Sermon from May 8: Believe and Belong
Believe and Belong
Easter IV; May 8, 2022
“You do not believe,” says Jesus, “because you do not belong to my sheep.” You do not believe because you do not belong. Isn’t that backward? Don’t we become part of the family of Jesus because we put our faith in him? We belong because we believe; right?
Not really. Jesus has it spot on, not only for his Church but for pretty much everything else. Do you believe in your country? (Yes.) Is that because you have studied its political system and history and have come to conclude that it is worthy of your belief… or because you feel you belong to it, either by birth or naturalization? Are you committed to your family? Would you be if it were not a part of who you are?
I remember a proverb from my study of Spanish literature: Begin by taking holy water and you’ll end up a believer. For most of us, we do not become followers of Jesus because we believe in him; we come to believe in him because we start out following him, following him as part of the pack of people who do. Do religious things, the proverb suggests, and your actions will work their way into your heart.
Most of us – not all of us, but most of us – who put our faith in Jesus grew up as part of his flock. My parents never talked to my brothers and me about their faith, said very little about Jesus, but we went to Sunday School and worship every week and participated in youth group and sang in the choir. We were raised with the knowledge that we belonged. I have probably told some of you that when I was a young person the Church was the one place where I felt accepted. I had few real connections at school or in my neighborhood, but at Church I was a person and people accepted me just as I was. I belonged.
As you start to consider your future as a Church, I beg you to keep that in mind. Don’t worry about persuading people to have the right ideas or the correct opinions; welcome them. Care less about litmus tests of faith and political commitment than you do with helping people to feel they belong. For most people, that will mean engaging them in doing something they care about.
If you invite them to a program, they may attend and enjoy themselves, but that will probably not foster a sense of belonging. If you ask them to go with a church group to serve supper at Siena Francis House or say, “Can you swing a hammer? We’re working on a Habitat house next Saturday” that will help them feel they belong.
From what I’ve seen, one notion we hold is very wrong. We often think that if we get people to the building for an event, that will introduce them to the Church and put it in their minds. Well, sort of; if they come to a show or a dinner or a meeting then they will know there is a building here where events of that sort happen. That has nothing to do with feeling as though you belong. But if you invite them to do something with you, they will begin to feel as though they belong. Obviously there are exceptions; I am speaking generally. If you want people to come to believe in Jesus, begin by helping them feel as though they belong to the people of Jesus.
Years ago, in Tucson I ran across a man my family had known when he was a boy. His family were not church-going people, but when I saw him he was volunteering for a year with a Presbyterian mission. He had become a Christian and joined a Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. How did that happen? He had gotten involved with supporting refugees from El Salvador – if you remember, that was a time when our federal government was going after people who helped refugees from El Salvador – and he started to get to know the people he was working with. He discovered that the people who cared about Salvadoran refugees were Christians and specifically the ones he was working with were all from this Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He was part of their mission and, in time, he was baptized and became part of their flock.
These five wonderful people who are becoming part of our Body today have all described for me things they care about in the life of the Church, things they would like to do. That they are making this commitment today tells us two important things. We know that because they are joining one week before the Pastor’s last Sunday they are not joining Bob Keefer’s Church, but they are joining Presbyterian Church of the Master. It says that they are committed to Jesus Christ and his Church, they are here because they want to be part of your community of faith, and I hope that you will get to know them and will find out how you can encourage them and how they can help serve Jesus Christ as part of this community.
And it says something about you as a people of God. Most of them found us by information on the Internet. Some of them knew us already, as many of you know. But there are those who started searching for a Church with particular characteristics and watched our webcast. After doing the safe thing for a while – listening to our service in their home – they got up the nerve to show up in person. And they discovered that you are the kind of people you seem to be: there is nothing false about our webcast. And when they came they found that this is a safe place: a place where you can be who you are and not be scolded for it. Among these five persons are a range of experience, of political and theological opinions, of hopes; this is a safe place for such diversity. And that we are a More Light Church is another reason some of these folks are here: you have made an explicit commitment to welcome persons of a variety of sexual and gender identities, concerned only that we’re all trying to follow Jesus Christ.
When my ability to believe seems to be a little shaky, it really helps that I belong to the Body of Christ. We encourage each other, we pray for each other, we challenge each other. When a new guy joins the men’s group I belong to, I typically say, “Welcome; in this group you will find encouragement, challenge, and the occasional whack upside the head when you need it.” Those words can also describe the Body of Christ. Those words certainly describe you.
Robert A Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master