The New You
Happy New Year! New academic year, that is. Welcome back to this service of worship to all who are returning; welcome for starters to all who are here for the first time – students and community members. I don’t know about you, but I still experience the fall return to school – whatever grade or level of school – as a new beginning. When I was little, it was about new shoes to fit my growing feet and some back-to-school clothes. My choice of clothes! (With my mother’s steady guidance, of course!) I could make subtle changes to my look! Big changes, like moving into junior high or high school, meant I could try to tweak how other people saw me. I could take on new activities, expand my pool of friends, and see if I could somehow become cool. (Hopeless project!) The very big steps – into college and grad school – were singular opportunities to have a new identity, to try to shape how people saw me, to shape for myself my own commitments, that would then inflect the way I spent my time and the mark I hopefully would make. Being with people who don’t know you means you have a blank slate upon which to construct yourself – what possibilities! You can tell people to call you by a new name! These are people who don’t know about your public humiliations of the past – dropping the football in the big game, coming in a measure early in the big concert, getting broken-up with, dropping out of AP science. We can decide to be the kind of friend to others that we’ve always wanted to be. We can decide to exercise regularly, and no one will know of our past life as a sloth. New beginnings are great times to take on new disciplines or let go of old ones. The possibilities are endless! I am not at all new to this community – I’m starting my tenth year at Princeton – but it is a new school year, and I, too, feel like this is a fresh beginning for me.
With all this in mind, when I recently looked up the assigned biblical texts for this morning my heart just soared – they are about new beginnings, too, about taking on a new identity, about deciding how to live. From prison, Paul writes to a wealthy man named Philemon about receiving back into his household Onesimus, a slave of Philemon’s who has apparently stolen property from him and run away. With Paul, Onesimus has become a follower of Christ. If only Paul’s letter included a stinging rebuke of the practice of human chattel slavery – it does not. It doesn’t begin to question the practice, but it does insist that Onesimus has a new identity. He is a Christian, so now he is no longer the property of Philemon, but rather his brother. In that society, it was considered shameful to enslave one’s brother, which Paul knows well. He also knows that Philemon risks losing face in his community for manumitting a slave and releasing him from the debt of his theft.
But Onesimus has a new identity. He is a fundamentally different person, and this has to make him relate in new and different ways to those who are around him. For every human being, our identity is the core, the pulsing heart of who we know we are. It is those aspects of ourselves that most define who we are, those things that entirely shape the way we see and experience everything around us. Our faith, our race, ethnicity, nationality, gender – so many things create our composite, fundamental personhood. They teach us how to understand reality. Onesimus now believes in Jesus and he has a new identity. How often have I talked to people who have come to faith as a young person or adult – they weren’t born into a religious family and raised in a tradition, as I was. They have consciously accepted a faith or converted to a new one and they tell me they are transformed. They have a new identity. They must relate differently than they used to with every person they encounter. The universe is a different place, seen through the eyes of their new faith. They feel that something is different about their DNA.
Sometimes we feel certain that we need to change an aspect of our identity, the way we’ve been living it out. We have it wrong, or we learn something about ourselves. We change our gender, we change the way we’ve been expressing our sexual identity, we change our name, we change our nationality. My stepsister was married to a man born and raised in South Africa who changed his nationality to that of Lesotho in the 1980s, in an effort to disavow and distance his identity from the practice of apartheid. He threw his South African passport into the sea, he once told me. He wanted a new identity. Onesimus now has one, and Philemon, says Paul, must now relate to him in a spirit of radical love and equality.
Our text for today from Deuteronomy includes the well-known and urgent admonition to “choose life.” I was interested to learn in my research for this sermon that this is the only time in the Hebrew Bible that the verb “choose” has humans as the subject. It is constantly God who does the choosing! But not here – how much emphasis, then, is behind this plea of Moses to his people: choose life! There would seem to be no more important human choice to be made.
To choose life, we read, means to love God, to obey God, and to hold fast to God. We make choices every minute of the day. We are always choosing how – and Moses would add, whether – to live. How can we make all of our choices reflect and inhabit a love for God, obedience, and holding tight? What does this mean for how we relate to those people whom the world considers lowly, like Onesimus the slave? How should we relate to the people we live with, work or study with, party with? What if our central identity as Christians really made us choose life in every moment?
We don’t know how Onesimus’s story ended. All we have is this fascinating letter to the man who owned him. Was Onesimus (whose name means “useful”) indeed freed by Philemon? Did he come into a place of love, honor, and respect in his home community? Did Philemon’s faith in Christ prevail over any anger, greed, or weddedness to cultural norms and traditions? He was asked to do a very big thing, one that would set him entirely apart in his society and social circle, one that could set a major precedent for other enslaved members of his household, one that could set a major precedent for the free members of his household. I pray that he lived into the promise of his Christian faith.
I pray the same for you and me! It’s a new year, a fresh beginning. Let’s inventory who we’ve been and embrace these days as a time to change for the better, and even, if we think it necessary, to take on a wholly new identity. We can’t know what happened to Onesimus and Philemon, and we also can’t know who we will be one year from now, four years from now, many years from now. But as Moses exhorts us in his final sermon, we can truly choose what our own direction will be, what our own progress will be, what our own ending will be. There is so much in our lives that happens to us, that is decided for us, but actually – the most important things that will happen in our lives are from the choices we really are empowered to make. We may not choose for something to happen to us, but we can choose life in the way we respond, in the way we continue living. No matter what becomes or befalls us, we have the life that really is life when we decide to choose life. To love God, to obey God, to hold fast to God – this is choosing life. Let us embrace the opportunity to be new people in a new year, and new people every morning as we wake to a new day. Let us reflect and pray on how the simple and difficult decisions we make throughout the day are opportunities to live out our love for God. Let us consider how loving God must translate into how we regard other people, and how we relate to them. How blessed we are to have been invited by God Almighty to be in covenant together, how blessed we are to know Jesus as our Lord, how blessed we are to be sustained in all things by the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. How flat-out amazing to be on the path of life, choosing life, for the love of God. Happy new year indeed!