A few weeks ago, someone from the class in my final year at school got in touch. She is putting together a yearbook, with brief lives of each of us, as we turn another decade. It’s been fascinating, both to set down a paragraph or two about my own life and to read about what others have done since we were 18. As you can imagine, I found myself pondering what I’ve done with my life, who I was, who I once hoped to be, and who I am. Perhaps you have moments like that too… Who do people say that I am?
I read biographies quite a bit and I find all human lives interesting, and not just the obvious ones like Oscar Wilde or Judy Garland. Every single human being with whom I have ever had a serious conversation has had a fascinating story to tell – and that’s you of course too. I agree with Iris Murdoch – that all people are utterly extraordinary. We all work hard to hide it, but it’s true. And it is in this extraordinariness of human life where God is made known.
One of my favourite writers begins one of his books with these words:
‘all theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography.. what a theologian is doing essentially is examining as honestly as he can the rough-and-tumble of his or her own experience with all its ups and downs, its mysteries and loose ends, and expressing ..the truths about human life and about God that he believes he had found implicit there. ..If God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. Someone we love dies, say. Some unforeseen act of kindness or cruelty touches the heart or makes the blood run cold. We fail a friend, or a friend fails us, and we are appalled at the capacity we have for estranging the very people in our lives we need the most. Or maybe nothing extraordinary happens at all – just one day following another, helter-skelter, in the manner of days. We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. We have fun and are depressed. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks.’
I’m sure that the people of the Bible loved to hear about the stories of peoples’ lives too. If they had had book shops in the ancient near east the biography section would have been as full as the one at Waterstones. They would have thought about things like ‘what if I had been born to different parents?’ or ‘I wonder what other life I could have lived?’ like we do. And they were as keen as many people seem to be today to know about their ancestors and the hidden stories of their past.
If you’d asked Moses who he was he would have a great story to tell… but a rather mixed up one… He is both Hebrew and Egyptian. He has an Egyptian name and an Egyptian upbringing. And yet he is also a Hebrew boy. When he settles in Midian he is known and recognised as an Egyptian and yet who could there be in the ancient stories of our faith more Hebrew than Moses? He was raised as an Egyptian royal, as the son of Pharoah’s daughter – and yet he was also a child of the Hebrews, a slave child. Many of the Bible heroes have this quality of crossing over. Their life stories reveal a God who can transform us. The story of Moses’ childhood holds within it already the promise that a slave could be free, and that royalty could set free the slaves. It says that even midwives can defeat a Pharaoh, that even the palace can be a haven for a slave child and even a prince from the palace can burn with rage at injustice. Moses even has two mothers, one Hebrew and one Egyptian, one poor and one rich.
Our lives are also probably a rag bag of gene pool and history and happenstance – but the wonder is that God can make of us something more than the sum of all those things. If the Bible tells us anything it tells us that God can break in to human life when all seems fixed and bring change and salvation and promise. Pretty much all of us are as mixed up as Moses – or perhaps as interesting as Moses – with at least dual identities, divided loyalties, not sure what we think or where we stand or who we are. Yet into our lives God speaks and calls.
Peter is also someone who is a bit mixed up. The Christians who first read this story in Matthew about Peter being the rock on which the church was built, also knew the story of Peter’s denial and they knew the stories about him getting everything wrong and jumping in with both feet and all of that. And he had more than one name, like Moses did. He is Simon and he is Peter. He is the rock and he is the shifting sands. In only a few verses on he is Satan and a stumbling block. He is an extraordinary and puzzling human being like all of us, and yet one on whom the church was built, a frail human being yet strong enough to be the foundation of the church.
And Paul who wrote to the Romans knew what it is to be human, what a weight it can be, and how one can be torn between what you hope to be and what you are. And he wrote with words that sound clear like a ringing bell, words wrought from the midst of another extraordinary life,
‘Conform no longer to the pattern of this present world, but be transformed..’
Don’t conform, but be transformed, says Paul. Let God be the one who creates you and recreates you and makes of you the finest human being you can be. You are more than the story of your parents and your childhood, more than the sum of your CV, more than even the best and most discerning biographer could make of your story, however extraordinary.
And then there’s Jesus – who is the one in whom we see what human life can be. And he also was more than he might at first have seemed; just another Galilean rabbi who told parables. He was human – truly, deeply, absolutely – he bled and wept and loved and died. And he was also divine, the one who showed in his living, dying and resurrection that God and humankind may be one and that God is raising all of us to a new and holy life. Someone called Athanasius said of Jesus, ‘He became what we are that we might become what he is’. Be transformed, says Paul. Be yourself and be more than yourself. Let God transform even the mixed up bag that is your own extraordinary life. All the time God was working in you to transform you that you might work to set slaves free like Moses, to dance with joy like Miriam, to forgive sins like Peter and to proclaim the resurrection like Mary.
I prepared a short narrative about my life since school of course – saying the kinds of things you’d expect; jobs done, relationships shared, even publications… you know the sort of thing. But that’s not really who I am. I am made in the image of God and a follower of Jesus Christ, becoming, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, a Christian. That’s who I am. I am who I am because I have seen in Jesus what Peter saw; more than a good man, more than a great teacher, but the bearer of God’s presence and gift to the world. I know who I am because I have come to know Jesus – but it is true that I have to come know him through the ups and downs of my very human life and for that, and for all who have been part of it, I am grateful.
I know that each of you is having an extraordinary and unique life. You too are made in the image of God and God, in Jesus, reaches out to you everyday. Listen for his voice in the midst of your own days. Praise be to God, Amen.