For What We Will Be Known
I just got back from a wonderful three-week trip with students to Thailand and Burma. There, we joined in with young faith-based activists from all over South and Southeast Asia who were being trained in skills that would enhance their work – empowerment through deep listening, interfaith dialogue for peace building, faith and social analysis, consumerism and faith, faithful resistance to all forms of dominations, and more. One exercise began with making us participants examine our own identities – what do we understand them to be, how do we live them out, how do we articulate them, how do they empower us, hinder us, motivate us, restrict us. The exercise had us stepping out from the group and crossing the room if the category announced something that applied to us. “Grew up in a city,” said the Thai trainer, and some crossed the room and circled back to the group. “Highly educated,” he said, and some walked. “From a conflict zone,” he said, and some present from Burma, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere crossed the room and back. “From a poor family;” “from a well-off family;” “from an ethnic minority;” “are gay, or know someone who is gay.” Some other categories to which we had to respond: have used drugs, have an alcoholic relative, have domestic violence in the family. For myself, I was challenged to think about identity in broader ways, and was left wondering how much the things that happen to us that we do not choose do become parts of our identity. I thought about how parts of our identities change with the passage of time – things that are added, things that are subtracted: “cancer survivor,” “widow.” And I thought about how, if our identities change, our relationships to those around us might change.
This is the subject of Paul’s letter to his good friend Philemon, his wife Apphia, and other leaders of the church that meets in their house in Colossae. One of their fellow Colossians, Onesimus, has a new identity, and Paul is writing to tell them that they now must relate to him very differently. Now they are to treat Onesimus as a brother, as an equal. This sounds positive and wonderful, but it will be a revolutionary change for them, because Onesimus had been their slave.
Readers of this letter today (or this one, anyway!) might wish that Paul’s message to the Colossians was a refutation of the execrable institution of slavery. Unfortunately, it is not. How helpful such a straightforward refutation would have been both then and in human history since, as Christians defended slavery on biblical, historical grounds. Just last spring, a campus minister here at Princeton told me forcefully that the human chattel slavery of American history and that of other nations is not the kind of slavery referenced in the Bible. That is not true – it is, and Onesimus was one of those damned to such bondage. The campus minister was trying to assert that there should be no changes in social practices or biblical ethics since the holy texts were written, but of course there have been many changes, including the end of the public stoning of adulterers and the outright sale and purchase of other human beings for hard labor, and these changes are good things. Onesimus was a slave, and he ran away to Paul, who once had preached at Colossae but now was imprisoned for that activity – perhaps in Rome, in Ephesus, or elsewhere. We don’t know which of Paul’s stints in prison is referenced here.
Onesimus ran away from his owners. He may have taken money or other property with him – Paul asks Philemon to forgive this debt and says he will repay it himself. Onesimus ran away a slave, and he returns to Colossae a believer in Jesus. He has a new identity. He remains, legally, the property of Philemon, but Paul tells Philemon that his own faith in Christ requires him to relate to Onesimus now as a brother. Paul tells Philemon, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and me.” It is a wonderful play on words by Paul: the name Onesimus means “helpful.” Formerly Onesimus was helpful to Philemon by washing his shirts, doing perfunctory work. Now Onesimus is truly Onesimus – he is helpful, he is useful, he is a brother in living and sharing the Gospel. This is the work that matters. This is the help that matters.
Our identities are informed by our life circumstances – Onesimus was, and technically remains, a slave. But I understand Paul to be saying that the human constructions of identity like social class or nationality are nothing in comparison to the identities we form out of our beliefs. What truly identifies us, defines us, is the deep power of what we believe, and how that consequently makes us live. Onesimus the slave has an altogether new identity.
We have in our passage from Jeremiah more encouragement to articulate for ourselves what we believe, to know the work of God in that, and to build our lives out of our faith-based identity. Indeed, from Jeremiah we learn that God Almighty is Onesimus – is helpful – useful to us in shaping who we can be. God the potter is always re-forming us, reshaping us when the identities, lives, beliefs we come to inhabit are malformed, misshapen. The text suggests that this is not always a comfortable process. I imagine that a number of us here this morning have had a firm, even painful reshaping of our lives and identities by a serious illness, a major loss. It can hurt very badly, or be terrifying. God is not the author of bad things that happen to us but the shaper of our souls into who we might be, no matter what becomes or befalls us. God does not re-form us because God is mean, but because God is committed to us, faithful to us, and loves us. Let us prayerfully ask the Divine Potter at all times who we should be, and how our lives might conform to the Gospel.
What a happy coincidence that these wonderful texts about identity are assigned to the churches just as our University is starting a new year! Fall still feels like the season of new beginnings – a new year – for many, no matter their age. This is a perfect time to reflect on who we are – our identity, who we know ourselves to be, and who we feel called to become. Those who are new students among us have the joyous freedom to start afresh, to come into a new community, to think and pray deeply about who you want to be, here and beyond. And the Good News for all of us is that God and Christ wait to be helpful to every one of us in this task, every day of our lives.
Like Onesimus, what should our faith mean for our identity? How do the teachings of Christ inform who we know we are, and how we ought to live? People look at us all the time and form impressions of our identity. Let us be proud of those true components of our identity that people can see and hear – or think they see and hear: our race, ethnicity, gender, physical ability, sometimes sexual orientation, rationality, economic class, and so much more. And then let us show them more – let us show them the identities that flow from what we believe, let us show them who the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes us to be: helpful, loving, compassionate, truthful. Let us be Onesimus – helpful, useful – let us show them that being followers of Jesus grounds our identity in the belief of the radical equality of human value – as we show them how we live that out – to us there is no slave or free, male or female, Greek or Jew, as Paul states in his Letter to the Galatians. All are one in Christ Jesus, Paul is saying, regardless of social standing, gender, nationality/race/ethnicity, and so much more. Let us show them that being followers of Jesus grounds our identity in love, boundless love for every creature, and to knowledge that if we love people we will set them free: free from hunger, misery, indignity, physical suffering, educational deprivation, injustice, everything. We exist to be, like God and Christ, Onesimus – helpful. And our identities, like Onesimus the Colossian slave, will be known to all for what we believe, not the social categories into which we were born, no matter how lovely some of them are. It is for the fruits of our faith that we will be known, and identified .
Talk is cheap. As we proceed gracefully into every new day before us, every new opportunity before us, let us be steadfast in prayer about who to be, and mindful of every word and action that we offer. Even more than what people think they see, our identities to others are determined by who we are to them and what they see us do. For what shall we be known? Like Paul, and Onesimus his pupil, will it be for words and deeds and lives of love and justice? As people of faith, the most important parts of our identities are ours to shape. To God, to Christ, and to all the world – for what will we be known?