You Belong

January 17, 2021

John 1:43-51

                The next two weeks we hear from both the gospels of John and Mark. They both share with us how Jesus calls his disciples to come and follow him. He is inviting the first disciples to share with him in his journey that will ultimately end at the cross. One purpose for him in the next few years is to prepare the disciples so that they are ready to continue sharing that same good news once he has ascended into heaven and his physical presence is no longer with them. Jesus invites the disciples into a place where they belong and as followers of Christ, we receive that same invitation to be in a relationship which God has intended since the beginning of creation.

                As the twelve disciples begin to gather as one, I have wondered, how many of them knew each other? If they were fisherman, were they ever out on the same boat, or were they competitors going for the same catch? How uncomfortable were they around Matthew, a tax collector? Did they ever get an uneasy feeling around Judas?

                Now, I have managed several stores and held positions of leadership in a few churches. There are many different personalities that one encounters daily and to be able to interact on a personal level with each one can be a challenge. It is not only interacting personally with people, but also guiding those interactions among others and encouraging peace when sometimes there is animosity. Jesus knew how to interact with people. He had to be stern at times, like those times that Peter keeps sticking his foot in his mouth or he is questioned about Mary pouring perfume on his feet. At other times he had to stand up to the questioning of the chief priests and pharisees and be persuasive and to the point. At other times he had to be vulnerable in sharing his love for others, for instance, when Lazarus is dead, Jesus weeps for him.

                Jesus has proven he can relate to others, but how did he ensure his disciples interacted with each other in a friendly manner and even treat each other like family? I wonder if Jesus introduced a few ice breakers to them so that they could get to know one another. As a natural introvert, I always cringed when a teacher or leader said, “let’s do an ice-breaker.” Ice breakers forced me out of my comfort zone. Maybe he had them play bingo, where each square may represent a quality, property, or story of a person. You then had to find another disicple to sign that square if it could represent them, like having 2 sisters, or a dog, or if you enjoyed olive oil. Maybe he had them play “Would you rather…” He may have asked, “Would you rather walk across the country to Jerusalem or spend several days on the Galilean Sea?” Or maybe, they just had to share something about themselves that no one knew.

                As much as I cringed at the thought of ice breakers when I was young, and I admit I still do to some extent, I always have our youth do them, especially when we go to camp. It is a great way to get to know one another, especially when you are going to be spending an extended amount of time with one another. I am sure there were struggles among the disciples. We read that they argued over who was the greatest. Yet, Jesus is encouraging them to live in communal relationship as God has called all of humanity to live together in creation. They were an example of this relationship that Jesus was living out for everyone to witness and experience for themselves.

                Jesus wanted the disciples, and honestly everyone he interacted with, to know that they belong. They belonged to the group of first disciples. They belonged where they were learning to share the Gospel, even if they were feeling inadequate. They belonged in the presence of God because they were loved, and Jesus wanted the best for them. Jesus’ invitation extends to all of creation, letting us know, we too belong to God and one another. We desire to belong and be a part of a family, community, or group that reflects the love that is found in God.

                Unfortunately, that love can sometimes be found in the wrong places. When I was in junior high school, I remember having a former student come and speak to one of my classes about being in a gang. That desire to be in a gang stemmed from his wanting to belong to something. The gang made him feel welcome and they watched out for him, even though many of the things they asked of him required breaking the law. It took him being arrested and having a tough conversation with his family that he was able to focus on himself. His family welcomed him home and was more open in expressing their love and he found other groups to positively support him when he needed it the most.

                The same occurrence is played out in the functions of other groups. Individuals are quite often first drawn in by a charismatic leader that makes promises that may be completely false. It could be religious, like the Branch Davidians or Jim Jones’, The People’s Temple. It could be ideological in which we can witness daily in various social media outlets where false facts and misleading claims are harder to proof and a lot of people believe that whatever they read on the internet must be true. They are drawn into a group in which they feel a part of something. Once again, it is a sense of belonging they desire.

                One can also be drawn away from a sense of belonging after having negative experiences and being nervous to join anything else.  There is then a different reaction as the pendulum swings the other way, making self-isolation appealing at first glance and in turn separating themselves from the love of others and Christ. When one doubts themself, it is easy to be convinced and persuaded by others. When one doubts a community as a whole, it is easy to isolate.

                The people of Israel had been waiting for a Messiah and there were many false ones before Jesus started his ministry. After they encountered Jesus and knew that he was the real thing, they wanted to belong. Whatever hesitancy the first disciples had, they quickly dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus. He welcomed them and ensured them they belonged in the family of God, as did all of humanity. The invitation from Jesus to those first disciples would be a sign of what was to come and an example for all to follow.

Jesus has reached out his hand to invite us into his family. When we were first invited to the church, the hand of Jesus may have reached out to us through a friend or family member, a neighbor, or even a stranger. Jesus has lovingly welcomed us and let us know, we too belong, through his words in scripture and the love shared with us by others. As the disciples continued to share the good news with others following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we are called to share the same good news today. And sometimes, we need to hear that invitation again, letting us know that we are loved, and we belong. You belong here! You are loved! You are a vital part of this community.

Who can you reach your hand out to at this time? While not meeting in person, it may be a phone call or an email. It may be a text message or a note on Facebook. Who are you letting know today that they are loved, and they belong to this beautiful community? Jesus invites us to the waters of baptism and the table to break bread and be filled with the Holy Spirit. May you share that invitation to those you encounter because the Lord’s table is open for all and there is a seat for everyone because we all belong.

By Alex Steward

I am a husband, father, and pastor within the ELCA. I did not grow up in the church and thus come at this pastoring thing with an unique perspective.

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