Community, identity politics, and greatness in the Kingdom of God


Mark certainly managed to highlight the disciples’ human foibles. A few weeks ago, we found them arguing about which of them was the greatest. Today, we read that James and John wanted to get the best seats at the heavenly table.  Not surprisingly, the other disciples were more than a little ticked off at James’ and John’s presumption. Jesus reminded them that God’s kingdom is not an earthly empire, like that of the Romans. What counts in earthly empires is who gets to be the top dog.  God’s kingdom is different; a great person is actually someone who serves others.

North Americans have become obsessed with the idea of ‘communities’.

When I drive down to church on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I listen to Metro Morning on the CBC. Someone being interviewed might be introduced as a member of the Somali community or the transgendered community or the Muslim community.  These labels describe geographic origin, sexual orientation, and religion.  These labels give the erroneous impression that the person represents everyone in that community.  They limit how other people see them.

Labels can lead to ‘identity politics’ in which everything, especially all your grievances, are bound up with membership in “your” community. Around the time I was ordained, there was a priest in the diocese whose whole persona revolved about his being gay. Everything that one might talk to him about soon came back to that one issue. Far from having many facets to his personality, he seemed to be locked into the single persona of being a gay priest.  In the US, identity politics between Democrats and Republicans has led to a chasm much deeper than mere disagreement over political ideas.

James and John were members of the “inner circle” of disciples, along with Simon Peter.  They were with Jesus at the Transfiguration, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and when he cured daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. They had gotten bound up in the idea that they were not just members of the “disciple community” but of the “inner circle community.”

We are all members of many different “communities”

I often say that we at St. George’s come together week by week as a community. But membership in the St. George’s community is not exclusive. We all participate in other groups – golf or bridge clubs, family groups, workplace groups. For example, I am an Anglican priest, but I am also a husband, father, chemist, university teacher, and first generation immigrant. Michelle and I even belong to a square dancing club, hard though Charles and Robin find it to believe!

The mode of dress of the monk with robes and large crucifix, or the burka-covered Muslim woman, identifies them as members of their religious community. But it also risks having other people identify them solely on the basis of that persona. This is a very clear impetus in the policies of the new Quebec government regarding secular values.

The issue strikes home to me personally. I wear my clerical collar when I am at St. George’s on church business, or at an outside nursing home service . My mentor Steve Witcher told me that “when you are representing the parish you should dress as a minister.” But that risks putting me into a single box – that of Anglican priest. In turn, it brings forth certain expectations about my interactions with people I meet. It also risks putting me into “James and John territory” by suggesting that I am somehow special, when I am not.

Should we live our lives as Christians exclusively?

To do so would effectively say that our Christian persona and community should subjugate all others. James and John were so much into being the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples that they had forgotten that they were also fishermen, husbands, and fathers.  That’s why it mattered so much to them as to where they stood in the pecking order.  Which of them would be the greatest or who would be sitting at the head table with Jesus in eternity?

It isn’t heretical to say that we are not exclusively Christians.  Yes, it is important to be part of the wider community of practising Christians.  But we are all members of many other communities – not only too numerous to name, but different for each of us. This frees us from being enslaved by the precepts of our particular community of Christians. At its worst, a narrow and exclusive sense of church community can morph into that of a cult.  Cults force everyone to understand their faith and to interpret the Scriptures in exactly the same way.

That issue is at work when Christian groups split apart over different interpretations of Scripture. It can lead to identity politics, where people define themselves by their theological interpretations.  They can become unable to find any common ground — or even respect — for those with different beliefs.

An open and questioning faith allows our unique and individual gifts to flourish

This approach lets each person and each denomination try their best to follow Christ in their distinctive ways.  But openness to a variety of ideas does not let us off the hook for spreading the Gospel.  In this month’s Niagara Anglican, Darcey Lazerte wrote that we Anglicans are not very good at proclaiming our faith.  We are poor evangelists for Christ.  At St. George’s we need to do better at making new disciples.

First Corinthians Chapter 12 is one of my favourite pieces of Scripture.  Paul tells his readers about spiritual gifts. Some are teachers, others are healers, some speak in tongues, others are miracle workers. But the same Spirit animates all of them.  All are Christians, yet each person brings different gifts to the table. This is just as true for us at St. George’s as it was for Paul’s original readers. Because, as Paul then went on to say, just as the human body has many members – eyes, ears, hands, feet etc – we are all members of the Body of Christ.  This is despite our differences – or perhaps because of them.

God’s kingdom is not an earthly empire or the board room of a Fortune 500 company.

That lead to a final problem with being like James and John. When you get to sit at an earthly top table, someone else is always waiting for you to make a mistake.  Then they can push you out and sit there instead.  Remember that as Christianity developed, James and John didn’t become the most celebrated early Christians. Peter and Paul got the top billing.


Tomorrow we have the privilege of voting in municipal elections.  People from many different ‘communities’ will cast their votes for each candidate.  I hope and pray that all those who are elected will understand the essence of Jesus’ message to James and John, whether or not they are Christian.  As Christians we might say  that the one who is great in God’s kingdom is the one who is servant to others.  But regardless of faith perspective we can say this.  The successful candidates will be elected to serve all the many different constituents in their many and several communities.