~ Luke 2:41-52 ~
You’ve probably seen the advertisements. You may have even purchased one yourself. Or been given one for Christmas. On Thanksgiving weekend this product was in the top five products purchased on Amazon. Sales are in the millions. I’m talking about DNA kits – genetic testing programs that explore the multiplicity of one’s ancestral roots.
It is a compelling thing. With the incredible scientific advances in DNA genetic testing, starting with the Human Genome Project, genealogical research (filling out one’s family tree) and forensic testing (solving crimes) have become reliable practices. As the research data became more plentiful and affordable, it wasn’t long before it became a commercial enterprise. With a simple swab of the cheek, you can find out all of the places in the world where you might have genetic connections. You might, much to your surprise, find out that you have ancestral connections to Poland or Greece or Africa. For some this information can be quite exciting; to some quite disconcerting. Whatever, this tool appears to help answer the question: Why am I me?
I wonder: What if Jesus were to send in his cheek swab to see what results would show up on the website? You see it’s complicated. If half of his DNA is divine…. But, of course, Jesus wouldn’t need such a test, because, as our scripture reading makes very clear, Jesus knew who he was. He knew to whom he belonged. Let’s explore.
This passage from Luke is the only place in the bible where Jesus’ childhood is discussed. This passage is not really part of the birth narrative. Indeed, Luke concludes his birth story back in verse 40 with almost the same words as he ends this story: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” This story about Jesus in the temple appears to be an add-on to Luke’s gospel. Ah! But it’s not just an add-on. Luke has a very important point to make in the telling of this story.
One of the central characteristics of Luke’s gospel (and Matthew, for that matter, but not so much Mark) is to make it abundantly clear from the very beginning the Christological nature of Jesus – that Jesus is God’s son. This is what the birth narratives are all about. The babe born in Bethlehem is the Messiah, the Son of God. That is what this story of Jesus in the temple is about as well.
Now we could delve into all the details of this story. The significance of going to Jerusalem for Passover. How is that his parents lost him (was child protection services called)? Why did it take them three days to find him? Why were the parental units so exasperated? What did Jesus say that so amazed the elders? Through the centuries, much has been said about all these details.
However, I want to get to the Luke’s primary purpose in telling this story. He does this with one detail: Jesus was twelve years old. He was right on the cusp of adulthood. Luke wants the reader to know that early in Jesus life, he knew. He knew to whom he belonged. He knew who he was. He confirmed his identity. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” says the 12-year old Jesus.
Now the skeptics among us might say, “O come on, really?” Did he really know that at the age of twelve? What about all the soul-searching we see Jesus doing later in the gospels. What about…and we could go on and on. However, this isn’t really about our skeptical questions. This is about what Luke wants us to know about Jesus and his mission. Luke wants us to get the message, loud and clear, that Jesus knew who he was – or whose he was! Jesus affirmed his identity in his relationship to God.
Now, a typical preacher’s admonition to his congregation, could be: “And so should you!” I could ask: How much of your identity is affirmed in your relationship to God? Is your faith in God merely a peripheral matter? Or does it shape your life in some profound way? Is religion for you merely an add-on to your life – something you do if you can fit it in, or when you need forgiveness, or need help, or do out of obligation? Or, is your faith in God at the core of who you are? Is it the essence of who you are? Is it the answer to the question: Why am I me? Is God why I am me?
Not really fair questions, are they? Of course, one’s identity is not just a faith in God. It is much more complex and nuanced. No matter how religious, how spiritual we may think of ourselves, we know full well that who we are comes out of all kinds of varied factors – family, gender, race, culture and religion. I am an amalgamation of many factors that come together in the person called “me.” As are you.
But sometimes we put too much stock in those “factors” that are our makeup. Often, we look at the various parts of who we are and determine that they are the ‘essence’ of who we are; that they are the ‘essential core’ of who we are. Take the DNA genealogy project we talked about earlier. Besides the fact that these tests are quite speculative (degree of confidence is often just 50-50), they don’t describe your essence. If it says you are 43.5% European and 27.3% Mediterranean and some other percentage something else, that doesn’t mean you are essentially European and Mediterranean. That just describes geographic areas from which there are similar genetic characteristics to your genetic code. They don’t determine who you are. If you have some Irish in your makeup, that doesn’t make you essentially Irish and thus will act like an Irish person.
Often, we put too much stock in whatever labels we call ourselves. The labels I might use to describe myself aren’t my essence. Indeed, they usually are filled with lies that I might rely on to maintain the myth of who I am. I am a white, male, American Christian. Now, there is some truth in all of those labels. But also a lot of falsehoods. They are not who I really am. Let’s explore a bit more.
I am ‘male’. In most societies, if I am labeled a man, I am supposed to walk and use my hands in a “manly” way, to be sexually interested in women, to be more physically aggressive than women. Men are supposed to be, well, masculine. Men should lead, women should follow; women obey, men command. These are the stereotypical characteristics that goes with the label of being ‘male’.
And yet, even though most of the world is divided between male and female, we now know that there is great fluidity and a wide spectrum of sexuality that makes such binary distinctions problematic. What’s more, whatever male characteristics I have are really not innate, they are learned. I have learned them my whole life. They are deeply ingrained habits, but they are learned nevertheless. They are my particular characteristics which means I really can’t speak for other men. They have their own identities.
I am ‘white’. What does ‘white’ mean? One of the more significant assertions in recent decades is the fact that race is a social construct. On a genetic level the differences between races are tiny, virtually non-existent. But again, more to the point, there are no essential racial identity characteristics. Just because I’m white does not mean that I represent white people. There are no ‘white’ behavioral or personality inevitabilities. The white race, essentially, has no leg up on any other race.
But I do recognize that as a white person I am afforded certain privileges because of the power exerted by whites through the centuries. I do exist in a ‘white privilege’ society. I must understand that all of that privilege is accrued via the power structures of our society. There is nothing in me, essentially, that warrants such privilege.
This is the reason that ‘identity politics’ is a viable thing in our current American culture. There has been much criticism of identity politics based on the idea that people of color are being divisive by banding together to advance their agendas. And that, as a result, white folk, particularly white men, are now the ones being discriminated against. Or so goes the talking point. But again, the issue is not pitting one race against another. Rather, it is a fact that certain segments of our society – people of color, LGBT people, Muslims, women – have experienced significant oppression and discrimination because of the way our society is structured. It is not about race but about racial and gender and religious discrimination.
I am an American. What does that mean? Unfortunately, the label ‘American’ has taken on serious racial and religious overtones. It has come to define a mythical past that will never be again. White nationalism is trying to reassert itself into the national conversation. Here is an interesting historical sidebar: The pledge of allegiance was actually written to help immigrants understand what they were committing themselves to by becoming an American citizen. Can the idea of “one nation…indivisible” ever again be the ideal of what being an American is? I, for one, embrace that identity of being an American. But certainly, there is nothing innately in my essence that makes me an American. I am an American because I choose to work towards the goal of “liberty and justice for all.”
I am Christian. Again, what does that mean? There are thousands of expressions of Christianity in our world, which makes some very upset and very nervous. They try desperately to control who gets to be called Christian and who does not. The gatekeepers of the faith are constantly on guard to keep out the heretics. And they certainly are constantly working to keep out of our civic and political discourse those who are not Christian. By their definition I am not Christian; I am a heretic. And yet, I assert I am Christian. I choose to affirm a faith in God that seeks to follow Jesus in the ways of peace and justice. That kind of Christian faith is what I have chosen to follow. It is a choice I make.
If you know me at all, you know I’ve gone through several iterations of the Christian faith – from very conservative to, well, very progressive. I never was one thing. My faith journey is always subject to change because I am constantly re-evaluating what it means to be a person of faith. I have taken on what social scientists call ‘habits’.
I believe that word – habits – is the key to understanding why I am me. In the course of my life, I have taken on habits that inform who I am. I am not essentially, in my core, a ‘white, male, American Christian’. But I have accrued and continue to accrue the cultural/personal habits that those labels bring to the table. But because they are habits I can change them. They are not inevitable. They are not my essence. To a significant extent, the development of personal spiritual practices is a way to change those habits because certainly many, if not most, of my habits have considerable baggage.
Which brings me back to that typical preacher’s admonition I mentioned a long time ago. As it was for Jesus, so should we. Yes, I believe our identity can and should be affirmed in our relationship with God. That, yes, our relationship with God should affect us personally in profound ways. Who we are need not be inevitable. God’s work of salvation is to make us transformed people. By setting aside wrong and mistaken notions about who we are and being willing to let God’s agenda shape us, change us, we will be more able to answer the question – why am I me? Amen.