The strongest people are those who remember who they are and whose they are. Christians: We belong to God, and each of us has a story of just how we belong to God. Do you remember your first experience of God, or God’s power or love? That’s an important part of your history, your story, “who you are and whose you are.” The better we remember where we’ve spiritually been, what has happened to us, what has been said, the better we understand ourselves and our future.
One of the things I respect most about religious people is that they never forget who they are and whose they are. That comes from knowing where they came from, and grasping how that history has formed them into who they are today.
Some people see history as mere facts, dates, names, and places. Others find history tells a larger story that weaves pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle that finally reveals a big picture and how all the parts are connected.
Christians see history in this second way—it tells a coherent story worth our remembering. Christians believe that history is the account of God’s actions on earth (and humanity’s resistance) as God seeks to save us and to bring us to our spiritual home.
In the words of the hymn,
God is working His purpose out
As year succeeds to year;
God is working his purpose out,
And the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time,
The time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled
With the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea. [i]
Consider our history as believers in the way the first century Christians understood history, the way Stephen proclaimed it in the Scripture reading of the morning. Remembering the past is more important than we might think—it determines everything from our self-esteem to our life-direction, from the nature of our relationship with God to the ways we relate to other people.
The oldest creed found anywhere in the Bible is a case in point. You might recall the words from Deuteronomy, really they are a statement of faith made centuries before Christ. Listen to the way a history quickly becomes an affirmation of belief: “My father was a wandering Aramean, who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien. But there he became a great nation, strong and numerous. When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and he heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. He brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders and brought us into the land flowing with milk and honey.” [ii]
Reconsider this: Some people see history as mere facts, dates, names and places. Others find history tells a larger story that weaves pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle that finally reveals a big picture and how all the parts are connected.
When the prophet Hosea told the story of our faith centuries later, he did the same thing, citing history which became a faith story. Listen: “When Israel was a child, I loved him. Out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the farther they went from me, sacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephriam to walk, who took them in my arms; I drew them with human cords, with bands of love. I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks; yet though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer.” [iii]
Remembering our story enables us to remember who we are and whose we are. Dr. Bernhard Anderson was one of my favorite professors years ago on the Princeton campus, revered leader of Old Testament studies internationally. He writes that when we want to know other people, we ask them to tell us something of the story of their life, for in this way they disclose who they rally are. “To be a self is to have a personal history.”
“Nations also remember their past. National self-consciousness is based on a common memory of events that people have lived through and that have given them a sense of identity and destiny. … The most distinctive feature of the Jewish people is their sense of history. … Judaism is the religion of a people who have a unique memory that reaches back through the centuries to the stirring events … that formed them as a people with a sense of identity and vocation. …”
“Christians too have this historical sense. The Christian church is … a distinctive community with a long memory that reaches back through the Christian ages to the crucial events of which the Bible is the record and witness. To be sure, Christian remembrance focuses especially on the coming of Jesus, the Christ—his life, death and resurrection. But in Christian memory this even is viewed as the fulfillment of the historical drama of Israel set forth in the Jewish Bible.” [iv]
What if every one of us knew our shared spiritual history so well we could tell it to another person as easily as we can tell of our own grandparents and parents? I think God would smile to know that we know who we are and whose we are. God smiled on Stephen when, in his sermon, he told who he was and whose he was, starting from Abraham.
Our foundations start at the bottom of the mountain, with our forefathers, and work their way up, giving pride in the spiritual people of God who came before us, all the way to the top of the pile with Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of all that had come before, the one who gives meaning and clarity and access to the whole spiritual family tree from the roots up. Every one of us is meant by God to have a spiritual story that starts at ground level and reaches into the heavens in a crescendo where God is met in Christ.
The apostle Paul described the top of that mountain this way, “God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” [v]
Or as Gloria Gaither put it:
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus; There’s just something about that name
Master, Savior, Jesus; Like the fragrance after the rain
Kings and kingdoms will all pass away,
But there’s something about that Name. [vi]
But let’s start for a moment now back at the grassroots and remember who we are, following the example of Stephen in this Scripture story. He was challenged by a hostile crowd of believers from the synagogue, who didn’t want to hear about that name of Jesus. They didn’t want any connection between their faith story and the reality of a risen savior (a Messiah, as the Hebrew scriptures call him) who offers to replace temple rite, religion, and ritual with faith, hope, and love. But Stephen told them who he was without candy-coating any of it—telling who we are and whose we are without blinking an eye.
Grassroots—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are our fathers. Way back; they are fathers to each one of us who follows the Jewish carpenter from Nazareth. And that makes Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel to be our mothers in the faith. We had that relative, Joseph, so poorly treated but who saved the whole family from extinction when in Egypt he became the distributor of food during famine years, and we were so desperately in need. Once in Egypt, it was our people who were enslaved, working nobly and with heart, but oppressed and beaten until God heard our voice and sent a leader in Moses. It was we who were led out and across the Red Sea by outstretched hand and strong arm. It was we who wandered 40 years in the wilderness. Some of us are still there! It was we who with Joshua entered the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and there we did well, very well. Too well. The prophets stood up to caution us against our ghastly greed, but it was we who were enthralled with bigger, brighter, better, faster, shinier until finally the Lord got so fed up that he exiled us into Babylon and Egypt. We wept at no longer being home with our people, our temple, our land. We prayed. God brought us back.
From grassroots to taproot—It was we who so needed a savior that Jesus was born to Mary to live a life showing us our royal heritage and inviting us back into the movement, the movement of spirit on earth, soul to soul, life to life, death to resurrection. It was we who loved Jesus, who betrayed Jesus, who found he was even stronger than death and have now been changed because we find that he is within us, before us, beside us, above us. Our lives are the ones which are different because of that one life lived 21 centuries ago. It is we who boldly bring ourselves and our little children to the Lord for baptism and hear again that in Christ God has claimed us forever and that even death no longer has a hold on us, as we will celebrate and hear loud and clear on Easter morning. It is our story that we now forgive enemies, stand up for neighbors, sing for joy in the morning and work for reconciliation and love in the day.
It is our story now: we are children of the most high God. With Stephen we find the story of God’s work on earth through the Hebrew people first, and then through Jesus Christ, and finally through the Holy Spirit into our hearts and lives.
Some people see history as mere facts, dates, names and places. Others find history tells a larger story that weaves pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle that finally reveals a big picture and how all the parts are connected.
Who are you and whose are you? Can you tell that story to yourself this week? Can you tell it to somebody else? The strongest people are those who remember who they are and whose they are. Rest assured, our God wants his people to be strong.
Paul Watermulder: From merchant seaman on oil tankers to juvenile probation officer to police officer (City of Berkeley, California) to pastor, Dr. Watermulder has served churches in New Jersey and California, and is a sought-after speaker at churches and conferences across the country and overseas. An alumnus of Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, Paul has served on the boards of many service organizations and seminaries. He is currently on the Board of Directors for Presbyterian Outlook Magazine. Of his work as a policeman he says, “This was the work that made me into a who I was meant to be. Caring for the people on a beat was early training for becoming a pastor to a church, unbeknownst to me! Lots of camaraderie, ample street encounters and the ensuing fights, chases, and arrests. But best of all was making relationships with the other cops and with the people who lived on my beat and for trust to grow in all those relationships.” Paul is married to Genie and together they have four grown children and six grandkids, one of whom is already in the Kingdom.