Day of Pentecost C. 19 May 2013.
One of worst feelings you could probably name is the feeling of not belonging—or the worry that when you come into a new group, that you won't belong. You won't like the others, or the others won't like you. That you won't fit in.
A lot of ink has been spilled in books about this, especially books about the church. If a group has already formed, how well does it take in new members, how do the new people navigate their way and make friends… How to keep the group healthy, and so forth.
A cartoon I saw recently depicted an Episcopalian overlooking a busy street—full of people—and saying that the reason why their church wasn't growing is that there weren't any Episcopalians in their area. And the point was made—all those people on the street are potential Episcopalians. We just don't see them that way.
A couple weeks ago I mentioned that when Karin and I go on vacation we like to visit other churches. We don't wear our clerical collars. And I'm often tempted to say when we walk in the door with our two children that we're a young family, new to the area, and we tithe. And by the way, Karin LOVES to work with youth and young adults.
But think about this. When a person walks through those big red doors… Frank Griswold, the former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church once said, "Only Episcopalians paint their doors red and expect decent people to walk through them."
But when people walk through those big red doors, they are looking at us, and we are looking at them, and before even the first words are exchanged there are judgments made about whether or not this is going to be a good fit.
It happens in every group, in every church, organization, school, any place people gather together. Part of the discernment is how much am I accepted. So little feeler questions get asked of us, and we of them, to find out if we line up in terms of politics, sports, whatever. I wish it weren't that way.
There are churches that come right out and force you to take a stand on certain things, in order to be a member. I don't have to name them—you already know. We have never done that, I'm very proud to say. The Episcopal Church has always striven to be a big tent without litmus tests for membership. I think it was Bishop Lee who joked that to be an Episcopalian you had to understand that the only unforgiveable sin was to be tacky. At one time, you needed to know a salad fork from a dinner fork, and a footman from a valet. But thankfully, officially, anyway: You simply have to be Baptized and then Confirmed.
But even if that's all the church officially needs, there are churches that create hospitable and inhospitable environments on the basis of all sorts of things.
And beyond even the obvious stuff, there is the feeling of the place. It's hard to define this, but sometimes you find yourself in a group and you can't put your finger on it, but you just don't feel like you should be a part of it. It's nothing anyone has said or done, you just don't want to be there.
The Hebrew people understood their community in very clear cut ways. You were either a Jew or a Gentile. God chose a people to be his people, and we are it. So Gentiles marry Gentiles, and Jews marry Jews. Of course, sometimes intermarriages would take place, and this became a significant problem. The Babylonian exile was understood to be caused by the Hebrew people marrying Gentiles, so after the exile it became part of Pharisaical Judaism to put a stop to intermarriages. And they took it a step further—to not even talk with Gentiles, Samaritans, or Syrophonencians or anyone from outside their race.
How do you join? You don't. How do you talk about the possibility? You don't. How do you..? You don't.
As a consequence, family bonds were very strong—the family reputation was always at stake. The choices people made reflected on their family and on their village or community. It's still like that to some degree, but nothing like it was then. If your father was a baker, you were a baker, and you inherited the farm, the family business, or whatever, and you passed long the family name, the family reputation, all of it.
I remember when I was a teenager meeting a Jewish couple. As they spoke about their life, they kept mentioning "our son David." They never called him "David." It was always, "Our son David." They were very proud of him, and understandably so—but the affection in their voices and the sense of ownership (not the right word) they felt came through every time they said, "Our son David." Family.
But what if you can't give birth? Let's say that a Jewish man and woman wants to have children, and can't have children? Can they adopt? Well, it's different now, of course, but during the first century, adoption was not commonly practiced. The child may be Jewish, but wasn't the same. Sometimes a person could come into the family—sort of, kind of—but as a servant. That way they were fed, and clothed, and raised up, but they weren't really sons or daughters.
So imagine Jesus coming into this culture where sonship and family structure was very very strict. Imagine how it must have felt to hear him call God, "my Father." Or to teach his disciples to pray, "Our Father." Or imagine the sea change in hearing Jesus use the noun in a generic way, "The Father." It signaled a major transition in just the way that Jesus addressed God. John carries this scandalous language all the way through his Gospel. In fact, the first chapter—the Prologue—of John reads, "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God."[*]
In a culture that viewed family relationships so strictly, we cannot overestimate how subversive this language sounded.
So then we come to Paul, who is planting churches throughout Asia Minor and the cities of Greece, on up even into Rome. Paul was a learned man, a Pharisee by birth, and he has been moving in Greek, or Hellenistic circles where adoption would have been less of an issue—he can speak of adoption more freely amongst the Greek world, and so he does. He writes to the church in Rome:
"14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, 'Abba!* Father!' 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God,17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…
Paul is speaking of the Holy Spirit as God adopting us. When we find ourselves drawn to God by affection or conviction it is the Spirit of God drawing us to himself. Our yearning cry for unity with God is that of a son or daughter crying for the embrace of our parent.
The language is beautiful, and the meaning of it, rich. The sense of belonging to God is based on love, not lineage—or perhaps I should say, the lineage is granted to those who love.
But, see, this isn't just about a personal relationship with God. If all Christians have received this spirit of adoption then we are all brothers and sisters as well as children of God. And by putting the Church in those terms, it sets us apart from organizations that are based on everything else.
We are together on the basis of our sonship and daughtership with God, and our brotherly and sisterly affection for each other, not on the basis of our politics, or wealth or social status. Even though we continue to live in a fallen world where—at times—those aspects continue to haunt and divide us—it should not be so, according to Paul, and according to Jesus.
Pentecost celebrates the mystery that the same Holy Spirit that draws us to the Father and to each other is also the same Spirit that sends us out into the world in witness to this acceptance. No one should ever feel that they don't belong.
When I was at my last church, I came across this saying that I really liked, "Within these walls, let no one be a stranger." I liked it so much I got out an easel with that poster paper on it, and wrote it in big letters with a magic marker. I put it up in the parish hall. And it was there for one Sunday, and then the next. But then I went in the third Sunday and someone had torn it off the easel. (Pause.) Interesting.
It is our call, our charge, our role to go into all the world and preach this Gospel. God has become one of us and embraced us in Jesus, who loved us to death, and was raised from the dead. Through his resurrection we find acceptance, forgiveness from sin, and through his Holy Spirit we find ourselves part of a new community in order to draw others in.
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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel
[*] John 1.12,13