Have you ever heard Mersea described as the “easternmost inhabited island” in the UK? I know I have. The only trouble with such a statement is that it isn’t true. Horsey Island, in the Walton backwaters, is also inhabited, and is several miles further East from our blessed isle (Horsey is featured in the Arthur Ransome novel Secret Water).
Why mention this? Simply because when Mersea gets described in such a way it seems to be a source of some pride, as if such a geographical feature was important, rather than simply a random fact.
Why is this (false) fact something that gets repeated so often? I wonder if it is because we have lost a sense of what is truly important in our lives, and so we clutch at random bits of information about ourselves to plug the gap.
After all, this is what children do as they grow up. When I was much younger my bedroom wall was plastered with posters, often of Marvel superheroes. The choice of which character to emphasise through such a display felt like a way of asserting my own identity. Such ‘hero-worship’ definitely has a place, as it helps to form a child’s own identity.
Of course, when such adoration persists into adulthood it becomes more of a sign of immaturity. By the time we have reached physical adulthood we are meant to have put away childish things and instead be ready to take part in the shared conversation which is our culture, bringing to it those things which are unique to our own identity.
By that time, all being well, we will have found a sense of who we are that does not depend on trivial, accidental facts – like how tall we are, what hair colour we have, where we were born and so on – but rather on substantial elements of character and virtue, such as a capacity for courage or hard work, or the ability to show mercy and compassion to those in need.
Of course, I am writing this from a Christian point of view. An excellent example of what I am describing was shown recently by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, after he discovered that his biological father was not the person that Welby had previously assumed. Welby wrote this, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”
Fundamental to the Christian view of the world is the understanding that what the world can offer is of no ultimate importance. Worldly values are for the Christian only ever of intermediate importance, they are means to ends rather than ends in themselves. This includes all forms of material wealth but also all that connects with our material bodies, what St Paul describes as ‘the flesh’ – thus, all the things about ourselves over which we have no control. Rather, what matters for the Christian is who we become through our choices. Do we choose to become more grateful and more gracious, or do we choose to become more cynical and sinful?
As I say regularly when I take a funeral, “We brought nothing in to the world, and we can take nothing out”. What that truth obscures, though, is that our souls do pass on, and our souls bear the indelible marks of our choices in this life. When Christians talk about Heaven and Hell, this is what is meant – that if our choices tend to the good, then our souls will have been enabled to express themselves in this life. If, however, our choices tend to the bad, then in just the same way will our souls have been marred or defaced.
This is one of the most important meanings of the resurrection. All the worldly powers had rejected Jesus – the religious authorities had despised him for his teaching, the political authorities executed him for his insubordination, the crowds cried out for his blood because he had disappointed their hopes. What they then chose to destroy was Jesus’ body. The resurrection is God’s way of saying: the religious authorities are wrong, the political authorities are wrong, the crowd is wrong – Jesus was right! More than this, the resurrection is showing that those who can control the body cannot control the soul, and in the end it is the soul that matters and the soul which is vindicated.
To put that in a different way, it is the soul that determines who we are in the sight of God. The soul is that part of ourselves which is unique, irreplaceable and not subject to decay – that is, it is eternal, it shares in the nature of God, it is the light which draws us on into truth, goodness and beauty.
To walk in the light, for the Christian, means to seek the good, to pursue the Kingdom of God, to combat injustice, to fight oppression, to exercise mercy and forgiveness and seek reconciliation between enemies. These are the things by which we are assessed in eternity. We will not be assessed by how much material wealth we have accumulated but by how much we have shared; we will not be assessed by how famous we are but by how much we have loved.
This is not easy, especially in our present society, which shouts so loudly that the opposite is true – that it is what we own that makes us who we are, that the acclamation of the crowd is what validates us. How then, do Christians gain the strength to pursue the good against such a strong headwind of cultural pressure?
I believe it is because we know for certain that we are loved, loved irrespective of anything we might be able to do or achieve. There is a feeling of absolute safety that can come from being held by God, an assurance that nothing the world can do can touch what is most essential to who we are. More than this, this assurance is bound up with a sense of knowing and being fully known, that all that is most essential to who we are can never be damaged by anyone else.
Our identity, in other words, is found in a relationship with the one who created all things, including us. When that source is acknowledged then we do not need to bolster our identity with random facts about who we are. Rather than identifying Mersea by some spurious geographical locator, let’s instead seek an identity for Mersea which is soulful – that here is a place where we look after each other, where the old are cared for and not left alone, where young people have the opportunity to fully express their talents, where we belong to each other and enable each other to be creative and fully human. That’s something worth working for.