What jersey do you wear?

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Our first identity is as citizens of Christ's kingdom

By Randy Friesen

The World Cup Football (or soccer) tournament highlighted the dormant tribal identities of many North Americans. During the tournament, a quick look at the attire of staff around the table at meetings in our MB Mission office indicated that the ethnic loyalties of Dutch, German, Brazilian and Mexican fans are still active in our midst. Sport has a way of reminding us we like to belong to something larger than ourselves.

Sometimes we’re even willing to pay a big price for that loyalty. In his best seller The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman explored the reasons why many are still willing to sacrifice everything globalism and modernity have offered us—including the Lexus—in the dream of holding onto our “olive tree” and the tribal values that we are rooted in. 

The recent conflict in Ukraine has exposed the Russian, Ukrainian and Tartar ethnic loyalties which some are prepared to die for. In the midst of the current conflict, ethnic Russian background Baptists living in Eastern Ukraine have been told by local militias that only Russian Orthodox churches will be allowed to operate in their region. Many families have fled to Central Ukraine and are now being assisted by Mennonite Brethren church members from Ukrainian background who value their common identity in Christ more than their ethnic origins. It seems there is something more powerful than our ethnic identities and loyalties.

When I first explored these ideas with our global mission family, one of our workers responded with a story. Following a witnessing conversation with a Muslim on the street, the man gave the MB Mission worker a wristwatch containing the insignia of this man’s favorite football (soccer) team as a gift. Our worker brought it home and shared the story with his roommates. After seeing the watch, one of his roommates, who was also active in a local campus ministry and who was a die-hard fan of another football team, declared, “I will no longer call you brother” and left. He was serious! His football loyalties were stronger than his new faith in Christ! Our worker was left wondering what kind of Christianity his roommate was living and sharing.

We all know what jersey to wear to church, but how about on the streets? Are we clear that our first identity is as citizens of Christ’s kingdom regardless of our ethnic heritage?  How will we stand with our brothers and sisters in Ukraine or Congo (Hutus and Tutsis) or Laos or North Africa where tribal loyalties are pulling at them? As common disciples of Jesus we know our leader, and we know his ways. 

I wonder whether we need to frontload this understanding of identity and loyalty to Christ and his kingdom when we share the gospel? “If anyone comes after me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters (football team and ethnic group)—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). If we don’t frontload this question of identity and loyalty into our understanding of conversion, we are forever playing catch-up in our discipleship, fighting the magnetic pull of entertainment, family and political forces. What team are we living for?

Randy Friesen is the general director of MB Mission, the North American mission agency that focuses on holistic church planting that transforms communities among the least reached. This essay is adapted from Friesen’s July Vision for Mission newsletter.

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