Who do you think you are?
Those who don’t watch TV might have allsorts of different answers to this question.
But many of us here will immediately be thinking of our family trees:
‘Who do you think you are?’ is the title of a BBC series, which helps famous people to look into their family trees. Often the programme is surprising, it can be very moving, and whenever I’ve watched I have found it fascinating.
A recent one that sticks in my mind saw Ainsley Harriott – the bubbly chef whose origins were in the West Indies – discover that he was not descended only from slaves, as he had always thought, but that his family tree also included a slave owner.
Poor Ainsley was left pondering questions of his own sense of identity – he had previously felt proud that his ancestors had struggled against and risen from slavery, and now he says he feels more mixed emotions – with the knowledge that his family were more complicit in the slave trade then he previously thought.
For many of us, ‘who we are’ is shaped by stories of the past: that is part of the fascination of the programme and of genealogy in general.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus has been facing questions from the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Saduccees – questions about taxes, questions about life after death, and now this question about the greatest commandment. The commandments are what shape the people of God – they are part of the great story of the past which gives the Jewish people a sense of identity as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the people who followed the great Moses through the wilderness to the promised Land. The commandments are part of the past that shapes the present: so the question is ‘where does Jesus stand?’ ‘who does he think we are?’ when he is asked which of the commandments is greatest?
You can see how the trap might work – if Jesus says the greatest commandment is ‘do not kill’ they can say he’s soft on idolatory: or maybe the question reflects a genuine desire to see whether Jesus thinks it is more important to love God than to preserve the life of others.
Jesus’ answer is brilliant: the books of Deuteronomy, Numbers and Leviticus are full of laws, statutes and commandments of God – but Jesus brings together just two that manage to summarise all the others – Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Deut 6:5) and Love your neighbour as yourself (Lev 19:18).
Jesus honours all God’s commandments, he doesn’t seek to leave any part of the past behind, and yet he frames all that has been said in the past in a new way. The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus because they see him as a trouble-maker, who encourages law-breaking (such as eating with sinners and forgiving sins) and may well cause insurrection against Rome – they want to discredit him and ultimately they want to be rid of him.
Jesus is clear about who he is- someone firmly rooted in the past but pointing to a new way of relating to God – the God who is with us now, and not only in the past.
The past is important – and it helps us to live today. Today we’ve received the wonderful church record which reminds us of all the treasures of the past we have inherited here.
We have evidence of the many gifts and talents with which people of past centuries have expressed their love of God and neighbour.
But I’m sure Jesus would not want us to keep our eyes firmly on the past, but would want us to be inspired by the example of the past to use our gifts and talents in our love of God and neighbour.
And I also think there’s a third element to our love which Jesus also exemplifies and which we came across in our reading from the letter to the Thessalonians. Paul is writing to a new Christian community – only 20 years after the death of Christ. They are not people who share a great history, they would certainly not be all Jews, but Paul reminds them that they do share in the good news of the coming of God’s love in Jesus. He also talks about the love he, Paul, has for them, and the love they share as a family in Christ.
Love God and love your neighbour is Jesus’ summary of the law, and as Paul tries to instruct the Thessalonians in sharing the love of God with their neighbours he says also ‘love one another’ – be like brothers and sisters to each other. Paul models care for the church, and speaks of how he has treated them gently. Paul wants to build a loving community, which has a healthy interest in its shared past, and which remembers the teaching of Jesus to love God and love neighbour. Such a community will know who they think they are – to the glory of God.
And so we meet around Christ’s table – eyes on the past but feet firmly in the present as we seek to form a loving community which will show what it means to love God and our neighbour as ourselves.. and all to God’s glory.
Thanks be to God.