have a much larger gathering space, that in total can hold 3-4 times more people than this one. There are several other reasons we’re excited about this move that I’ll continue to talk about in the coming weeks, but the ability to gather our whole congregation together for worship each week and still grow going forward is the biggest one. For now, nothing changes: Next week we’ll be here at 9am again, Lord willing, but we did want to let you know now so you can be prepared for it.
And since we are coming together in one service as a people who were not a people before to proclaim God’s excellencies, we are working to ensure that the way we proclaim God’s excellencies is increasingly diverse. If the music we sing, for example, all sounds like one people group’s music, that doesn’t really line up with who we are as a new people group. So every one of us should get comfortable with being uncomfortable at times, with proclaiming God’s excellencies in a style that doesn’t neatly fit our individual preferences. And furthermore, when we are proclaiming God’s excellencies together, we should expect that others in the room will do it differently from us. In 1 Peter 1, Christians are described as rejoicing with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. There should be a sense of gravity and gladness to our worship, which for many cultures means things like clapping, raising hands, and dancing while proclaiming God’s excellencies. Those of us who are less used to such expressions should even consider whether our expression of worship really matches the excellencies of God we’re proclaiming, and seek to learn from our brothers and sisters who may express an appropriate sense of joy in a more mature way than we do.
So those are a couple things we’re planning as a church, but also consider your heart today. Do you see worshiping God together as an honorable reason we exist as a church? For years of my ministry as a pastor, I took worshiping God together for granted. I thought, “yeah sure we do the Sunday service; that’s like church 101. But what are we really doing?” It’s easy to have a kind of frantic spirit that always drives us to be more than what God has called us to be. And I’m not saying worshiping together is the only thing God has called us to do; it isn’t. We’ll talk more about some other things we do in the coming weeks. But let’s not skip over it as though it’s insignificant. Every Sunday about 100 people who were not a people assemble to worship God together in this building, and starting in September, we pray it will be even more doing so at Highway Tabernacle’s building. We didn’t even exist 6 years ago. That’s a big deal, not because we’re a big deal, but because God is a big deal. So let’s close by talking about whose we are.
Whose we are
Verse 9 goes on to say that we exist to proclaim the excellencies of “Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Why is it a worthwhile purpose for a people to proclaim this God’s excellencies? Why is that worth giving our time and energy to? Because this is the God who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light. While He is eternally excellent, we don’t see His excellencies as long as we are in darkness. That’s why there are no people groups on earth who naturally proclaim His excellencies. My Irish and Dutch ancestors way back worshiped Lugus and Brigantia, my German ancestors Nerbuz and Wodanaz, and a bunch of others. Whoever your ancestors are, they worshiped false gods too. In America we worship money, career, sex, romance, power, affirmation. The excellencies of these things are what is proclaimed through our news networks, podcasts, and feeds. But they don’t have the excellency we need, so we have to give more and more of ourselves to them only to get less and less from them. That’s what it’s like to live in darkness.
But there is one who truly is light, and that light has shone upon us. When Jesus came, He said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). And so He called people to follow Him, and a new people group began to form around Him, but in order for that community to truly be brought into the light, He had to go through the darkness for them. Darkness throughout the Bible is a sign of God’s judgment. Because we’ve forsaken the light, darkness is a just punishment, a punishment that fits the crime, for our sins. And what happened when Jesus hung on the cross? There was darkness over the land for 3 hours. Why? He was going through the darkness for us. He was suffering the judgment our sins deserved. And once the demand of justice had been satisfied, God called Him out of the darkness of death and into the marvelous light of new, eternal life.
So now this God calls us out of darkness. The call goes out to whoever hears it: Come out of darkness and into the light. Come to the one who is the light. Believe in Him. If you’re here today and you’re still in darkness, come out. The light is good; this God is truly excellent. And from all the peoples of the earth, to some who hear this call, God also grants the power to respond to it, so that all of we who believe now do not profess, “I crawled out of darkness and found the light,” but, “I was called out of darkness, and into His marvelous light.” Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. Once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy. The excellency of God is seen in this: When we deserved His judgment, He gave us mercy.
And so this is our identity: We are the people who have received mercy, and boy do we need it. There are so many things we aren’t, and yet we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession. Before the time of Christ, God told a particular nation, Israel, that this is who they were to become: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). For them, there was an if, if you will indeed obey, you shall be. They did not obey His voice, but Jesus Christ did. And so for us who believe in Him, there is no if. There is only an are. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, so that we might proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light. Let’s live like it by worshiping Him together.