During the month of February at Refuge, we read from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.
The apostle Paul, a missionary, planted a church in Corinth when he first went to share
the good news about Jesus to the people living there. He started a church that met in people’s
homes. (And to think, people think we’re a “non-traditional” church.) Before long, the church grew in number as the Corinthian people shared Christ with their neighbors. In fact, it grew so much, there were enough people to have some differences of opinion. (In church? Never.) Leaders rose up from among these new believers, making it easy for the church to divide themselves up into groups, based on what they believed or how they believed they should live life with Christ.
Paul, even though he’s not living in Corinth, hears about the conflict and division in the church there. He hears that leaders have surfaced and that some are following the leader Apollos and some
Cephas and some say they are still following Paul, even though he’s not around. Paul feels a
sense of responsibility for the church in Corinth and longs for them to be united as the people of
God, people who belong to Christ! So, he writes a letter to them with the hopes that this letter
will help remind them of who they are—not a divided people, not a people belonging to worldly
groups, but a people who belong to God.
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
18 Don’t fool yourself. If some of you think they are worldly-wise, then they should become
foolish so that they can become wise. 19 This world’s wisdom is foolishness to God. As it’s
written, He catches the wise in their cleverness. 20 And also, The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are silly. 21 So then, no one should brag about human beings. Everything belongs to you—
22 Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life, death, things in the present, things in the future—everything belongs to you, 23 but you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
We all want to belong. Young or old—the deep desire to belong sticks with us. I remember
starting at a new school when I began fourth grade. That first day—I had a stomach full of
butterflies. Each step closer to the brightly door of my classroom required monumental energy,
just to put one foot in front of another. You’d think I was headed to face a monster or to fight in a
battle where I would surely lose. It was the longest walk I’d taken in my eight years of life! Who
will I sit with at lunch? Will the other kids tease me for being new? What if I don’t know when to
stand up or sit down or if I forget the words to the pledge of alliance? I don’t know the school’s
motto. Do they have a motto? Will the teacher call on me and ask me the motto? Will I look
stupid? Will I make any friends? Will I belong?!
Such feelings and nervousness about change and belonging are normal for a kid. But it doesn’t
seem to go away! We want to belong, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to connect with other people and share in camaraderie. Adults—we do this too! Are you a sport’s
fan and if you’re not, do you know someone who is? Do you cheer for Duke or UNC? How about Yankees vs Red Socks? Cubs or Whitesox? Celtics or Lakers?! When we cheer for a team, we have a sense of belonging! We are a part of the team, even if we’re only a fan!
Just over a month ago, the Seahawks and the 49ers in the NFC West championship game to see who would play in the super bowl. When the Seahawks won, at the end of the game, their owner, Paul Allen, stood up and thanked the 12th man. To the 12th man, he said, “We couldn’t have done this without you.” Since only 11 players play on the field at any given time, the 12th man, the fan, is so important to the game, that they get credit even before the players. The fans belong on that
team; they are part of it.
This is one meaning of belonging—to be a part of a group, to be included in something bigger than yourself. There’s another meaning or sense of belonging, the meaning of belonging that
has to do with ownership or possession. I was getting off the bus a couple of weeks back and I dropped one of my gloves. A stranger caught up with me and said, “Does this glove belong to you? I think you dropped it.” The glove belongs to me. Maybe you’ve been in the hospital
before where you’ve seen those beige colored plastic bags that say “Patient’s belongings.” The bag holds your clothes and anything you had in your pockets when you were admitted.
Interestingly, even though this meaning of belonging is more about possessions or what you own, if we’re not careful, we can talk about people this way. We have an expression we use when we’re trying to find a kid’s parents, we say, “Who does this child belong to?”
I asked Justin if I could share this story because I heard him say it once and I thought it was so profound. Keith and Justin were talking about what it will be like when Magnolia is grown up.
Keith asked Justin, “What would you say if someone came to you and asked you for your daughter’s hand in marriage?” Justin replied, “I would say that it’s not mine to give. She doesn’t belong to me. She belongs to God.”
We use this language to talk about people as if they belong or are owned by a particular group or person. What’s even worse than using this language to talk about people in a particular way, is that at times, we treat people or are treated ourselves as if we are someone’s belonging, like an item that they own. The problem is that treating people like a belonging insinuates that one person has the power to determine the worth or value of another person. It gives one person the power to determine the worth or value of another person. People are not cars—you can’t look up their value in the Kelly bluebook. People are not gold—you can’t take one into a pawnshop and find out how much they’re selling for that day.
Paul writes to a divided church, a group of people who were separated into cliques and groups, making it clear who was an insider and who was an outsider. A group of people where some people belong, some people don’t belong and some people treat other people as if they
are their belonging. A group of people who began to believe the lies told to them about where and to whom they belong. Lies about belonging. Have these lies been told to us?
You belong to Paul.
You belong to Apollos.
You belong to Cephas.
You don’t belong in church.
You belong on the B team.
You belong to the United States government.
You belong with the 12th man.
You don’t belong with cool kids, the smart kids, the successful kids,
the athletic kids, the kids with two parents, you don’t belong.
You belong to him.
You belong to her.
You don’t belong in a happy family.
You belong in this painful relationship.
To these lies, Paul proclaims, “No! Don’t listen to the lies! You belong to Christ!” You belong
to Christ!” Only God can establish a person’s worth. Only God can say who’s in and who’s out.
And I have some good news friends, with God, there are no outsiders. Everyone is in. You
Paul knows that he will have to convince the Corinthians to understand belonging in this way,
even though it will seem foolish to them. It seems foolish, because, who would give up a sense
of belonging if they have it? Who wants to knock down dividing walls when you are the one that
belongs? Who wants to put aside differences, to join together, to belong to Christ and belong to
one another? Paul says that the God’s way is foolish to the world. The world’s wisdom can’t
understand the foolishness of God. “If you don’t believe me?,” Paul says, “look at Jesus—what
Jesus came to save the world and he did so in the most foolish of ways. Instead of finding a
place to belong with all the right people, he took another road, the road of a fool. Jesus
acknowledged all people as made in God’s image, even the prostitutes, tax collectors, and
sinners, and ate dinner with them. Jesus chose fishermen for disciples and touched people with
contagious diseases. Jesus was arrested, tried as a criminal and died a death reserved for
fools, crucified on a cross. But, after three days, God showed death who the real fool is, raising
Jesus, the one whom death could not conquer, from the dead.
You belong to Christ. You belong. Only God can establish a person’s worth. How, then, is our
life together different as people who belong to Christ? One preacher used to say, “Everyone who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone who belongs to Christ.” We belong together, in Christ. We are the given the privilege and challenge that comes with belonging to Christ and one another. So, we get into each other’s business. We don’t have to live this life alone. We share one another’s burdens! We embrace the foolishness of the gospel, befriending someone on the outside. We stop to listen. Since our worth comes from God, we reject petty attempts to secure belonging through our pride or ego or any act that pushes other people to the outside. We affirm God’s worth in others. We refuse to treat other people as objects. We break down dividing walls that attempt to dictate who belongs and who doesn’t belong. We silence the lies the world tells about belonging. In place of the silence, we hear the ringing God’s promise—you belong.
This post was adapted from Megan’s sermon on February 23, 2014 at Butner Federal Prison.