Find Your Identity in Christ

Pastor Jeff Struecker

Today we start a brand new sermon series. We’re going to take a deep dive into a very short book of the Bible. This is found all the way at the end of your Bible, just a couple of books from the end.

We’re going to start looking at this Bible book called Philemon. We’re going to spend four weeks in this book, and in the month of October we’re going to try to see how radically following Jesus changes the way that we view society. It changes the way that we look at social boundaries.

I want to do is talk to you about identity. Now, when I say the word identity, it’s bigger than just what you see when you look in the mirror. It’s actually bigger than just what you think about yourself. You see, the term identity really describes who you believe that you are at your very core, the essence of who that you think you are.

In order to set this whole idea of identity up for you, I’m going to show you a movie clip, a movie clip from a movie that’s streaming right now on a bunch of the streaming services. Maybe you’ve seen this movie clip, a movie that I watched and quite frankly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. [clip shown]

If you’ve seen the movie Peanut Butter Falcon, you’ve heard that this groundbreaking movie not only has an actor who portrays somebody that has Down syndrome, Zack really does have Down syndrome. In fact, the guys who wrote this script and produced the movie used their friends Zack as the star in this movie. Perhaps you heard that twice in the previews alone they mentioned that Zack has Down syndrome.

Now, when I watched this movie, I was surprised by how much I got into it. Then all of a sudden I heard something, and it disturbed me so much that I started to count. Five times in this movie, Zack makes a statement about himself. This statement bothered me so much that I almost threw the remote control at the screen. Perhaps Zack has been told this about himself for so long that Zack refers to himself by saying, “I am a Down syndrome.” I could get completely behind this movie if you would just change two words in the script. If you would eliminate the words “I am” and change it to “I have” have Down syndrome.

See, somehow Zack has been told so often that he has down syndrome that it’s become Zack’s identity. That’s how he sees himself. When he describes or introduces himself, he tells people not, “I have Down syndrome,” but, “I am Down syndrome.”

I use this clip from Peanut Butter Falcon to demonstrate that sometimes we hear fake news about ourselves. Sometimes it’s the likes or dislikes on social media. Sometimes it’s the labels that people gave you when you were growing up. If you believe those fake news stories, they can radically impact your identity.

Don’t believe the fake news. You are more than…

Here’s the thing that I want you to hear from the Bible today: Please don’t believe the fake news. Please don’t listen to the labels. Please don’t just believe the social media likes or dislikes about you. I need you to understand this today, and I’m going to go back to this again and again and again. You are more. 

You’re more than the labels, and you are more than the likes or the dislikes. Zack is a lot more than just Down syndrome. In fact, I think the whole movie is built around the idea that Zack is more than just a guy with Down syndrome. He is more than what people see when they look at him.

Today, what I want you to hear is that sometimes society, sometimes friends, sometimes family are going to put labels on you. I’m going to beg you; don’t listen to those labels. Don’t let them define you. Other people don’t get the opportunity to say who you are. The only one who deserves the opportunity to tell you who you are is the one who created you and the one who redeemed you. The one who created and rescued you, who bought you back from your sin, he and he alone can tell you who you are. Of course, I’m speaking about King Jesus. He and he alone deserves the right to give you your identity.

Let me tell you his identity for you. I can already tell you what this is. If you call yourself a follower of Jesus Christ, his label for you is MINE. His label for you is:  She belongs to me. He is my son. She is my daughter.

We’re going to hear from the introduction to the book of Philemon today. We’re just going to look at the beginning of this letter and hear a lot of labels today. The reason why we’re going to talk about identity is because the guy who writes this book and the guy he’s writing it to use some labels to describe each other. Here it is from the book of Philemon. We’re going to look at just these first three verses in the Bible, but here’s what the Bible says, and listen to the labels that you hear today.

Philemon 1:1-3 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother: To Philemon our dear friend and coworker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your home. 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

You can see a number of key players in this passage in the Bible. You can see several people who are mentioned in the first three verses of this Bible book.

The subtitle for this sermon series is “Why Following Jesus Crosses Every Social Boundary”. It shatters, it destroys all of those labels that people use to separate one another. 

Sometimes labels are used to describe the differences between us, and those labels aren’t necessarily bad. Maybe you would refer to yourself as someone in the military. That’s not a bad label. Maybe you would call yourself a mom. That’s actually a really good thing. Maybe you’re a mechanical engineering student. 

Any one of those things, all of those things (I guess you could be a mom in the military who is taking some mechanical engineering classes; you could be all of those things) are not bad things. But when those things become the number one thing that you use to describe yourself, now there’s a problem.

You see, the idea today is with Jesus, you’re more than a mom. You’re more than a mechanical engineering student. You’re more than a warrior in the military. You are more than that. Because you’re more, the gospel of Jesus Christ now eradicates all distinctions. It now levels all discrimination. It now addresses all of that social disparity. It does away with all of it, because at the cross of Jesus Christ, the ground is level. There is nobody better or nobody worse. There is nobody who is good. At the cross of Jesus Christ, we’re level. We’re equal.

I’m going to ask you to do something for me. Repeat these three statements that we’re going to learn from Philemon out loud. Say the first one loud and proud: “I am more than my circumstances.”

I am more than my circumstances in life

The guy who writes this refers to himself with some really peculiar language. You see, the book of Philemon is actually a letter in the Bible. If you don’t understand a whole lot about the Bible, most of the New Testament are actually letters written from apostles to either churches or individuals, and those letters have been preserved without error to become our Bible today.

Oftentimes when those letters start, the guy who’s writing the letter describes himself and why he should be allowed to write this letter. The guy who writes the letter to Philemon, his name is Paul, and he uses language here in the Bible that he doesn’t use anywhere else. Did you know that Paul writes at least 13 letters,? Some think he wrote a 14th, Hebrews. I don’t know that that was necessarily Paul, but he writes 13 letters, and this is the only time he starts a letter by referring to himself with this label, “I am a prisoner of Jesus Christ.”

Now, most time when Paul starts a letter, he refers to himself as an apostle. Seven of those 13 letters that he writes, he will refer to himself as an apostle. Sometimes he refers to himself as a servant. It’s fascinating to me that he uses the language of a prisoner in this letter and only in this letter that became the Bible book of Philemon.

You’re going to see three major players in this book in the Bible and three minor players. Paul is, of course, the major player, the guy who’s writing the letter, and the guy that he’s writing it to is another major player. But when Paul calls himself a prisoner, that’s like the CEO of a corporation changing his business card to say, “I am the company janitor.” This is a massive, humongous switch in the way that somebody is referring to himself. Paul is saying, “I have given it all up for Jesus Christ.”

Actually, we’ll look at this in more detail in just a second. Paul really is a prisoner when he’s writing this letter. He’s in prison because this former religious leader who hated Christianity and tried to stamp it out everywhere that he could go, this religious terrorist becomes this radical follower of Jesus Christ. He is so busy telling people about Jesus that he’s literally arrested for it, and they tell Paul, “If you don’t stop talking about this Jesus, we’re going to kill you.” Paul is now in prison when he’s writing this letter to a guy by the name of Philemon.

Paul could easily say (because this is true), “I have given it all up for Jesus because Jesus has given it all up for me. And I now call myself no longer a big shot. Now I call myself a prisoner, and I’m proud of the label prisoner.” Paul recognizes that he is a man adopted into the family of God with a mission to do while he’s here on planet Earth.

Our name, 2 Cities, does not refer to the two cities that we live in. It actually refers to the two cities that Paul lives in, that all of Jesus’s followers live in. Paul, because he’s adopted by God, is a son or daughter of the King, and ultimately his ultimate destiny, his first and his most important city is the city of God. But he also recognizes while I’m here on planet Earth, I’ve got work to do, and that makes me a resident of the city of man. So I guess I live in two cities at the same time. Although I’m a prisoner, I am a child of God and it determines everything about my identity.

Your circumstances should never be what defines who you are. Circumstances come and go; situations change, but they don’t get the right to describe who you are at the soul level. Paul is in prison, and it’s about as bad in circumstances as you can get. But even in prison he is a free man set free by the gospel of Jesus Christ. No matter what you’re going through right now, you don’t have to let your circumstances describe or define your identity.

The first thing that I need you to hear from the Bible today is that you are more than your circumstances in life. The second thing, and I want you to follow along and to say this out loud, that you are more than your position in society.

I am more than my position in society

I am more than my position in society right now. The second major player in this letter (actually he’s kind of a minor player, I guess) would be Timothy. When Paul introduces himself, he’s saying, “Hey, I’m writing you this letter and the guy who’s right with me is my number two man, a guy by the name of Timothy.” But notice he refers to Timothy as a brother.

If you know anything about the Bible, if you know anything about Timothy’s story, you know that he wasn’t always a brother. Timothy was actually an outcast, a social outcast, because Timothy came from two very different parents: a parent that was considered faithful to Israel and a parent that was considered a Gentile. This made Timothy a guy with no race and with no ethnicity, because the Gentiles didn’t really claim him, and the Jews wouldn’t accept him.

So Timothy has no future until he meets this preacher by the name of Paul, until Paul introduces Timothy to Jesus, and all of a sudden Timothy’s situation in society has changed. Now this guy who was an outcast, who had no real family, no real history, no real position in society, all of a sudden is somebody. Now he’s considered a brother, not just a brother to Paul, but Paul calls him a brother to Philemon.

By the way, Paul is about to make a bold request of Philemon, and when he does, he wants Philemon to know, “Hey, it’s not just me, Philemon. I need you to understand that this is the way the brothers and sisters in the faith view what’s going on in your life right now. Philemon, I’ve got my friend Timothy right here with me, and he feels the same way about these social circumstances that I feel about it.” Timothy’s an outcast, and his identity has been influenced by what people say about him.

I stumbled across this quote. I was actually quite surprised by this quote from Jay-Z about identity, because maybe this rapper, maybe this superstar understands just how dangerous it is to listen to the voices and to allow them or your place in society to define who you are as a person. Check out this quote from Jay-Z, because here’s what he says: “Identity is a prison that you can never escape, but the way to redeem your past is not to run from it, but to try to understand it and to use it as a foundation to grow.”

I was blown away by this statement, because I think he really gets it. You see, what Jay-Z is saying, actually you see what Jesus is saying to Timothy, what Jesus is saying to Paul, what Jesus is saying to Philemon is, “Philemon, you’ve got a past. Timothy, you have a past, and I get it. You can’t change your past. In fact, you didn’t even choose the family that you were born into. I get that. But that past doesn’t have to define you. In fact, that past can be the thing that you learn from, that you grow from, and that you become a much different, a much better person in the future.”

That word redeemed is what screamed for my attention this week. You see, the word redeemed really means taking something that’s messed up and broken and turning it into something that’s beautiful, turning it into something that’s useful and that’s workable or that’s acceptable. In this case, acceptable to the God of the universe.

Please listen to me. You are more than an abortion. You are more than a prison sentence. You are more than an addiction. You are more than a bankruptcy. You are more than a same-sex attraction. All of those things that you may have done in your past that are haunting you today, those things don’t have to define your present, and they certainly shouldn’t describe your future. Don’t let those huge mistakes of the past haunt you in the future.

You’re much more than just someone with Down syndrome. You’re much more than just someone who’s made some mistakes in the past, because we all have. No, Jesus can take those mistakes, and he can redeem them. He can make them something beautiful out of them, so don’t let those mistakes determine your position in society. Don’t let them determine how you view yourself. You’re more than your circumstances, and you’re more than your position. You are even more than the family that you were born into. Say this statement out loud:

I am more than my family story

Now we’re going to hear about Philemon and his family. You have Paul, the major player, you have a major player in this book by the name of Philemon, and then you have three minor players who are listed for us: Timothy, a lady by the name of Apphia, and a guy by the name of Archippus. Let’s talk about Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus for just a second.

We don’t know a lot from the Bible about Philemon. In fact, this is kind of the only place in the Bible where we find out anything about this guy. But here’s what we do know: We know that he’s a pretty important guy. We know that he is probably a pretty wealthy guy, and one of the reasons that we know that is because he has a large house, a house that’s large enough to have a church that meets in it. We know that he has enough money that he can afford servants, because that’s why this whole book of the Bible is written.

We also know that at some point, somehow (we’re not exactly sure what happened or what the circumstances were), Philemon met a guy by the name of Paul. Paul introduced Philemon to Jesus ,and Philemon’s life was radically, totally turned upside down. So upside down ,in fact, that Philemon took what he heard, went home with it, and he introduced it to his family. We’re pretty certain from Bible history that Apphia, the woman whom Paul refers to as our sister, is actually Philemon’s wife and she is a co-worker in the church. Philemon and she are kind of servants in the church. They are not really in charge in the church. They’re just helping to serve because this church is meeting in their home.

By the way, we call that around here life groups, and we ask everybody, shamelessly ask everybody who is connected with 2 Cities Church, would you please for your sake get into one of our life groups? It’s where real growth, it’s where real accountability happens.

Most Bible scholars believe this third minor player, a guy by the name of Archippus, is the pastor of the church. We don’t know that from this book in the Bible. We actually learn about him in the book of Colossians. You see, Philemon lives in a city called Colossae, and Philemon’s house is probably the church of Colossians that Paul writes to. In Colossians 4:17, Paul addresses the pastor of this church, a dude by the name of Archippus. Most people believe Archippus is the pastor of the church that meets in Philemon’s house.

But here’s what Bible scholars also believe: Archippus is Philemon’s son. Archippus is the leader of this church that’s meeting in his parents’ home, and Archippus is trying to influence more people so that they would hear about the same Jesus that radically changed his dad, that radically changed his mom, that radically changed his life. And Archippus wants more people to know that Jesus can do this for you. Archippus is the leader of this house church, and Archippus is following in the footsteps of Paul, trying to introduce more people to Jesus.

This church that’s meeting in their house is the way that Christians did church for almost 250 years. I’m saying this because for many of you who are watching church at home, and you don’t have a church building to go to because you live in a country that is still under some restrictions or you’re in a situation where you can’t go back to a giant church building, did you realize that until about the year 330 or 350 AD, we didn’t have church buildings? People just went to houses and they opened the Bible, they sang some songs, and they worshiped Jesus in houses very much like the church around the world has been forced to do because of the COVID virus.

There are some major players that we’ve just looked at, Paul and Philemon. There are some more players that we’ve just heard about (Apphia, Timothy and Archippus). But there’s one player that hasn’t been mentioned yet. In fact, the entire rest of this series, we’re going to focus on him. It’s a guy by the name of Onesimus.

Here’s what I need you to understand: Onesimus is a runaway slave. Onesimus is Philemon’s property, and Onesimus ran away. Somehow, sometime while he ran away from his slave master, Onesimus met Paul. Paul introduced Onesimus to Jesus, and Onesimus became a helper to Paul, kind of like a right or a left-hand man. Timothy’s on my right, and Onesimus is on my left. Paul really valued this guy Onesimus, but Paul knew, “I can’t hang on to him.” Next, we’re going to see how Paul sends Onesimus back to his master, back to Philemon.

If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “What just happened, Jeff? This guy who was radically transformed by the gospel has slaves? This slave who was radically transformed, this runaway slave who was radically transformed by the gospel is now running back to his master?” and you have 50 more questions about how this works and why this is such a big deal. 

I am convinced this book of the Bible addresses almost every social issue, every racial, denominational, political divide that’s happening not just in America, but around the world because of what you’re going to hear when Paul sends Onesimus home and shatters Philemon’s worldview by the way that he describes how much the gospel changes people.

Onesimus’s life has been turned upside down. Philemon’s life has been turned upside down. Paul’s life has been turned upside down by the same Jesus that can turn your life upside down. It’s the gospel and only the gospel that can make that kind of radical, fundamental change in a human’s life. It can change us and the way that we view ourselves so much that all of those social distinctions, all of that discrimination, all of that disparity, that stuff fades away into the background and this thing becomes number one in our identity.

I want to wrap up by talking to two groups of people. The first group of people are those of you who would call yourself a follower of Jesus Christ like Paul, or like Timothy, or like Philemon, Archippus, or Apphia. I need you to hear from the Bible today that those labels that society places on you, that family dysfunction that you may have been born into, that situation you’re going through in life, that doesn’t get to define you. No, only the one who bought you back from your sin, only the one who created you, he and he alone gets to put the ultimate label on you, and I will say it to you one more time. His label for you is MINE.

When you refer to yourself, I need you to refer to yourself as a son or a daughter of God. I need you to think about yourself in those terms first and everything else about you second, a very distant second place. When we see ourselves as a precious child of God, everything else starts to get into its proper perspective in life.

But there’s a second group of people. Maybe it’s you. It’s the person who’s not yet a follower of Jesus Christ. I don’t even need to know who you are. I don’t need to know where you live. I can promise you, there is something about you that is propelling you to seek identity in a thing other than Jesus Christ. Maybe for you, it’s work. Maybe for you, it’s family. Maybe it’s a relationship. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s a position. Maybe it’s power.

Whatever it is, when you start to pursue those things, I promise you here’s what’s going to happen: When you start to pursue those things, when you start to grasp and finally achieve those things that you have been longing for and working for, you’re going to find that it’s going to let you down. You’re going to find that it’s not really going to fulfill you deep inside, that all that you made it out to be is not really that great.

All of us were created with this intense desire to worship, to worship someone or something, and those that don’t worship Jesus will almost always place themselves in that position and start to worship themselves and to pursue some selfish ambition. When you start to chase after that and when you finally get there, I guarantee you that if you stop and think about it, it’s going to let you down. It didn’t deliver what you thought it was going to deliver, because it can’t fulfill you at the soul level.

I can just save you the heartache right now. Instead of pursuing something that’s going to let you down in the long run, why don’t you just chase after the one who can alone fulfill you on the inside? Why don’t you pursue the one who can fill you up even when you’re in prison, can fill you up even when you’re a slave on the run, can fill you up even when your life is not living up to or amounting to what you thought it was going to be. Why don’t you pursue a relationship with Jesus Christ?