The seventh sermon in the Reclaiming Jesus Series
preached by the Rev. Linda Harrison
September 2, 2018
Scripture: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Matthew 28.16-20
A reading from Reclaiming Jesus
VI. WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18). Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. The most well-known verse in the New Testament starts with “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal. We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources, toward genuine global development that brings human flourishing for all of God’s children. Serving our own communities is essential, but the global connections between us are undeniable. Global poverty, environmental damage, violent conflict, weapons of mass destruction, and deadly diseases in some places ultimately affect all places, and we need wise political leadership to deal with each of these.
Belonging … We all have a deep desire to belong. It is how we humans are hardwired.
God called a people from among the nations and said, You are my people and I am your God; you belong to me.
Jesus, the Word made flesh, said, I know my own and my own know me (John 10.14).
The author of the Acts of the Apostles wrote that in Christ we live and move and have our being (17.28).
We belong to God; we belong in God.
We also belong to one another, in community.
God gave the covenant to the people to instruct them how to build and maintain community, how to behave in community, how to care for one another, how to treat one another.
Jesus quoted this law and taught this law.
You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength … You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12.30-31).
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you (John 15.12).
Paul wrote we “are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” and that we are to “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12.5, 10).
We belong to God and in God; we belong to one another and in community. And the individuals in the community have certain responsibilities to one another that foster belonging.
There is comfort in belonging, like a child who is temporarily lost and then found by her frantic parent. She belongs, once again, and is enfolded in the safety of loving arms.
The early followers of the Way, those early Jewish followers of Jesus, to varying degrees, were losing or had lost a sense of belonging. Each gospel writer addressed this loss for the particular community for which the author was writing. Each of the four gospels was written for a specific community to address specific concerns of that community. Hence, each gospel has a different approach and view of many issues, two important ones are belonging and discipleship.
Judaism at large was experiencing unease and anxiety – and remember, the first followers of Jesus were one of many expressions of Judaism of the time; they were still considered Jews. The Temple had been destroyed and the civil authorities were a threat from outside. For the followers of Jesus, we add to this anxiety that families often ostracized those who confessed Jesus and they were also thrown out of the synagogues. Given the secular state affairs that led to the destruction of the Temple, it is understandable that the religious authorities had circled the wagons, as it were. And those first followers of Jesus were on the outside. Where did they belong?
Fear of the other thwarts belonging. History has taught us over and over that fear turns to prejudice and exclusion, if not outright hate and violence against the “other”.
Xenophobia is ugly, but prejudice and exclusion perpetrated by Christians – who are exhorted, again and again, to love – it is particularly unseemly.
Remember, Christian love is not an emotion. It is action; it is the expression, the demonstration, the living out in the real world of respect, justice, mercy, human dignity for all. Love is the foundation upon which discipleship is built.
And love generates belonging. And belonging quells fear which then mitigates violence. I’m not saying it is a panacea; I can see beyond my rose-tinted glasses. We certainly do not live in a perfect world and we humans will never love perfectly; but living into our call to Christian discipleship brings us closer to the household of God than xenophobia or racism ever will. There is a study that bears this out that was noted in the August 15 issue of Christian Century. Looking at two years’ worth of search engine data, sociologists at Duke University and a statistician at University of California found a strong correlation between sympathy for extremist Islamic groups and high levels of anti-Muslim sentiment. I do not think it will come as a shock that they also found that anti-Muslim prejudice was highest in communities with predominantly white populations. The researchers stated that there are, of course, multiple factors leading to extremism – such as feelings of powerlessness and financial struggles – but discrimination is certainly a factor. I would contend that discrimination – exclusion – contributes and even magnifies financial struggles and feelings of powerlessness because opportunities to fully participate in community are severely diminished.
It is not difficult to imagine the same outcome on the world stage. Incite fear, foster exclusion, limit opportunities that deny one’s human dignity – in short, hinder belonging – and we’ve got a recipe for continued violence and hatred. Hate begets hate. Violence begets violence.
ISIS gained its first footholds in areas where the people felt abandoned by their governments and by the organizations that had promised to help them. In their feelings of exclusion, these villagers and townspeople welcomed ISIS who rebuilt infrastructure, repaired hospitals, brought in food. ISIS preyed on those feelings of abandonment, and a once excluded people now belonged and signed on to the hate and violence. They endorsed a version of extreme nationalism that promoted a “Middle East first” ideology.
Discipleship calls out the lie of “Middle East first” or “America first” or “France first” or “Germany first” as an idolatrous notion. Putting one nation or people before any other flies in the face of God’s mandate to love as God has loved.
For God so loved the world …
God created this magnificent universe, this glorious earth on which we live with all these beautiful people … This is what God created, tenderly and lovingly, coaxing all into existence with a breath and a word.
And out of all God’s creation, God has called upon humanity to care for this world that God so lovingly created. Caring for creation includes caring for each other – caring for people we know and don’t know, people who live close by and far away, people who speak the same language and those who speak foreign tongues.
Caring for one another is loving the world as God loves the world.
Caring for one another is discipleship. Discipleship fosters belonging.
Discipleship is not a synonym for converting others. I mentioned earlier that each of the four gospels was written for particular communities with different emphases and approaches. Discipleship is one of these issues and each writer approaches the concept of discipleship differently. For Mark, discipleship means to be a follower of Jesus; Matthew, a disciple is a student of Jesus; for Luke, a disciple is one who is a witness to Jesus; in John, a disciple is one who comes to believe and in believing comes into relationship with Jesus. John’s might be the most ‘belonging’ gospel of the four. And in each case, the disciple – the one who follows, the one who learns, the one who testifies, or the one who believes – the disciple is exhorted to love and care for others.
Each gospel writer assured their respective communities that they indeed belonged; they belonged to Jesus, and therefore still belonged to God. And they belonged to one another. Caring for one another fosters belonging, safety, security. Discipleship and belonging go hand in hand.
Discipleship is the antidote for fear, hate, and violence; the antidote for exclusion; the opposite of xenophobic nationalism.
If we are true disciples, it matters not in what nation we live nor in what nation our neighbor was born. For God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to be among us as one of us to show us the way of love, to assure us that we all belong. We belong.
We belong, and we are loved. And that knowledge alone can give us the courage and insight to offer love and belonging to the stranger. Love and belonging, because we are Christian disciples.
Blessed be God forever.