Identity and Witness

The Third Sunday of Advent
December 17th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

Who are you?

Who are we?

Why are we here?

These are the fundamental questions that confront every human being and each human community…questions that philosophers great and small have sought to answer throughout the generations.

In this season of Advent, a time in which we intentionally remember what matters to us…our shared history and the roots of our hope and expectation…we prepare for the birth of Jesus by revisiting these questions of identity.

And the more we get in touch with that identity…our core motivation and understanding…the “who and why” of our lives… the bolder we become in witnessing to our fundamental identity in word and deed in this desperate and hurting world.

Each of today’s readings touch on the connected themes of identity and witness.

The first reading from Isaiah is a reminder to the exiled community that despite being scattered throughout Babylon and its imperial territories, their calling was to Zion…the mountain of Lord where the oppressed receive good news instead of more sadness, where the broken hearted find healing, where the captives and prisoners receive freedom instead of more chains, and where the hard years of toil and mourning are finally transformed into an age of celebration and praise…the year of the Lord’s favor.

Who are you and who are we?

Isaiah’s answer is in line with the received biblical tradition…We are God’s own good creation… not slaves of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar nor any other ruler of this world, but instead a people made free by the hand and steadfastness of our God.

Why are we here?

To proclaim that freedom to any who are captive, to build up the ancient ruins, to live justly and to sing praises and to worship the Lord who makes it all possible.

It is no accident that Jesus, after he grows into adulthood, reads these powerful words from Isaiah in the synagogue, at the beginning of his public ministry.

His life, identity, and ministry were intimately tied up with the same hopes and dreams…building up these “ancient ruins” of the community.

But he chose to do so in a new way…Jesus built and led a new kind of people, not based on previous ethnic or cultural understandings, but through servant leadership, fearless witnessing, and radical expansion of the very borders and concept of community.

Who are you?

Jesus answers the question through the witness of his life, and in John’s gospel, he even uses metaphors to get at the answer.

“I am the vine. I am the gate. I am the Good Shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way.”

Who are we?

As Paul’s last words in his letter to the Thessalonians say (the end of most likely the earliest writing that makes up our New Testament), we are those who “rejoice, who pray without ceasing, and who give thanks” for the fact that the promises of scripture from Genesis and Isaiah have come true through the unique life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Who are we?

We are members of the mystical body of Christ, connected not by the blood of our parents, but through the body and blood of the Eucharist…cells in a community spread throughout time and space.

Why are we here?

To announce the good news, to live in a way that brings the kingdom of God to life in the here and now, and to animate and undergird our calling to justice with the power of love.

I can say these things from the pulpit, because I know them to be true and because I have lived them.

I know the difference between the identity the world wants to give us…where we were born and what social status and customs we observe, what we consume and who we know…

And the identity that we have in Jesus Christ…brothers and sisters bound by the terms of the new kingdom…a community of praise, service, and love called from every language and nation.

But the question I have today is: do you know who you are?

Do you know and understand who WE are as fellow Christians here in Rome engaged in ministry in this specific part of the Body of Christ called St. Paul’s within the walls?

Does your answer to “Why are we here?” have anything to do with the way Jesus, Isaiah, and the faithful people of God have answered that question throughout the generations?

In a few minutes the choir is going to continue leading us in the Misa Criolla, and we will hear the words of the Creed, our formal statement of belief, sung according to Ariel Ramirez’s arrangement.

I encourage you to take this departure from our normal way of saying the creed as a chance to really get down to the base of your own belief, and to reflect about your own witness in this community.

Who are you?

Who are WE?

Why are we here?

On this Advent Sunday, as we await the birth of the Messiah once more, I exhort you to keep answering these questions, and to testify in all the ways that you can from the graceful understanding you receive.

Tell the story of how God has blessed and redeemed you.

Tell the story of how this community of faith called the Church is a foretaste of the kingdom to come.

And find ways to live out the story in your own lives, through service, kindness, love based-justice, and Spirit infused witness.

When you do, your identity as a member of the people of God will come into focus, and our witness to the good news will be strengthened.

There is no better way to prepare for the birth of Emmanuel…no better time than the present to remember who we are, who we are called to be, and why this body and movement called the church is always worth the very best of ourselves and the utmost we can offer.

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