“You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Saint Paul writes this to mostly non-Jewish Ephesian Christians who were not accustomed to being included in the family of Israel’s God. Saint Paul says they are included, just as he said to the mostly non-Jewish Galatian Christians, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). For God had made a promise to Abraham, the father of the Israelite and Jewish nations, “saying, ‘Through you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Galatians 3:8; Genesis 15:6). In Christ, Jews and non-Jews alike have been adopted as children of God and, “as proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” (Galatians 4:6).
According to Saint Paul, this identity – being children of the Father sharing the Spirit of His Son – surpasses all others. Compared with this, all other ways of identifying ourselves – be they based on race, socioeconomic status, or gender – are negligible. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
We can all feel like strangers and sojourners sometimes, disconnected from God and neighbor, isolated and alone. We are especially prone to this feeling of disconnection in our contemporary society in which, more and more, we are invited to define our own identities in ways independent of family, country, or religious tradition. I am, many now say, whoever and whatever I want to be. As a sovereign individual, I define myself.
The starting point, in this contemporary way of thinking, is isolation. My identity is not imposed on me from the start. Nor is it revealed to me be someone else. Rather, it us up to me to discover and determine who I am. Am I an atheist or a believer? Am I conservative or liberal? Patriot or cosmopolitan? Gay or straight? Male or female? It is up to me to discover who I am and where I belong.
In many ways, this is a good thing. The expansion of free choice and the increased possibility for voluntary association in our society are generally positive developments. Moreover, our personal identities are complicated and many-faceted, and introspective self-discovery, thoughtful judgments, and freely chosen commitments are rightly involved in shaping those identities. Saint Paul’s claim is not that such aspects of our identities amount to nothing, only that they are nothing compared to our truest identity as children of God the Father sharing in the Spirit of His Son.
When Saint Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female,” he doesn’t mean those identity markers are nonexistent. He means that, for all who “belong to Christ,” they are transcended. We have a new identity that goes beyond any of the other ways that we identify ourselves. Being “one in Christ Jesus” is what most truly defines us. It’s also what most originally defines us.
That is because it is based, first and foremost, on God’s choice and not ours. Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (John 15:16). “God has chosen us in [Christ],” Saint Paul says, “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). Our deepest identity is the one that God chose before the universe was made. It is our identity in Christ and a mystery made known to us by Christ (see Ephesians 1:7-10). Our choice also matters. We must freely follow Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I love you” (John 15:12). Nevertheless, “we love [God] because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
There are times when we all feel isolated and alone. I think those times are more frequent and those feelings are especially strong for people suffering from serious illness or injury. When life is threatened, questions of identity surface: Who am I? Where and with whom do I belong? What is my life all about? For each of us, there will be many answers to those questions. For all of us, there is one that is truest, deepest, and most defining: “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God.”