Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, Deacon for Social Justice
†ďA New IdentityĒ
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Philippians 3: 4b-14
married last month. After saying ďI doĒ under a black walnut tree in western
North Carolina and signing our marriage license, I went from being Amy-Ellen
Duke to Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield.† Just
like that, I got a new identity. In Paulís writings, sometimes it can seem
that his description of our new identity in Christ is something that happens
instantaneously, through Christís resurrection we are made anew, just like
that. In the scripture read earlier, we hear of his former identity, being ďa
member of the people of
What I found out this week, as I visited the Social Security office to officially change my name, is that identify change isnít quite so instantaneous. Before I visited the Social Security office, I took a few days to think about whether someone with a double first name could also have a double last name and if it was okay to have five names.† Once I decided on my new name, I had to fill out some paperwork and then wait for an hour and a half to see the Social Security employee who could change my name with the government. In waiting an hour for a new driverís license at the DMV, I practiced the signature for my new name.† This was mildly agonizing as oneís signature is how we record our identity in everyday transactions and I realized that signing my new long name is a pain. Upon my return to work, I realized my identity change was nowhere near complete. To top it off, I havenít really internalized my new identity, as Iíve been referred to as Mrs. Duke-Benfield several times now and it takes me a good 5 seconds to realize thatís me.† Not only is an identity change not instantaneous, itís not exactly easy.
In the same way Paul is transformed, we have a new identity through our relationship with Christ.† Through Jesusí saving act, we are freed from sin and reborn so we can make manifest something not merely like Christ, but share in His righteousness.† Through faith in Christ, we are justified and our relationship with God is made right. The Holy Spirit works, through us, to give our lives the same shape as that of Christ. The life we are expected to live, if we are to be conformed to Christ, will be different from the life we have been living.† But, what Paul points out, and, in my desire for instant gratification, I ignore, is that living into that new identity is a lifetime process.† In Romans, Paul describes creationís ďgroaningĒ pains as it labors to give birth to something new.† Like childbirth, itís a process thatís anything but easy or instant.
John Wesley believed not only are we granted a new identity in Christ through our faith, but that God doesnít stop there.† God inaugurates a new creation, regenerating us, restoring the relation to which we are called, to mirror God in the world. And that regeneration leads to a process of perfecting the image of God in each of us and extending the new birth into every aspect of human existence so that life becomes a consistent whole, so that our new identity is coherent and congruent.† On a theoretical level I understand this, that inaugurating a new creation means beginning something new, but I want to skip the process and be there, completely in the new, not at the beginning or in the midst of some process. Yet doing this means skipping over how to foster Godís continual presence in our lives, and failing to ensure that we are truly living out Godís new creation in response to Godís love for us.† In wanting to speed the process along, I fail to recognize that I am dependent on God for my new identity to take hold and that itís not something I can simply ďdo.Ē I seek to live the new creation without nurturing this new identity in the midst of a culture thatís often in conflict with Christís values.† Recalling Dean Snyderís sermon on part of this scripture last week, we must let Christ deep inside our lives to make the transformation real.† John Wesley spent much of his ministry wrestling with how this transformation could take place in a church that had moved away from significance. He ultimately emphasized the importance of both spiritual disciplines and doing good to others Ė as the means of opening our hearts and lives to Godís work, but these practices require continued action and investment on our part.
Like I learned while sitting in the Social Security and DMV offices this week, I may have a new identity, but it takes time and effort to live into the new identity.† I may now be found in Christ, but I still have to what Paul says Ė ďstrain forward to what lies ahead.Ē† Other versions of the Bible translate the Greek as ďreaching forwardĒ and ďstretching,Ē but I find straining compelling because one definition of this term is ďto cause a change in form or size in (a body) by application of external force.Ē[i]† What the use of strain captures is that itís not simply my action or efforts that matter in this process.† God applies the force that ensures Iím moving forward.† By practicing the means of grace through prayer, studying the scripture, participating in worship and the sacraments, and being in service and seeking justice, God quickens our spiritual senses so we can continue to hear the call of God and live into our new identity. As my seminary professor Roberta Bondi said, the means of grace allow us to, ďovercome the habits of seeing, feeling, thinking, and acting that characteristically blind us to who we ourselves, our neighbors and God really are so we can respond appropriately, rationally, and lovingly.Ē Through them, God works invisibly in us, strengthening our faith, opening up unlimited possibilities for growth.††
Early Christian monasticism in the 4th and 5th centuries arose from the tension between a commitment to the Christian life and pressures from culture; the challenge of becoming new in Christ.† In order to join early monastic communities, male and female monks had to give up their property, family and friends, and sexuality, move to the desert, limit food and sleep, and take up a strict discipline in order to conquer whatever was separating them from love of God and neighbor.† They sought out a way to live into their new identity as Christians without interference from everyday life by practicing a life centered on prayer.† Professor Bondi, an expert on the early church, described their practice as follows ďPrayer connects us with ourselves; it is the link between our new selves that are always being transformed into Godís loving image and our old selves with which we must come to terms if we are to be transformed.† By it we are able to discover who we are and who we are to become.Ē[ii]
The early desert mothers and fathers prayed persistently in myriad ways. Because prayer is an expression of each personís relationship to God, there is no one right way to pray. The desert monastics studied scripture until they could recite it by memory, praying the Psalms while they weaved baskets. They practiced zen-like meditation, prayed the liturgy of the hours, and wrestled with the temptations that they felt separated them from their new identity, crying aloud to God. Through prayer we open our lives to Christ and allow ourselves to be changed, but itís not something that comes naturally to all of us, and the work of transformation can be gut-wrenching.† The early church father Ammonas told a younger monk in regard to his struggle with anger, ďI have spent 14 years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me victory over anger.Ē The slowness of Christian growth was as much a problem for the early church mothers and fathers as it is for us today.† And if praying doesnít come easy, as Iím afraid to admit that for me it does not, not praying isnít an option. Itís one of the most significant ways we meet God. Prayer must be learned over a whole lifetime of sincere and often unspontaneous work on our part coupled with the continuous gift of Godís grace.†
same holds true with worship, reading the Bible, service, and the other means
of grace. Worship is another way in which our new identity is formed. Worship
is Godís revelation of Godís self in Jesus Christ and our response to that
revelation.† Through the reading and
exposition of scripture, we recover and appropriate for our own lives the
Through service we meet God and make real Christís love for the world.† Wesley believed that we could not have authentic personal holiness without social holiness. In order to grow in our faith, we must pray, worship, and read the scripture, and do works of mercy, which include service and seeking justice.† As Jesus tells us in Matthew 25, that whatever we do for the least of these Ė the hungry, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner Ė we do for Him. Through service we come into contact with those whom we might not usually interact with, whether it is a homeless person, a day laborer, or a woman escaping domestic violence and are challenged to incarnate Christís love.† Through service we meet God and, while making real the kingdom of heaven on earth, we are changed.
We need to participate in these practices so that Godís grace may be mediated to us Ė so we can remain responsive to Godís love and grow in our Christian faith, making Godís love visible in the world.
I had a friend in seminary who, after spending a year serving a church, said she would really like being a minister if she didnít have to go to church every Sunday morning. She found sitting still difficult and, at times, chafed at the rituals. She wanted to go to Sunday brunch. Rather than finding a job that didnít require attending worship, she kept at it, praying that she would feel Godís presence in worship and other times, simply sitting with her discomfort. Six years later she is the minister of worship at a large church.†
Like participating in worship regularly or engaging in a new form of prayer, service isnít always comfortable. We may be afraid of venturing into a new environment or nervous about talking with someone who made what we consider to be the wrong decisions in life.† We may not think we have the skills to participate in certain missions, but dive in any way, honing our gifts, discovering new gifts, or linking up with others who have gifts that complement our own.† Even when we are discouraged, we must press on. Our new identity can seem elusive, as it has when Iíve tried to sign my new signature and forgotten to include my new last name.† Itís not perfect. At times it may feel that we havenít changed at all. We may hope that through prayer, forgiveness comes quicker or patience comes easier.† But sometimes they donít. In those times, as in all times, we must seek God.† God is always there; this is Godís gracious gift, but the question is whether we will be present, as well. The means of grace may not come naturally, but with discipline and commitment, and some straining, we are made anew and can create a place where we can work with God on being a sign of Godís love for the world.