Mathew 21: 23-32
Philippians 2: 1-13
In the reading from Mathew we heard the Pharisees challenging Jesus’ authority to preach in the temple and heal the sick. In today’s parlance they might well have said, “Jesus, just Who Do You Think You Are?” If, like me, you are an avid fan of the TV programme of the same name you will have seen various celebrities researching their ancestry. It often seems a tearful journey for many of them as they unearth distant relatives who lived in very tragic circumstances. There have been stories of involvement in the slave trade, persecuted Jews, and huge poverty; but also some finding they are related to nobility and even royalty. They are often keen to find a link to their current profession whether it be in acting, singing or whatever, presuming that this is where their get their talent from.
Of course Jesus’ immediate family tree is fairly straight forward. We know he has an Aunt Elizabeth and an Uncle Zechariah, a cousin called John (aka John The Baptist), a mother called Mary, and I suppose you might say, a stepfather called Joseph. According to Mathew he is descended from Abraham. Luke takes it back even further to Adam. Of course, and most importantly, Jesus is descended from King David so that the prophesy that the Messiah would be from the house of David would be fulfilled.
That got me thinking about the question, “Who Do We Think We Are and what gives us the authority to do what we do?”
I have traced my family tree back to John Spruce in 1700 who was my 6th Great Grandfather. Typical of many people my ancestors, who came from Cheshire, were all farmers or labourers with the odd publican and blacksmith thrown in. Several have been in the poorhouse, one was in jail on census day and another poor soul was fined £5 in court for attempted suicide…I can only hope it was not money problems that had driven him to it! This is my 2nd Great Grandfather James with his wife photographed about 1900. You can see where I get my good looks and sartorial elegance from!
Jim often mentions Roseanna in his sermons, very brave of him when she is safely through in the hall next door and doesn’t get the CD to listen to! So I am sticking my neck out a bit here with Anne sat listening. Anne was delighted to find she has noble blood no less! Her maiden name is Winder and her family too are from the North West of England. You might be able to guess the connection but I didn’t until I started researching. You will have no doubt heard of Windermere in the Lake District. Well that is where the Winder family originated and have their family seat. We stayed in Winder Hall a few years ago when it was a hotel and found the family crest and the very early family history. Windermere is actually a corruption of Vinder’s Mere. Vinder being a big scary Viking that invaded the west coast of Britain. You can make your own judgement on family resemblances!
So who we are may well be linked genetically to our ancestors, but surely there are many more facets to be considered?
There is our immediate family upbringing. Most parents would like to think that they have some influence on ‘how their children turn out’. We try to set some ground rules, give them a moral compass and might even give them grounding in the Christian faith.What about our education? That might well have decided what job we end up doing.
Indeed for some jobs the learning and qualification are an essential part. Think of many professions: nurses, teachers, engineers, ministers, apprenticeships etc. It is that very education and qualification that gives them the authority to do what they do.
So you might well be thinking what gives me the authority to be up there giving this sermon? It had more than crossed my mind too over the past month or so whilst preparing it!
I am an Engineer, at least Anne studied Divinity as one of her main degree subjects. So is it our jobs that define who we are? Watching the umpteenth episode of Pointless recently it occurred to me that the script is the same on every programme. The contestants introduce themselves: “Hello I am John from Alva and this is my friend Jim”. Then the supplementary question is always “What do you do?” It would appear that if you know where people are from and their jobs you can neatly put them in the appropriate pigeon hole that fits all your prejudices.
Then there are passports. Surely this will tell me who I am?Well not really. It tells me my date and place of birth and that I am British and I have no distinguishing features. It says nothing about the life I lead. In fact the long queues at the airports these days are actually whilst the immigration officers do background checks to see if people have any convictions or terrorist tendencies. They need much more information than just a passport to know who we are.
So who we are derives from a number of factors including:Our inherited genes, Our upbringing, Our education, Our friends’ influence, Our job..Or does it?
Let us go back and take another look at Jesus in the passage from Mathew. Jesus had recently made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds had shouted “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” By ‘Pointless’ standards they seemed to know who he was and where he was from! He had then gone on to heal the sick, preach in the temple and even trash it, upsetting the Pharisees big time in the process.They were clearly out to trap Jesus when they asked him where he got his authority to preach from. Being a gifted and natural politician in his own right, Jesus was able to turn their question around and trap the priests and elders into not being able to answer his question about John the Baptist. Jesus answered them, "I will ask you just one question, and if you give me an answer, I will tell you what right I have to do these things”. “Where did John's right to baptise come from: was it from God or from human beings?"
They started to argue among themselves, "What shall we say? If we answer, ‘From God,' he will say to us, ‘Why, then, did you not believe John?’” But if we say, "From human beings,' we are afraid of what the people might do, because they are all convinced that John was a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you, then, by what right I do these things.”
But then Jesus goes on to tell a story about a father and 2 sons:The elder son does not want to do what his father says but then goes away and does it anyway. The younger son says he will do what his father says but then doesn’t do it .Jesus had moved the conversation away from a question of authority, to a question of obedience. The point of the story of the two sons is made when Jesus asks, ‘Who did the will of his father?’
Jesus was having a go at those who would boast of their authority but who did not live as God would wish. Did the community leaders ‘walk their talk’, backing up their many words with actions? I don’t think so.
Jesus made it clear which one of the sons had done his father’s will and likens this to those who heard the message from John The Baptist and followed the right path thereafter. So Jesus goes on: “I tell you: the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John the Baptist came to you showing you the right path to take, and you would not believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Even when you saw this, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”The passage has moved from the comfortable story of the two sons, which no one would be offended by, to a radical statement about the nature of God’s kingdom.
Why will tax-collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of God ahead of those who made a public display of piety? The tax-collectors were collaborators with Rome and the prostitutes ranked as the lowest of the low, but Jesus made it clear they were welcome in God’s realm as they had heard the message from John The Baptist and changed their ways. The Pharisees and Chief Priests knew fine well that Jesus was talking about them but were afraid to do anything because of the crowd.
What Jesus is making clear here is that for all their upbringing and education in theology and law, and their very important jobs; that is not what matters to God.
God made man in his own image and God sent Jesus to be an example to us and show us how to live our lives. We are to do as the Father asks us
.It matters not a jot who we are descended from, whether we are highly educated or not, and what jobs we do, what matters is how we live our lives. Our true selves are not to be found in the past either, just like the tax collectors and prostitutes it is what we do from now on that really counts. So perhaps the real question is not “Who Do We Think We are?” but “How like Jesus are we?”
We heard about Paul in his letter to the Philippians addressing this question. Being written in the very early days of Christianity to the first church on European soil, it perhaps captures well the true meaning of living like Jesus.
Paul writes:“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had: He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death - his death on the cross.
Our big problem is we certainly have no handbook that tells us what Jesus would do in a world of easy travel and communications, of computers and medical science, of genetic engineering and weapons of mass destruction. Most Christians find it is not easy to discern the mind of Christ in the contemporary world.
Yet we can draw some conclusions from Christ’s behaviour to guide our thinking.
Above all he cared for people as individuals, putting them before rules and conventions. He enjoyed life, often getting ticked off for feasting with the disreputable in his society.
Perhaps a better reminder even than ‘How like Jesus are we?’ to have close to our hearts and prayers is ‘Jesus What Should I Do?
’ Of course that is not always the easy option or what we would want to do ourselves.There is a trap though, like the son who did not do what he said he would do, nobody likes that.When Paul asks us to have the ‘attitude of Christ’ in our relations with each other, the challenge is to live up to the standards we claim to follow.
In closing I think I would pick one line from one of Jesus’ other teachings as recorded in Mathew Chapter 7 as my guiding principle:“In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the prophets”.
Let us Pray:
Lord, we live in a complex world with often many difficult and sometimes confusing decisions to make in our everyday lives.
The way we choose to live those lives is influenced by many things in our past and the opportunities we have had.
By following your example help us to do what you would wish us to do and give us the strength and courage to do your will.
We ask for your blessing on each and every one of us here today.