“Who are you?” This is my now famous one-question essay for the world history final exam. I’ve compelled my students to integrate themselves into every unit of study, and now it’s time to put it all together. The foundational ideas begin with the advent of humanity in East Africa, from a single tribe. As we discuss ancient religions and their tenets of belief, students find principles with which they agree or disagree. As we discuss politics, the origins of agriculture or the evolution of democracy, at each step of the way, the question is always placed back on them: “Who are you in relation to these ideas?” Whether they accept or reject them is immaterial; they just have to defend their position. It doesn’t matter WHAT they think, but it matters HOW they think, how they integrate the material into their own views on the world and what has come to matter most to them. It is, admittedly, a subversive way to teach history….and it works for me.
If I give each of you the same assignment, you might answer that question in a variety of ways. You might tell me about your educational background, your job, what you did before you retired, etc… You would probably describe your family relationships: I’m child of so and so…parent…grandparent..sibling. You could list your hobbies, your political leanings, the celebrities you admire or despise. We could even talk sports teams.
Fr. Brennan Manning, puts it this way: “Who are you? You are the one whom Jesus loves.”
What an amazing thing! God says to each of us at every moment, “I love you. I forgive you. Stop worrying. I will not abandon you. You are mine!” We are the ones for whom Jesus comes, in, with and under the bread and wine to be part of our lives, to renew us, to assure us of God’s never-failing promises. We are the ones who, as we are reminded in Ephesians today, “were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” That’s who we are: we’re people who belong to God!
There is folktale from the ancient Middle East, where two youths from rival Bedouin tribes got into a fierce fight. As they tumbled to the ground, one boy pulled a knife, and plunged it into the other one’s chest, killing him. The other boy fled, knowing the dead boy’s relatives would pursue him, intent on avenging the death. He fled to a tent of refuge; it had been set aside as a safe place for anyone who had committed a crime of passion. He knew he would be safe there.
As he reached the tent of refuge, the youth flung himself at the feet of the aged sheik, and pleaded, “I have killed in a fit of anger, and I seek your protection.” The old man promised sanctuary to the young man for as long as he chose to stay.
A few days later, the avenging relatives tracked the fugitive to the tent of refuge. They described the offender to the sheik and asked, “Have you seen this man? Is he here? We will kill him!”
“He is here,” the sheik replied, “but you will not harm him.”
“But he has killed!” they protested, “and we, the blood relatives of the slain boy, will stone him according to the law.” The sheik raised his voice, “You will not, as long as he remains with us. I have given my word, and he has my protection. ” “But you don’t understand,” the people implored. “He killed your grandson.”
The old man was silent for a moment and tears began streaming down his face. “My grandson is dead?”
“Yes, your only grandson is dead.”
“Then,” said the old man, “this boy is now my grandson. He is forgiven, and he will live with us as my own.”[iii]
This is a story that is hard to imagine in the real world, the one in which we live. And yet, aren’t there stories of parents of murdered children to go visit the killer of their child in prison, to extend the grace of forgiveness? Aren’t there people who, after years of hating someone, suddenly seek out that person and forgive? These things do happen, and they show us the intrusive nature of the divine into our so-called “real world.”
So, that’s another response to the question of who we are: we are forgiven, beloved children of God. And we are instructed, in the reading from Ephesians, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love….” And we’re given some specific directions about what that looks like.
None of us like to take orders or to obey without questioning. Even priests. Perhaps especially priests! Those of us who are parents remember how our children were when given commands. Sometimes they obeyed without even thinking, other times, especially as they got older, the questions came first: “Why do we have to go to church all the time?” “Why do I have to be nice to my brother? Why do I have to be polite to that weird kid in my class? Why do I have to go to school? do my homework? respect my teacher?” The answer was pretty much always the same: “Because that’s what we do in this family.”
Ephesians is instructing us about what we do in our family, about what we do when we are beloved children of God. We live differently. We strive to do what God would do. We live authentically, as followers of Jesus. It’s about being who we are. That’s what we do in this family.
We are told to live lives of integrity and compassion—to be honest in our labor and in our dealings with others, and to share our blessings with the needy. We are told, in Christ, to put aside bitterness and malice and wrangling with one another, and are encouraged to allow the Spirit to lead and guide us. In our speech and actions, we are to encourage one another, speak well of one another, and so build up the church—the body of Christ in the world. It is easy to tear down—certainly there’s plenty of tearing down going on in our world—but, in Christ, we build up. We work for the good of all, so that all may hear the word of God and know the love of Christ. It’s who we are. It’s who we are called to become. It’s what we do in this family.