“Christ, Our Belonging”

A sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 9/18/22, introducing a fall series called “All Belong.” The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find a recording in the full service via this YouTube video.

I want to invite you to call to mind a certain memory.

Think of a situation or relationship, some time in your life when you felt completely safe and at ease. Somewhere you felt deeply known, where you were free to take risks and to be yourself. Think of a time when you had no doubt that you belonged.

Recall the emotions of that situation. What did you feel? Relief? Comfort? Joy? Hold onto that memory.

When I try to recall some of my earliest memories of belonging, I remember being a very young child, when the highlight of my afternoon was turning our TV to PBS to spend time with Barney & Friends. No matter what else was happening in the world, for 30 minutes each weekday I could escape to a TV studio in Allen, Texas with a benevolent tyrannosaurus and all the kids who loved him. I actually loved Barney so much (this is true) that I would cry every day when the show ended.

Like most kids’ TV, the show had a simple premise: Through the power of imagination, a stuffed purple dinosaur would come to life to play with a group of kids, teaching them lessons and songs. If you grew up or raised children in the 90s, you might remember the song that ended most episodes:

This morning we’re kicking off a new sermon series focused on belonging. For the next few weeks, we’ll focus our attention on two questions: First, what does it mean to belong, to really belong? And second, how can we better extend real belonging to others?

I wanted to start here in the schoolyard with Barney, because it’s important right from the beginning of this series for us to get a clear picture together of what we are and are not talking about. When we talk about belonging, for many of us the word evokes images or feelings that are, well, childish, or corny, or naive. When we’re asked to visualize a future of true belonging, it might seem like we’re being asked to turn off our brains, to forget all the real things that separate us and all the real stakes of those differences. That leaves us with a vision of belonging that is trite and sentimental, and maybe even a little obnoxious, like an imaginary dinosaur promising us a “great big hug and a kiss from me to you.”

When we talk about belonging, we’re trying to grasp at something profound and tangible, something essential to who we are.

There seems to be a consistent thread of belonging woven into creation. Human beings seem to be really the only creatures who struggle with feeling like we don’t belong. I live a few blocks away from a large park, and we’ve reached one of those seasons in which the lagoon and the grassy fields around it are constantly full of geese and ducks. The birds don’t ask whether they belong. I don’t want to understate the extent to which human construction and development has disrupted or destroyed various habitats; but sometimes you’d think these migrating birds hadn’t even noticed we were here. A few days ago I was driving on Division near Goose Island, and I saw a lone goose waddling down the street, right on the pavement, holding up traffic.

Or take my dog—for the life of me, I cannot train that animal to stay out of my bed. As far as he’s concerned, he can sleep anywhere else he wants in the apartment, so why wouldn’t he belong there?

We humans find ways to express to each other that we don’t belong. We declare in-groups and out-groups and find subtle ways to communicate who belongs on the outside. It starts in childhood and only gets worse as we grow up. Sometimes we express those hostilities loudly and publicly. We tell each other, “Go back to where you came from”; we demand to see someone’s birth certificate; we describe other people with words like “deplorable.”

And we internalize all of it. We learn, early in life, that belonging is often conditional, that it’s something that can be taken away from us. This desire we feel so deeply—to live in community, to feel safe and at home, to be in relationship—we try to learn how to cope with the reality that we might not get it.

Recently the pastoral staff was discussing this idea of belonging, and Pastor Pam pointed out how the English word itself seems to summarize the human condition, if you cut it in half: “be” and “longing,” this sense that we live with a perpetual yearning for an ancient belonging that eludes us now. To be human is to be…longing for real connection. We want to find our place.

On the other hand, we know that some of the boundaries we establish—especially in our closest relationships—they’re good and healthy, even essential for real relationship. We know there are some hurts that require distance or separation for the good of all involved, at least in this life. We know that belonging involves a delicate negotiation of comfort levels and expectations and communication. It’s never simple.

We want to make space for all this complexity as we consider those two questions: What does it mean to really belong? And how can we better extend real belonging to others?

With all that in mind, let’s turn to today’s passage of Scripture: Ephesians 2:11-22. Ephesians is one of many short letters in the New Testament written from a church leader to a young church somewhere around the Mediterranean region in the first century. In this case, it’s attributed to Paul, and some think Ephesians was meant to be circulated among many churches in the area. When you read through the letter, you get a clear picture of what so many early Christian churches struggled with: the relationship between Jewish Christians and Gentile—that is, non-Jewish—Christians. In other words, they struggled with belonging: Who belongs in the church, and how?

If you know much about Christian history, you might understand why this was such a difficult problem for early Christians to solve. Here’s why: For centuries and centuries, the Jewish people understood themselves to be God’s chosen people. When Jesus came to earth and lived among the people, teaching and doing miracles, he spent most of his time with the Jews. And so the earliest followers of Jesus perceived their faith in Christ to be a deeper and truer manifestation of their faith in God—not necessarily a new identity, but an evolution of their Jewish identity.

Then, after Jesus ascended and departed (at least physically) from the disciples, the situation changed. As word about Jesus spread throughout the region, more and more of the people who heard and responded to the message weren’t Jews. They were Gentiles. The book of Acts chronicles a long, miraculous series of events that culminates in one of the most important moments in history for most Christians today: The disciple Peter visits a group of Gentile believers in a town called Caesarea Maritime, and before his eyes, the Holy Spirit descends on the Gentiles. To his credit, Peter recognizes the significance of what is happening and says, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:47)

Don’t miss the significance of what happens here: For Peter, his Jewish identity was the pathway that led him to Jesus. He knew that he belonged. But these Gentiles found their way to Jesus by means of a different pathway. And in spite of himself, Peter couldn’t help but acknowledge that these Gentiles evidently belonged in the new family that God was creating.

Peter recognized the truth of what was happening. It wasn’t that the early Jewish Christians sat down and wrote out a plan to extend the gospel to Gentiles. No, instead the Jewish Christians merely recognized that God was already showing up among the Gentiles, too.

Soon the rest of the young church would recognize this development. But that was the easy part. The hard part was figuring out how to live out that new reality. Jewish people knew how to live in community with other Jewish people. Gentiles knew how to live in community with other Gentiles. But how on earth would these two religious bodies live in community with each other—and not just live in community, but live in a community in which they practiced the love of Jesus with one another? In other words, how would they belong to one another? In Ephesians 2, I that’s some of what v. 11 is trying to get at with all this talk of circumcision. Paul is talking about one of the physical manifestations of tradition that separated Jews and Gentiles. Previously, circumcision had defined who was in and who was out. He reminds the Gentiles that there was a time when they didn’t belong.

Quite a bit of the New Testament consists of different churches working this out, among many other conflicts. How would women and men navigate power dynamics and social expectations if they believed that in Christ, there was neither male nor female? How would a small church find unity when its members were passionately divided between distinctions in doctrine coming from different authorities? In the context of the Bible’s social world, how would enslaved people worship in the same pews (figuratively speaking) with people who had legal authority over them? 

When the New Testament authors got at this idea of belonging—how we live together, how we answer to one another, who is allowed to walk through our door—they understood how high the stakes were. These early Christians were looking for something more substantial and durable than a simplistic ethic like, “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family.” 

You can imagine these early Christians in places like Ephesus looking to their leaders and saying, “How does this work? How do we overcome centuries and centuries of hostility and hurt? How do we share a meal together in peace?”

I wonder if some of us are asking the same question as those early Christians around the Mediterranean: How can true belonging ever be restored? This idea of a robust community of belonging—what does it take to pull that image out of the realm of naive daydreaming and press it into a flesh-and-blood reality, something we can experience now, not just in our songs and poems? 

You already heard Paul’s answer. Paul sees all of this—all this history and conflict, all this struggle to live as a community that extends real belonging—and almost miraculously, he sees through it to tell the people what is true, even if it’s just beyond their vision: The wall has already been torn down. As for those two religious groups who didn’t know how to get along: They have already been made into one.

This was the work of Jesus. And all it cost him was everything.

Think about it: If anyone should have belonged in creation, it was Jesus. The first chapter of John tells us that in some mysterious way, Jesus was present at the creation of everything. Not only was he present; no, everything that was made was made through him. If anyone had a right to be here, it was Jesus. If anyone should have felt perfectly at home on this earth in a human body, it was Jesus. This last week we’ve witnessed all the pomp and circumstance and effort involved in publicly mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth II; that’s the kind of reverence and admiration that Jesus deserved.

But Jesus surrendered all that, humbling himself even to the point of death. What was the crucifixion if not the people’s ultimate way of telling Jesus, “You do not belong here?”

In Ephesians, Paul doesn’t mince words: All that hostility and contention that divided the Jews and Gentiles didn’t go easily. The hostility had to be put to death. Verse 16 says the work of reconciliation was carried out “through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” We are fully outside of the realm of imagination and naivety here. The peace that Jesus established was established with the physical matter of his life and death.

As a result, Paul describes all these images of reconciliation as accomplished tasks that extend into the present: Jesus “has made both into one.” Jesus has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” As far as Paul is concerned, the hard part is already accomplished: the death and resurrection of Jesus actually established reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in Jesus.

If Ephesians says Jesus did all that, how do we explain the way things are now? At a church like LaSalle, the question of how Jewish and Gentile Christians do life together probably doesn’t sound like the most urgent question. But I think the reconciling work of Jesus stretches into all the divisions and hostilities we experience. I suggest that this promise of Paul fits into the mysterious category Christians refer to with the phrase “already and not yet”: Jesus has already done it, and we do not yet experience the fullest manifestations of it. One of the ways theologians have conceptualized this is that we’re a little like soldiers in remote regions who go on fighting because we haven’t yet received word that the war is already over. Or maybe you’re familiar with the way C.S. Lewis describes the life of faith as living in “enemy-occupied territory”—that Jesus already reigns as king, but for now the powers of evil still maintain some hold on things. It won’t be like this forever.

However you conceptualize it, what matters is that in those moments when we experience true reconciliation and belonging, we’re experiencing something real. We experience something that is more real than the hostility and distance. The hostility is brittle, and the distance is fading. The peace of Christ will endure.

Here’s what this means for us: Like I mentioned, we’ll spend the next few weeks asking what it means to belong and how we extend real belonging to others. I know that sometimes I can fall into the trap of thinking that this is ultimately a problem for me to solve, a project for me to take on through the power of my own imagination and benevolence and determination. Maybe you’re susceptible to the same ways of thinking: That if my church, or my home, or even my personal relationships are going to be places where people get a taste of real belonging, it will be the result of my best efforts. But the truth is that none of us has the capacity to think big enough or boldly enough—we can only begin to imagine just how large is the peace and the belonging that Christ himself established.

Belonging is not something that we have to create or establish for ourselves or anyone else.

Christ himself is our belonging.

So for all of us who sometimes think that belonging depends on our ability to manifest it, hear this: Don’t let yourself believe that it’s up to us to accomplish something that Jesus hasn’t already accomplished for us. Our job isn’t to break down the dividing wall of hostility, because Jesus already did that. Our job isn’t to grant people access to God the Father, because Jesus already did that.

Our job is simply to live as if that is already true in a world that doesn’t know it yet. So don’t stop. Don’t stop trying to expand your compassion or to increase your capacity to listen to and empathize with others. Don’t ever tire of seeking to root out injustice in all the ugly ways it spreads. Don’t stop assuring yourself of your own dignity and worth when you face people or systems that try to diminish it. Don’t resist the slow and subtle spread of forgiveness for those who have excluded you as it takes root in your heart. Don’t lose sight of the invisible reality that we are no longer strangers and aliens, but we are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.

When we perceive of ourselves as former strangers who have been welcomed in as members of the household of God, I think it changes us. I think it makes us zealous to recognize and offer belonging in all its forms.

If you are looking for a tangible opportunity to put that into practice, there is great need here in Chicago. You probably know that just recently, migrants from countries like Venezuela have begun arriving in our city, brought here from the Southern border. These are people whom life has told, time and time again: “There is no place for you here.” We have the chance to help live into a different reality.

If you have money but not time to give, LaSalle partners with an organization called “The Resurrection Project” in Pilsen, and they’ve established a Texas Immigrant Rapid Response Fund. You can donate today, and they will put your money to work. If you have time but not money to give, one of our members pointed us to the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants—they will put you to work on the ground providing direct care for people. If you have neither money nor time to give, or even if you do, please pray, and pray, and pray that God will bring about a world in which everyone has a safe place to live and work and belong.

Go ahead and call to mind the memory you chose of a time when you did belong. Think about the way that felt. So much of what we do as a church together consists of tangible practices of spiritual realities. This afternoon, you’re invited and highly encouraged to gather in the sanctuary to celebrate the marriage of our very own Stephen and Chad. It will be a tangible practice of the spiritual reality of their union with one another. Do not miss this chance to bear witness to God’s work.

Earlier we extended the peace of Christ to each other. It was a tangible practice of the fact that Christ has already declared peace among us. In just a few moments, we’ll participate in communion—it’s another tangible practice of the way Christ sustains us with his very body and blood. And it’s a reminder that the welcome we experience and share is, first and foremost, a welcome that Christ has extended to us.

As we prepare to share this feast, take a few moments to reflect on a couple questions:

Who belongs? Who might not feel like they belong? As we come to the table of Jesus, consider: What would Jesus have us do about that?

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