“Oh, so you’re THAT kind of Anglican…”
I wasn’t quite sure what, specifically, I had said to elicit the comment from my listener, but I was left with no doubt that I had just been mentally categorized, labelled, and put into a cubby hole. A rather small one, I suspect. I felt uncomfortable.
In truth, I had already learned that I might stand out in this group. It was my first time here and at the pre-meeting reception I had run into another man wearing a clergy collar who, as it turned out, self-identified as an Anglican as well. My curiosity as to why I had never seen him at any clergy gathering was satisfied when he explained that he was a member of a different Anglican denomination, one which had recently split off from my own stripe.
Over my shoulder he suddenly spotted a huddle of others he needed to say hello to and he moved on.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions about another’s qualities based on assumptions regarding their faith – a phenomenon much in the news, with America debating whether or not Muslim victims of war qualify for sanctuary. We meet one nasty Muslim, in person or digitally half-way around the world and, if we’re not careful, we prejudice any further encounters based on this experience.
All religions seek to define and set apart what makes their path to spiritual enlightenment different from others. Say the following Shahada with conviction and you have taken your first step as a Muslim:
Ash-hadu an’ laa ilaaha ill allah, wa Mohammedan rasul allah.
I bear witness that there is no god except God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Religious Jews, for their part, recite the Shema Yisrael as the centrepiece of morning and evening prayer.
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad.
Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.
And if you are a Christian you undoubtedly hold to some form of Creed or simplified Statement of Faith (even if you haven’t committed it to memory).
There seems to be something in us that demands we reduce the complexities of a faith journey to a mere motto or catchphrase we can easily call to mind. Like the handle on a suitcase, as long as we hold it firmly in our grasp we can be sure the rest of the baggage will come along as well.
But of course no religious creed can completely define the experiences of its individual adherents. To be authentic, to live out our faith, we must give it hands and feet and, aside from a few prescribed disciplines perhaps, we do that in our own individual way.
In the book of Exodus God told the people of Israel that if they obeyed God’s voice and kept God’s commands they, as a people, would be a “peculiar treasure unto me above all people” (19.5, KJV). The group identity, a chosen people, comes to the fore. But in the very next verse there is a hint that individual responsibility plays a role as well: “and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests”. Each member of the group has a role to play representing the divine to each other and each other to the divine. Our individual lives and actions bring definition, make complete the peculiar treasure that is the people of God.
“Do not begin to say to yourselves (as if it were enough), ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Are you a Muslim, a Jew, or THAT-kind-of-Anglican? John the Baptist has news for you: big deal. God could make your kind out of anything, stones even, if God so desired.
What matters is this: is the faith you are leaning on for your identity actually producing anything worthwhile in your life? Are you caring for the needy and hungry? Are you honest in your daily affairs? Are you using your authority with integrity? These are the things that reveal God’s character to others and bring worship to God; these make you a peculiar treasure.