“Belonging”

Romans

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

The Church of England is organized according to an ancient system. The whole of England is divided up into geographical areas called “parishes.” Each area has its own church. Thus, every resident of England has a place to worship.

Anglicans may decide that they would prefer to attend a church in a neighboring town, and they are free to do that. But generally they stick close to home. They choose to be married in their local church and have their children baptized there.

And as the Established Church of the nation, the Church of England returns the favor. Even if you haven’t been baptized as a Christian, you have the right to be married in your parish church. No wonder that most English people feel a sense of belonging to their church.

This sense also derives from a feeling all Christians have that’s mentioned in today’s First Lesson. In this text, St. Paul is writing to members of the Church in Rome, who were threatened–as Paul was–by persecution for their beliefs.

This was a frightening time for the Roman Christians. But Paul reminds them that, in his words, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

“We are the Lord’s.” In Christ, we belong to God. We share a primordial bond with the divine source of all things.

This kind of belonging is different from belonging, say, to a book club. Once you have been invited to join the book club, you make a decision to accept the invitation. Then you may find that you like the books the other people enjoy. You profit from hearing the comments your fellow members make on the books you’re reading, and you feel glad that you decided to be part of the group.

Now I admit that joining a church can seem to be very similar. You attend worship services and other events, you get to know members of the congregation, and you feel glad that you chose that particular community of faith.

In fact, though, the superficial similarities are misleading. First of all, while the members of the book club invite you to join their group, it’s really God who invites you into the church. God chooses you to become part of the spiritual fellowship that he has brought into being.

And because your link with the church community is from God, it doesn’t ultimately depend on anything that you do. If you don’t attend meetings of your book club, you’ll eventually stop getting notices of the club’s meetings.

By contrast, your relationship with the church is ultimately a relationship with God the Eternal. This bond is even stronger than the English person’s connection with her parish, a link that is grounded in British soil. “If we live, we live to the Lord.” You belong to God. And so God won’t abandon you—whatever happens.

Yet even if you accept this theological truth, it may be hard for you to think of your connection to the eternal when you have been plunged deep into a crisis. Suppose that a romantic attachment that seemed promising has just gone sour. Or a great job you wanted went to someone else.

Some unexpected event has occurred and, suddenly, your future is unclear. You’re confused; and you’re uncertain what you should do. God? If you think of God at all, it will only be to get angry at him!

Now contrast this experience with membership in a book club. If you’re in the book club, and you keep getting into arguments with other people in the group, you’ll eventually be asked to leave—and even if you felt disappointed and rejected, that will be the end of your book club experience!

But God stays with you! “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”

You could, of course, stop going to church. Your personal problem can seem to be so overwhelming that your church membership seems irrelevant. You feel that your fellow members can’t do anything to help you, and you’re on your own.

But Paul claims that you’re not on your own! Think of Dr. Kent Brantly, the medical missionary in Liberia who contracted the Ebola virus. Here’s how he described his experience in a speech on the day he was released from an American hospital:

“After taking Amber and our children to the airport to return to the States on Sunday morning, July 20, I poured myself into my work even more than before – transferring patients to our new, bigger isolation unit; training and orienting new staff; and working with our Human Resources Officer to fill our staffing needs. Three days later, I woke up feeling under the weather, and then my life took an unexpected turn: I was diagnosed with Ebola Virus Disease. As I lay in my bed in Liberia for the following nine days, getting sicker and weaker each day, I prayed that God would help me to be faithful even in my illness, and I prayed that in my life or in my death, God would be glorified.”

Dr. Brantly was praying St. Paul’s prayer. Whether the doctor lived or whether he died, he wanted to be true to his faith. And his prayer expressed his conviction that, whatever happened, God would be with him.

As it turned out, in Dr. Brantly’s case, his life on this earth would continue. At his press conference, he went on to say, “’I did not know then, but I have learned since, that there were thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world praying for me throughout that week, and even still today. And I have heard story after story of how this situation has impacted the lives of individuals around the globe – both among my friends and family, and also among complete strangers. I cannot thank you enough for your prayers and your support. But what I can tell you is that I serve a faithful God who answers prayers.”

Notice that the inner assurance that the doctor received was different from any kind of self-confidence that he might have given himself. His faith didn’t depend on whether he was in a good mood, or whether he had had a good breakfast.

Dr. Brantly’s faith was nourished by fellow Christians—most of whom he had never met. So, too, for you, there may be people who care about you and pray for you whom you don’t even know about. I know that’s possible because in this congregation people pray for each other all the time. Belonging is real.

We in the United States who are far removed from the threat of Ebola can still reach out to its victims. When I was serving the Episcopal Church in Rome, Italy, some years ago, the Liberian Ambassador to Italy attended my church. He reminded me of the many historic links between American and Liberian Episcopalians.

Today, as we recognize the immense suffering of our fellow Christians in Liberia, let us pray especially for them – recognizing that we are united to one another in the Universal Spirit of Christ. The God whom we worship will always be with us. Whether we live or die, we belong to him.

Let us pray.

O merciful Father, who hast taught us in thy holy Word that thou dost not willingly afflict or grieve thy children: Look with pity upon the sorrows of thy servants, especially the people of Liberia and all those suffering from Ebola. Remember them, O Lord, in mercy, comfort them with a sense of thy goodness, lift up thy countenance upon them, and give them peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.


Leave a Reply