A man was very surprised when a good-looking young lady greeted him, as he couldn’t remember ever having seen her before. She realized that she’d made a mistake, and apologized, saying, “I ‘m so sorry. When I first saw you I thought you were the father of two of my children.” She walked on while the man stared after her somewhat shocked. She didn’t realize, of course, that he was unaware of the fact that she was a school teacher.
Working out, or failing to work out, our identity seems to be the spirit of the current age. We watch it being played out in the reality TV that shows us ordinary people revealing themselves to our sofa-bound attention in order to gain even the briefest moment of celebrity. We’re bombarded with tantalising glimpses of new identities we might be blessed with if we buy certain products; more success, greater sex appeal, deeper fulfilment; greater comfort; increased security.
Who are we? It’s the question that philosophers and poets tease at in their lines and that politicians and economists theorize about. How much are we shaped and honed by the contexts and cultures, families and friendships into which we are born? How much are we the products of our genes; our futures mapped by DNA’s idiosyncrasies buried deep within every cell? Who are we?
Our Bible readings today unfold the stunning reality of who we are, of our truest identity, of the fullness of possibility that each and every human being contains, telling us the truth about ourselves.
Two truths intertwine in today’s readings, woven together as branches on the vine, supporting each other. We need to keep these two together because either one of them on its own, though rich and beautiful, does not do justice to our real identity.
The first truth is that we are the children of God who are made for community. We’re not made for lives as isolated fortresses; we’re not designed to craft islands for ourselves upon which to look out at the world as if we are not a part of it. We’re made for shared space, shared living, and the hospitality of the commons. We’re woven together into the fabric and web of life on Earth; interdependence is as much our DNA as the uniqueness of our individuality. Of course we all have our own unique fingerprint, but we share with one another in holding hands.
The first creation story in Genesis 1 (there’s another in Genesis 2) shows God’s creative work, ticking off the mighty acts of star, sun, moon, ocean, mountain and then the teeming mysteries of all life. This is a picture of a garden that not interconnects, its very nature is being interdependent. And into this world God brings life to Adam and Eve, made in the image of God to be companions to one another. It’s a story of shared space and shared lives.
This story is not a piece of history, nor science, to explain where we come from, but poetry which tells us that we are unique individuals designed by God to share space and time and place and life with others, and with creation itself. So, as people created for community and sharing, how well do we live together inn this church? What is the quality of our sharing? Have we shaped a community here that encourages and enables each of us to find our place, to be valued and cherished, but also to be called accountable to the ways in which we value and cherish everyone else?
These things matter because the ways of the world today tells a different story and offers a different truth. Look out for yourself first, we hear. Charity begins at home, we’re told. Shape your own life, make something of yourself. Yet, scripture begins with God’s creative purpose and says, in contrast, discover your true identity by sharing your life. Know who you are by placing yourself in the company of others and caring for them.
The second truth is that God knows that we find this shared living hard, so God gives us what we need to make it possible. Community cannot be made real in our own strength. The harder we try to make community work by our own efforts, the more we risk simply making it in our own image. The reality is that the Garden of Eden is far from here. We live in a world that knows much of brokenness and sin, of being lost and being hurt. Without God’s help, community remains elusive.
In both Matthew’s Gospel and in Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, we hear of God’s rescue and God’s goodness. Here is another dimension to our identity. We are made whole by God in order to be his children in ways we would never have imagined. It happens through Jesus, and through our faith in the offer of new life he makes to each of us.
It is easy to dismiss the words from Matthew that we heard. Being told not to worry is all too simple to say. Comparing our incredibly complex lives to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field is lovely poetry, but hardly seems to do justice to a world of bank accounts, mortgages, pension schemes, insurance, employment, unemployment, loneliness, grief, and all the other dimensions of living that press upon us. We often find ourselves, and know others, in a world of worries.
But we need to consider the context. This is the Son of God speaking. And Jesus knows plenty about the fragility and riskiness of life. He can say these words and mean them as much as he can pray for safety in the Garden of Gethsemane and cry out to God from the cross. This is the strength that comes from vulnerability, giving us the hope and the confidence to build community as children of God’s love.
Jesus tells us to look and to consider. These are strong words, telling us to pay deep attention to the world and to our lives; to truly see that God is offering us life and real hope even amidst our struggles and uncertainties. And, often, it will be in sharing with others that some of this truth will break open for us in blessing and wonder and joy.
This is also Paul’s message to us today, from the letter to Romans. We are, through believing in the salvation Jesus Christ has offered us, the newly-adopted children of God. Our identity is shaped by this reality; this relocation from a world that doesn’t know God to a world that does. We can be people who share our lives and our space because we know that, in Christ, God has shared our lives and our space and offered to us real hope.
Who are we? We are the children of God, made to share our lives with one another in love and in hope.