How many membership cards does the average person carry? Why do people drive around in cars with symbols stuck on their bumpers, indicating what groups they belong to? Why do they wear rings that symbolize affiliation with certain universities? How many people feel apprehensive about joining one group because it might conflict with their membership in another group? Why do some people experience discrimination because they have been born into groups or castes? These questions all have to do with identity – with how we identify ourselves and with how we are identified as we navigate through a social world of groups and communities.
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles describes how the Church dealt with some pretty significant questions of identity. After getting over the hurdle of whether Gentiles could belong to the Church, the community had to face the question of diversity. Accepting the Gentiles meant adding new terms to the norms of membership, but did it also mean that the Church had to do away with some of the older ways of identifying Christians? The crux of the whole question was whether the Gentiles who were becoming Christians were required to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses. In other words, beyond baptism were there certain kinds of homogenizing acts required to foster a uniform identity among those in the Church? Or, as the Holy Spirit seemed to be indicating, was Christianity a form of belonging that transcended the usual ways of normalizing people into group membership? Happily, it was possible for these people to get beyond the normal ways of identifying with their group, and to engage in an activity of listening and interpreting what “belonged.”
If we reflect on the importance of this question regarding “belonging” or “identity” of the earliest Church members, we arrive at the root question facing these people in the first communities of Christians. Are we going to define our identity as a group by only accepting people who are “like” us? Are we going to define membership by rejecting people who are unlike us? Both are ways that groups forge identity in mainstream culture and according to tribal custom. In groups where members do not belong solely through biological inheritance, ways are developed over time to decide who’s in and who’s out. Members accept universally binding practices that publicly identify them as members of the group. Gangs wear colours for example. When we determine our identity over and against others in this way, we tend to fall into “us and them” relationships. It seems that neither of these ways of finding identity satisfied the early Church, who struggled to figure out the new identity that was granted to them under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and by the community of the faithful.
The question of circumcision among males was a question that introduced the more profound question of the nature of belonging as it was to be understood by Christians. They had to ask themselves, “Do we need to forge a group identity that forces people into a cookie-cutter image of the Christian or is the Holy Spirit activating a new way of belonging that invites people to come as they are?” If the latter is true, over time diversity should have become the norm rather than the exception in the Church.
In our times, questions of diversity have stretched to include more than just tribal, ethnic, religious, national or racial characteristics. Just as the early Church members struggled to understand how Christian identity could be expanded to include those who were different from the “original” or founding members, today’s Church must struggle to understand the necessary expansion of boundaries to identify and include those who do not fit the current definition of Christian identity, but who nevertheless appear to have been chosen by the Holy Spirit to participate in the life of the Church. For example, there are women who insist they are being called to ordination. Normally, the institutional definition of clergy is only inclusive of males. Can the identity of “clergy” expand to include women, even if women have not traditionally been identified as clergy? Other categories of “the different” can be called into inclusion as well if it becomes evident that the Holy Spirit is working in and through those people.
The early Christians were not afraid to record their struggles with identity. They must have been apprehensive about some of the changes that came with including the diverse groups of people who were being called to baptism. They obviously clung to certain elements of their Jewish identity associated with the Law of Moses, like the practice of circumcision. Only over time did they relax these requirements to embrace the profoundly spiritual characteristics defining their identity as Christians. Their search for identity would eventually develop into a complex theology intended to ground a new understanding of the human person. At the heart of this understanding was the theology that Jesus himself professed – a personal encounter with God that called all discriminating forms of belonging into question. The new understanding of the human person, revealed in Jesus’ humanity, was rooted in solidarity and passion for justice, compassion, empathy with sinners, and self-sacrificing love.
Jesus uses an organic metaphor to explain the identity of his followers. He describes himself as a vine, intimately connected and related to the branches that grow from it. The fruit produced by the members must be like the fruit produced by Jesus himself – those qualities that most “identify” him as the Christ. The vine grows liberators, redeemers, healers, justice-seekers, those who forgive, who are compassionate, empathetic, generous, and merciful. Those are the qualities – the fruit – of living as an authentic witness to God’s power.
How often do we use institutional terms to describe who’s in as a member of the Church? Do we restrict membership to those who fit institutional definitions? Reflecting on the early experiences of Christians, I believe we are invited to expand our consciousness of our identity and to raise new questions about what the Holy Spirit is prompting us to notice in “branches” that may look a bit different from the ones we’re used to.