I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Americans have been raised with the language of rights. According to the Declaration of Independence, we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Around Independence Day each year, many Christian churches celebrate the freedoms we enjoy, including the right to worship in the way that we wish, without government intrusion or coercion. We assume that there is little or no conflict in being American and being Christian.
But being a Christian has a dramatically different starting point from being an American, and in my teaching I have discovered that most students have not thought through this consistently. When Paul thinks about his Christian identity, he thinks in terms of rights-surrender rather than rights-assertion. He has died with Christ, the one who completely surrendered all his rights when he submitted to the ultimate injustice on the cross. The old Paul died, the one concerned with career advancement, with self-promotion, with accumulating credentials. And Paul has been raised to new life so that he lives within a completely new reality. It’s no longer him, but his life is now the life of Christ being lived out through him. And his life-pattern is no longer determined by earthly ways of thinking, since with Christ he has been crucified to the world (Galatians 6:14).
His life now has a different orientation, shaped by the life of Christ who loved Paul and gave himself up for Paul. This is why Paul now sees his life according to this two-fold pattern – loving others and giving himself up for them. Paul wrote to a community focused on their rights and mentions the slogans they were throwing around (1 Corinthians 10:23). As an alternative, he instructs the Corinthians that, “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others,” (v. 24).
In Paul’s view, a church cannot survive as a community that asserts individual rights. This will lead to members of a community sniping at each other, angry about ways that each one’s rights have been infringed (Galatians 5:15). A Christian community thrives when we remember that we have entered the community through baptism – a ritual in which we identify with the death of Christ, one in which we declare that we have died and our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). We are set free, but we use our freedom as slaves of one another in love (Galatians 5:15).
When I teach about how the cross shapes Christian identity in the New Testament, I begin by asking students if there is any conflict between being Christian and being American. Like many others, they assume that these two identities are the most natural fit of any other earthly identity. After describing the far-reaching reality of Paul’s cross-shaped outlook, however, students come to see that these two identities don’t fit together so easily. Now, this does not mean we can’t be American or that we need to apologize for our national identity or that there is any virtue in being anti-American. It simply means that we need to think very carefully about how our national assumptions about ‘my rights’ impinge on our Christian identity as those called to love and give ourselves up for others.
O Lord, who pours out love and gives himself up for the sake of others, grant us grace to walk in love and to discover the freedom of living in the reality of the cross, for the glory of your name.