Once you were not a people;
But now you are God’s people;
Once you had not received mercy,
But now you have received mercy. — I Peter 2:10
It is the beginning of a school year. Thousands of young people are starting at a new school, facing the challenge of meeting people who they don’t know and who don’t know them. It is daunting and easy to forget how overwhelming it can be. They will likely be fine, but they don’t know that yet.
The experience of being brand new in a new situation approximates the experience described in I Peter as “once you were not a people.” It is does not say, once you were not a person. It is that once you were not a people. You were not known and did not know others. You were alone and unaffiliated. To be a “people” is to be affiliated, to have an identity, to be part of a group.
This Bible passage acknowledges that are times — in fact many times in our lives — when we are not affiliated or have undergone a huge transition that we lost our identity. A move to a new community can do that. Starting a new job or at a new school, becoming a widow or widower after a long marriage, facing a physical disability or illness, each of these can disconnect you from your identity and be extraordinarily disorienting.
Responding to the circumstance of not “being a people” is this Biblical affirmation of being “God’s people.” No matter how disorienting it can be to lose an identity or an affiliation, we can trust that we are God’s people.
The last portion of this passage describes receiving mercy. To be one of God’s people is to have received mercy.
My friend Mark tells a story of his first days at a new elementary school when a classmate sought him out on the playground and welcomed him with a friendly smile and an invitation to play with the others in his group. Mark tells this story with emotion in his voice, even though this simple act of kindness happened 40 years ago. Mark received mercy. It can be as simple as receiving kindness.
As the school year begins, let us be mindful of the disorienting experience of forming a new identity. Let us remember simple acts of kindness that served as our ability to move from being alone to being included. Experiences that made it possible for us to be part of “a people.”
God, we lift up all the young people facing new circumstances that threaten to overwhelm them. We pray that they meet a thoughtful classmate, or conscientious teacher who treats them kindly. We give thanks for all who have made your mercy manifest in our own lives. We give thanks that we are part of your people, that we are no longer alone. Let us be instruments of your mercy and help us be agents of your extravagant welcome. Amen