I grew up in Essex, so I know all about what it means to come from a place that is ridiculed and joked about. I used to dread the question, ‘where are you from?’ Yes, I come from a place where the women are routinely mocked as being sexually promiscuous with vulgar jokes. Of course, it can be traced back to the tenacity of the English class system in Britain. People dwelling in Essex were, after the 2nd world war, mainly former slum dwellers, who were encouraged to move out to the new suburbs in Basildon and Harlow in Essex. Former East- Enders, who, if they were lucky would go to Southend-on-Sea for a day out in the summer, became increasingly wealthy as they took the advantages of suburban living. As the decades progressed they enjoyed the economic boom time, no longer working in manufacturing or skilled manual labour. Slum dwellers became middle-class, and so we had better bring them down a peg or two! Can’t have social mobility in Britain! How do we characterise the working class who have money in Britain? - as vulgar and with bad taste; herald the birth of the Essex girl and her counterpart the Margaret Thatcher voting Basildon-man.
‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth’, Nathanael says to Philip? With this single comment we enter into the dynamics of the characterisation of place in Jesus’ time. Nazareth, we can assume, was not a popular place; indeed, it was a small village, from which nothing very much came at all. It wasn’t so much vulgar as insignificant; a place that you would only go to if you had to. And yet, from this small village God chooses to signify his glory in all the world.
Right from the beginning of Jesus’ birth our Gospel writers are keen to ensure that we understand the dynamics of this. Jesus was a Jew, born in Bethlehem, growing up in Nazareth, son of a carpenter, who never moved far beyond the geographical world of his people. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t from a sought-after part of town, he wasn’t heading for any awards. And yet this insignificant boy challenges our notions of identity: he brings wise men from the East to his birth, gathers poor shepherds around him and flees to Egypt because he threatens the power of Kings. This ‘no-one’ is the Son of Man – the person for everyone – the saviour of the world.
The power of naming, the significance of place and the desire to become something are instructive. From our own birth we are named, we live somewhere in particular, and our future identity is constructed by the sort of aspirations we are encouraged to have. Where we come from, what our names are and what we do are all powerful signifiers in our culture – are you a grammar school boy, did you grow up in Clifton or Brownsover, what papers do your parent’s read, if any at all? What job will you have?
For Jesus, these questions were instructive too – but from them he taught his followers to come and see something different and to come and be a part of something radically different.
What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do?
These must be three of the most common questions that we ask each other and they form part of the way in which we categorise people and judge them. In the kingdom of Heaven we are liberated from such judgments.
What’s your name – nuns and monks take on new names at their profession to reveal that they are made and named by God. At our baptism we are named; placing our naming within the context of our faith in God as the creator is important. The practice of taking a spiritual or Christian name is significant, for it mark's us out as God's child, not just the product of our parent's preferences, rank in society or other. In can be liberating to take on a new name that marks out our identity in Christ. Perhaps you would like to do the same?
Where are you from – as Christians we are from the Kingdom – which means that we seek to live in a new relationship to one another, characterised by equality and mutuality. We are not defined by our towns, whether sought after or sink, but by God’s invitation to dwell in his kingdom.
What do you do – as Christians our most important identity is crafted from the knowledge that we are made and loved by God; and by the fact that we are made to love God and love one another. As Christians that is ultimately what we ‘do’ – how we earn a living is a different question entirely – but one that should be in line with our Christian vocation to love God and love neighbour.
The Gospel upsets our notions of respectability and status and asks us to re-appraise our stereotyping and judging. The story of Jesus should make us suspicious about worldly status, power and class; as a community of Christians we should be a mixed bag of people from every warp and weft of life. It’s a place where we’re all equal, not judged and condemned because we’re rich or poor, a carpenter or a surgeon, a business person or a teacher; we should value each other as the equals that we are - a new family made in God’s image - not structured by our human need to sort the best from the worst, to put other’s down and categorise, but made from God’s desire to see his people flourish and live in harmony.