For several of my preschool years, and then again in middle school and high school, my mother and I lived with my maternal grandparents. My mom had emigrated from Austria shortly after the Second World War, and my grandparents had followed after a couple of years.
German was their default language at home. My mom’s English had a slight Germanic tone and was littered with poor grammar. My grandparents spoke with thick accents. Their English vocabulary was very limited, and they frequently strung English words together in what I recognized as German syntax.
My mother had finished the Austrian equivalent of technical high school. Neither of my grandparents had completed elementary school. Each of them held jobs that earned hourly wages.
While I was in my teens, and even into early adulthood, I was embarrassed by them. At least, that’s how I understood it at the time.
In the Deep South, we get to know you by asking, “Who are your people?” It seemed to me that all my peers had professional parents with college educations. Their people made them somebody. In my young mind, my people made me an outsider and placed me at the bottom of any ladder I might hope to climb.
I figured that if I were going to be somebody worthy of respect and affection, I would have to get there through my own achievements in school and on the athletic field and then later in my career.
In retrospect I see that teenagers are frequently embarrassed by their parents because they are teenagers and their parents are, well, parents. More importantly, we all have an abiding desire to belong, to be recognized as worthy of respect, and to be loved for who we are.
At the same time, many of us suspect that we have to be more than we presently are to be somebody. As Brene Brown would say, we fear that we are not enough. And so, we try to make ourselves enough with career success or social status or moral rectitude or rigorous spiritual discipline or helicopter parenting.
When we follow Jesus, two paradoxical things happen at once. We realize that, in his love for us, we are enough as we are. Simultaneously, we surrender ourselves to a radical transformation. Jesus makes us more than we could ever make ourselves. Jesus makes us somebody, somebody who belongs to his people.
This is made especially clear in Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. Mark and Matthew tell us about this strange event as well, but only Luke reports the theme of the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
They were talking about the departure that Jesus would be accomplishing in Jerusalem. The word “departure” refers to Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Describing Jesus’s death and resurrection as a departure may sound odd. And the word “departure” can lead to misinterpretation, as if Jesus is leaving this world behind for a better place.
As a matter of fact, lots of people think in precisely these terms about Jesus and the afterlife. Jesus flies away to a better place and, if we believe in him, he’ll hold the gates open wide for us to join him in that distant paradise. In other words, we follow Jesus to get somewhere, to change our address from planet earth to heaven.
But the word translated “departure” is literally “exodus.” Elijah and Moses are chatting with Jesus about the exodus he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem. And that change of translation makes all the difference in how we understand the cross and the resurrection. We see that eternal life begins even now and stretches on beyond the grave.
Luke encourages us to see that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the new exodus. So, let’s get clear about the exodus from Egypt—the first exodus—in order to see what it means for us that Jesus is accomplishing a new exodus.
Through Moses’s leadership, God led the Hebrews out of Egypt. They were slaves in Egypt, and God was guiding them to a new land to be a new people. God’s people.
It may seem strange to say, but relocating from one geographical location to another was the easy part of the exodus. On foot the trip from the Red Sea to the Promised Land would take roughly three weeks.
The Hebrews wandered for forty years. It took that long for God to mold them into a new people. God’s people. The transformation of heart and mind was the hard part of the exodus. And this transfiguration of slaves into God’s people was the central point.
God loved the Hebrews every step of the way. And God was transforming them through their thirst and sore feet and faintheartedness and open rebellion. God was loving the slave out of them and loving them into God’s people.
They just had to keep taking the next step even when it didn’t seem to be getting them anywhere. The point was to learn to walk with God. To walk with justice, compassion, and humility. To depend utterly upon God and to bind their own well-being to their neighbor’s.
Jesus comes to accomplish a new exodus. We walk with him the path of dying and rising. Dying to a narrow, self-concerned life to a greater life infused by God and animated by compassion for our neighbor.
We were made for God by God. We were meant to be utterly dependent, but only upon God. Our twenty-first century bondage consists of relying upon someone or something other than God.
We want to be admired or to achieve career success or to impress others with how much we know. We want to wear the latest fashion or use the latest technology or drive a high-performance set of wheels. So long as we seek significance and fulfillment in achievement or possessions or status, we are enslaved.
We will cling to something, and whatever we cling to puts us in chains. Except for God.
In Christ, we are somebody. We are the beloved child of God. And when someone asks us, “Who are your people,” we can give the answer that will change the world: everyone I meet.