Based on Acts 8:14-17, Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-22
How many groups do you currently belong to? For most of us, me included, it would take quite a while to write down all the things to which we belong; especially if we include virtual internet groups along with actual in-person groups. Another question then…which of those many groups is most important to you and why? I suspect that groups that are most important to you give you something meaningful in return…am I right? Now that we’ve explored the things that we belong to that are Important in our lives I want to switch the focus.
Have you ever been excluded from belonging to a group? Maybe a sports team or sorority/fraternity, honor society, possibly acceptance at a school or job, how about a social group (e.g., the “cool kids”), more poignantly – how about a country? How did that/does that feel? In my case, I found that it hurts my ego and sense of self-worth. Out of my deep hurt, I would still seek to become a member. I would often try to think of ways to work around the snub – maybe if I offer money, or, or, or…. When that line of reasoning didn’t work (and it never has worked) I would resort to negative talk and off-hand comments that state how I really didn’t want to belong to that organization anyway. Kind of like Groucho Marx saying that he wouldn’t belong to any group that would have him as a member!
Our scriptures today are all about belonging, from the restoration promised to Israel in Second Isaiah to the laying on of hands on Samaritan believers and the baptism of Jesus. They all have to do with us being unconditionally welcomed into the embrace of God through Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit in our baptisms. This is a group that we all belong to once we make the choice to live as disciples of Jesus. Let us go to God in prayer before we go any farther…
Our reading from the Book of Acts follows the martyrdom of Stephen which ended the previous chapter. The first part of Chapter 8 has Saul persecuting the believers of “The Way”. Farther into the chapter we read that Philip has been sent to Samaria (remember that the Samaritans are Jews of the northern kingdom who were left behind in the Assyrian exile – they don’t get along with “southern” Jews). This mission is in keeping with Jesus’ initial mission sending Disciples to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”. When the Disciples in Jerusalem heard that the Samaritans had accepted the gospel of Jesus, Peter and John traveled there to provide support. On arriving they prayed for the new converts and laid hands on them that they might receive the Holy Spirit and truly belong to the Body of Christ (and to “the Way”).
In our reading from Isaiah, God is reminding the children of Israel that their exile will not last forever and that God will redeem them and bring them back under the protective covering of God’s love (“Do not fear, for I am with you”). God reminds them that they have been called by name and are under God’s protection – even though they have greatly wronged God and are receiving their just punishment. God will gather all of the Jews from the Diaspora (the exile from Palestine) and return them to the Promised Land, “…Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you….” Once we belong to God, we always belong to God.
John the Baptist is at work in the river Jordan, baptizing with water and the theme of repentance. People want to know if he is the Messiah (the Christ) – and he tells them clearly that he is not. The “…one who is more powerful than I is coming;…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire….” Herod throws John in jail for John holding Herod accountable to Jewish law to not marry his brother’s wife. The final part of our reading has Jesus being baptized and then the Holy Spirit coming on him and a voice which claims Jesus as a beloved child and well pleasing to God.
Those theologians among you are probably thinking that this last bit is kind of strange. If God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one already (one God in three persons), how come Jesus has to be baptized and have the Holy Spirit come down and the voice of God ring out? Didn’t He already belong to God? Why go through all this monkey business to legitimize Him? Well, the answer is that He didn’t need to be legitimized to God and the Holy Spirit, He needed to have his credentials viewed and accepted on earth by humans. In order for Jesus’ ministry to be differentiated from prophets like His cousin John, He had to have the whole show of the theophany (a manifestation of God in our world). He also had to be able to confer the Holy Spirit on His Disciples so that they could in turn bring people fully into the Body of Christ.
One of the reasons that Christianity (or “The Way”) took off is that it was pitched to people who couldn’t belong to Roman or Jewish society. The slaves and non-Roman citizens, the Samaritans, Gentiles, and anyone who was not part of Jewish society (foreigners, prostitutes, tax collectors and soldiers, those who were ritually unclean, women in general, etc). Jesus offered an open door if one would only choose to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and then live into a life fully loving God and neighbor. You didn’t have to come from the right family, you didn’t have to pay an entry fee (in fact you couldn’t buy your way in at all – see Acts 8:18-24), you didn’t have to be either Roman or Jewish (the latter meaning: circumcised). All you had to do was to seek forgiveness for your sins and be baptized to belong.
Quite remarkable, really. What other group can you name that has had anywhere near the effect on the world with a similar mechanism to belong? This is one reason that still today (as of a 2015 Pew survey) there are more Christians (2.3 billion) than any other religion (1.8 billion Muslims). Interestingly though, the third largest “religious” group is those who claim to be “unaffiliated” which number 1.2 billion; a number equal to every other religious affiliation below them! Why do 1.2 billion people, roughly 16% of the world’s population, not choose to belong to any religion at all – but especially not to Christianity?
The answer, according to our friends at the Pew Research Center (survey of 1300 of these persons in the U.S. last year), is that they “question a lot of religious teachings”. The next most common responses in order of occurrence are: opposed to social or political church positions, dislike of religious organizations, don’t believe in God, religion is irrelevant to their life, dislike of religious leaders. A significant portion of those who were raised in a religion but have left, cite problems in the church or with church leaders as the reason they do not affiliate. With all that has happened within organized religion over the millennia, it is hard not to agree that the man-made institutional structure and hierarchy called church (versus the God-given form) is sinful and broken. If we want the “unaffiliated” to change their minds and come back, we will have to engage them in conversation and show them why it is so important to us to belong. We will also have to live closer to the tenets of our faith!
So…why do you belong? Why do you give of your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness to a group that struggles to live into what it preaches? What is it about your faith that is so important that you will get up and come together more weeks than not, with fellow broken and sinful people, for years on end? Is it because you understand that on your own you have nothing and no One who can truly love you unconditionally and forgive you when you sin? The One who tells you not to fear because you have been redeemed and forgiven and called by name. Is it because you have One who calls you “beloved” and believes you to be a precious and honored member of the family? This is what belonging to the family of God is all about. We have a God who is on our side who is “about to do a new thing” and “make a way in the wilderness”. Let us redouble our efforts to reach out to those who are “unaffiliated” and engage them in a relationship that offers them another chance to belong to the one group that can bring them abundant life. In this way, God’s plan will be fulfilled. Thanks be to God, amen! 0000