Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
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Belonging

Community Outdoor Worship Service
 

Ephesians 1:3-14

For those of you who are fascinated by obscure trivia, we have just read Paul’s exordium. The exordium was the opening words of praise to God at the beginning of a written work. Now you know. Be sure to impress someone with your knowledge before the day is over.

I think if there is a key word to be found in this exordium, it is the word “belonging.” We belong to Christ and we are blessed because we belong to him.

And this is all part of God’s plan to save us. From the beginning, before the world was even created, we were chosen. Now, we Christians don’t all agree what exactly it means that God chose us before he created the world. That gets into all sorts of arguments about the relationship between God’s will and human free will, which we really don’t have time to get into today. But I think the real emphasis is not on the “how,” but on the “why.” Why did God save us? Because we are loved. We belong because we are loved. And because God is kind and gracious.

Through the love and grace of God, we are adopted into God’s family. This is one of several places in the New Testament where Paul uses the custom of Roman adoption to explain what is happening in our salvation. In Roman culture, only sons were adopted. But when a son was adopted, he became a completely new person, because in Roman culture your identity was tied to your father. An adopted son ceased to have any relationship to his family by birth, but he became a full and complete member of his adopted family, including a guaranteed share of the inheritance. The transformation was so complete that if the son owed money, or even if he had committed a crime, the debt was cancelled and the charges were dropped. In the eyes of the law, the person who had committed that crime or taken on that debt no longer existed.

Paul uses that imagery to talk about our new life in Christ. We gain a new identity. We are children of God. Our debts are erased and our “crimes” are forgiven. And we are guaranteed a share of the inheritance. All because we belong to Christ. He purchased our freedom through his blood, and our sins are forgiven. We have redemption and atonement.

Redemption is the price paid to set a slave free. In the Old Testament, redemption was remembered at Passover. God’s people sacrificed lambs, and God freed them from slavery in Egypt. And we should not miss the fact that Jesus died on Passover. He set us free from slavery to sin and death.

Atonement is the forgiveness of sins through offering sacrifice in the place of the sinner. The price paid for forgiveness is a life. In the Old Testament, there was a Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when a sacrifice was made for the sins of the whole nation.

Both these ideas are related to the death of Christ in the New Testament. And again, it’s not that all Christians agree on how exactly the death of Christ brings about our salvation. A couple months ago, I went to pastors’ retreat, and the retreat leader was talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of atonement and the death of Christ. She had a different understanding of how salvation comes about. But the one thing we all agree on is that it is through the death of Christ and his resurrection that we come into the family of God.

“Everything comes together under the authority of Christ. In him we receive our inheritance.” All through this passage, Paul uses expressions that come out of the Old Testament. But now those things are applied to both Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Church. One of those words is inheritance. In the Old Testament, “inheritance” referred to the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. Now it applies to our resurrection to eternal life in the New Creation.

“Inheritance” is no longer restricted to those who were born Jewish. All people can belong to the family of God through Jesus Christ. No one is excluded from the family of God because of their race or their age or their sex or their class. All people can belong. And Church should be a place of belonging for all people.

People need to feel that they belong. When I was in college, I took a couple of courses in psychology. If you want to know the reason why, I’ll tell you. My academic advisor worked as both a college professor and a pastor. She told me, “You should take some courses in psychology if you’re going to be a pastor, because you’re going to spend the rest of your life dealing with crazy people.” That’s why I took the classes. I won’t tell you if she was right or not.

In one of courses, we talked about Abraham Maslow and his theory of the “Hierarchy of Needs.” According to Maslow, people act the way they do to meet their needs, and there are five needs we have. The first need is physiological. We need air, food, water, clothing, and shelter. The second need is safety. The third need is belonging. The fourth need is esteem, which he defines as respect and recognition from ourselves and others. And the fifth need is self-actualization, which means that we need to reach our full potential as human beings. According to Maslow, we can’t work on a higher need until the lower needs are met. So people who are hungry won’t worry about reaching their potential until they find something to eat. It makes sense.

In our society, most people don’t worry on a daily basis about the first two needs: Physiological needs and safety. Certainly, some do, but not most of us. But I think the third one, belonging, is a huge. I think many people in our society do not feel that they belong. There are many reasons why. One is that we are a more mobile society. People are likely to move away from the place of their birth for work, education, and so on. A second reason is that we have less and less neighborhoods that feel like neighborhoods. Too often, we don’t know the people that live around us. We are more likely to go to work, come home, and “mind our own business.” A third reason is that social media is not delivering real community. Social media can be fun, but it’s no substitute for a real relationship with a living human being. And I’m sure there are other reasons. We are a disconnected society.

Recently, I saw a survey where they asked people who were unchurched but said they were interested in church what it was they were looking for. These were the top three responses: 1. To feel welcomed. 2. To develop relationships. And 3. To have a network of support. All three of these are about belonging. You had to go down the list to number four to find “A chance to learn about God.” Before people could learn about God, they needed to feel that they belonged!

Most churches think that they are places of belonging. Why? Because the people there say, “I feel I belong here.” That doesn’t make you a place of belonging. Most churches are like French bread, soft on the inside but hard and crusty on the outside. You might feel like you belong, but that doesn’t mean your church is a place that makes other people feel like they belong.

I used to serve a church that had an average attendance of about 50 people. Not a lot of people. Not enough that anyone would have a good excuse for not knowing who else was there. A woman started coming to the church. She was there for over a year. She volunteered to do something. Shortly after that, I was talking to someone else from the church, a woman who came all the time, and she asked me, “Who’s going to do that thing?” And I said “So-and-so.” “Who’s that!?” That was a pretty disappointing moment. A “new person” is there for over a year, and you don’t even bother to learn their name? And unfortunately, I think that kind of experience happens all too often.

God has created a way of belonging and made the Church to be a place of belonging. What are you doing to help God’s plan of a place where all people belong come to fruition?

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