This morning, I am beginning a series of sermons, entitled “Called Out.” The title comes from the word in the New Testament word that is translated for the church. The word is ekklesia, and it literally means “the community that is called out.” We, the church, are not a collection of individuals who gather once a week. We are a community. We are not a private sect or club that gathers in secret where only members are welcome. We are a public community. The church is a public community that is called out of darkness to walk in the light of Christ so that the world can see a picture of the kingdom of God.
From now until Pentecost, I want to explore with you what it means to be the called out people of God, and today I want to say that it means we are called out to belong.
The desire to belong is, I believe, one of our deepest human needs. Professor of Ministry and Sociologist Jack Stewart, writes, “When one tallies the opinions of prominent social scientists such as Robert Bellah, Wade Clark Roof, and Robert Wuthnow, the quest to belong to community may be the defining societal feature of our time.” In an age where communities change quickly, where people are transient, in an age where technology connects us with hundreds of people scattered far and wide, while at the same time we do not know our neighbor. The defining societal feature of our time is the quest to belong to community.
When we were preparing to move to North Carolina, we had a James Taylor CD in the car singing the state song of our future home.
“In my mind I’m going to Carolina. (You can sing it with me)
Can’t you see the sunshine, can’t you just feel the moonshine?
Ain’t it just like a friend of mine to hit me from behind?
Yes, I’m going to Carolina in my mind.”
You probably know that James Taylor grew up outside of Chapel Hill, and he wrote that song while he was working in Europe. He was stuck on the Island of Ibiza and homesick for the place he belonged — Carolina. Now UNC Chapel Hill folks like to think he was talking just about the University, but he was not! It’s been said that Carolina in My Mind is really an anthem for Carolinians who have left. If you are from Carolina you can’t hear it without feeling homesick.
The longing for home is the longing to belong, to be at home in a place and with a community. To belong is as important as shelter because belonging is shelter for the soul. To belong to a community is for your soul to be at home. To belong to a place is to find your soul at home in that place. Belonging is shelter for the soul.
Frederick Buechner said that, “the longing for home is so universal a form of longing, there is even a special name for it and that name of course is homesickness.” Belonging is one of our deepest human needs. The grace that the Christian church has to offer the world is to say, “You belong. You are no longer strangers and wanderers. God is building a home, and you are a part of it.
In Ephesians 2, Paul is describing the new community that Christ has created through the cross and resurrection. He’s writing to a society in Ephesus that was divided in multiple ways. Many of the people he was writing to were familiar with the division between Jew and Gentile. Many more in that part of Asia-Minor were familiar with the division between Roman citizen and alien.
To the Jews, the Gentiles were aliens to God. The, the Greeks, the nations of the world, were simply wandering on the earth without God. To the Gentiles, the the Jews were aliens to the empire of Rome. They were not citizens. They were outsiders in a foreign land. Divisions ran deep in this community of Ephesus and Paul writes to them — in Eugene Peterson’s translation —
“You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone.”
To the Gentiles, who in the eyes of the Jews were wandering without God, Paul writes: you are no longer an outsider, you belong here. To the Jews, whom the Gentiles thought were second-class human beings because they were not citizens of the empire, Paul writes: you are no longer an outsider, you belong here.
Paul continues: “God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building.” The community of Jesus Christ is a community of belonging. It is a community where the wanderer can come home. It is a community where strangers become family. The church is a community of where our unity is deeper than our differences and we belong to one another.
This proclamation of belonging is always made into a world divisions run deep and belonging is hard to come by. We live in an age that appears to be more divided and more fragmented than ever before. There are very good reasons to think we are living in a time when social and political divisions are heightened and amplified more than ever before. Religious division run like a jagged wall through our world. Religious divisions cause so much pain, some just walk away from religion altogether. Racial division runs like a wall through our city and through cities across this country. 50 years later from the great civil rights, we now see vividly that division still exists. Political division in this election season grabs the headlines every day, and pits communities and regions one against another. Beliefs about gender identity and marriage courses through our society like a dividing wall. Economic status, always a wall of division, is a higher wall now than it has been in over a hundred years.
Walls run through our world. And the most perplexing part is that when you are looking at a wall, it’s often hard to tell which wall you are looking at. Social analysts and commentators argue over which wall lies where and divides how. Is this wall a religious division? Or this wall a socio-economic division. We know there is a wall here. But what are the bricks made of? Are they political? Or are the bricks racial? It sometimes impossible to tell. And maybe the bricks of the wall are made of many kinds., but all of them say one thing: you don’t belong.
You don’t belong in this neighborhood. Get out. You don’t belong in this part of town. Get out. You don’t belong in this school. Get out. You don’t belong in this country. Get out. Go back where you came from. These words are said. And they are felt far more often than they are said. Even in our own city, the walls are present. Walk into a grocery store and stroll through downtown, and you will see the wall. Take a tour of the schools in our community, and you will see the wall. Go to a political rally, or open the newspaper and you will see the wall. Drive out of Asheville and into our larger area, and you will see the wall. It is high and it runs deep, and it has a long history, and it is often hard to tell exactly what the bricks are made of — but we know it is there.
So Paul says to the Ephesians, “Christ has broken down the dividing wall.” Do we believe that? In Christ there is peace, there is reconciliation. Is that true? If you are acquainted with the walls that run through our world, you might think that sounds like a pipe dream. Of course, it sounded like a pipe dream to the Ephesians too.
From our vantage point, this division between Jew and Gentile doesn’t look that serious. But it was as deep and serious a division as any that we face. The dividing wall between Jew and Gentile was social, political, racial, economic, and theological. Listen to how Paul describes the situation of the Gentiles.
He begins by reminding the Gentiles that they were called “the uncircumcision” by those who were called “the circumcision.” Now this is far more than a physical characteristic. Being the “uncircumcision” means that you were completely outside of God’s promise and people. Paul describes it this way: you were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. Aliens. Strangers. No Hope. Without God. Their division was as real as any of ours.
To them, Paul says, “Christ is our peace…. He has broken down the dividing wall.” The dividing wall Paul was talking about was the law, the commandments and ordinances that defined who was a Jew and who was not a Jew. Those commandments and ordinances defined where God was present and where God was not present. They defined who was welcome in God’s household and who was not welcome.
Paul writes that Christ has broken down all of that, has made in himself one new humanity. In one body, through the cross, Christ has made peace. Christ has put to death the hostility and made peace. Christ has proclaimed peace to those who are near and to those who are far.
Into a divided world, Christ came to make peace. Christ has destroyed the walls that run through our world. Religious, ethnic, political, socio-economic, racial. Christ has declared that these walls are sin, and they are destroyed. In order to make this plain to the world, the church is called out to be a community where the peace of Christ can be seen in living color. The one humanity that Christ has made is not a person, but a community of persons.
The new humanity is a community where peace is spoken, where hostility has been put to death. The new humanity is a community where there are differences, but there are no divisions. The new humanity is a community where we need one another. There is no such thing as individual salvation, there is salvation in the community of Jesus Christ. We need to belong to one another if have any hope of belonging to God.
I believe a great church is a community where this kind of new humanity becomes a reality. When a person comes to visit a church for the first time, there is one key question that is almost always in the back of their minds. Beyond the details of where do I park, or how to do I get in, or where in the bathroom, or who is preaching. When a person first comes to a church, the question in the back of our minds is: Do I belong here? Could this be home for me?
The answer God gives in Christ Jesus is yes, you belong. Of course, the church has often not been very good at giving that answer. Often the church turns inward. We have talked to one another in a circle, and failed to welcome the stranger who is coming home. Often the church has put new walls constructed of all the bricks that make us different from others, and failed to see that Christ has proclaimed peace to all. The church has often given in to the ease of being with people like us, rather growing into unity with those who are very different.
But that is not the gift of Jesus Christ to the church and the world. The gift of Jesus Christ through the church is a gift of belonging. It is the gift of a unity that is deeper than any of our divisions. It is the gift of a community where we can have differences, without having divisions. For Christ has made us one. We belong to each other. With each of us, God is building a home where God’s spirit can dwell. We need each other, as much as that wall needs that wall to support that roof. We need each other. We are not the same; we have different opinions and experiences and backgrounds and beliefs. We have differences, but we have no divisions. Because Christ has made us one.
Christ gives us this gift of community, to offer to a world that is seeking home. A gift of a community without walls to offer to a world that is homesick and longing to belong to one another. We have this gift through Jesus Christ. If only we will live with it, and practice it, and share it in the name of God. Amen.