This morning I want to ask you this: do you recall, do you remember the moment when you chose to be part of this church, First Presbyterian in Fairfield? Do you remember? I wonder what compelled you to chose this church – why did it seem like the right place for you and your family? I wonder if you were drawn to this beautiful sanctuary and all that fills it in worship – the music, the preaching, the liturgy. I wonder if it was because of the people – maybe they’re the reason you’ve grown roots in this place. I wonder if you were baptized here, cannot remember not being here, and at some point claimed it as your own. I wonder if you grew up Presbyterian; or I wonder if that had nothing to do with your choice.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the hey day of organized religion in the United States, there was a pattern almost everyone followed, or at least we appeared to. We woke on Sunday, got into dress clothes, went to Sunday school and worship, and topped it off with a hearty lunch. On Easter Sunday the clothes were new and, perhaps, a bit fancier and the lunch was often at a restaurant.
If you were new to town, you quickly found a respectable church, and sometimes in the first few months you went to a new members’ class. Before you started the class, and while in it, you tacitly or intentionally learned how to behave. People here wear this; we don’t wear that. We stand at this time, appreciate this sort of music, conduct ourselves in this manner, and so forth. During this time, in the class, you made sure you understood what these Presbyterians or Methodists or Catholics believed. At the end of the class, you confessed that you believed it too. And then, finally, you joined. You became a member, and at that point, you officially belonged.
Behave, believe, belong. This has been the predominant sequence of how people came to church for the better part of the 20th century in North America. It begins with behavior – you have to start shaping up; do as we say and as we do. If you’re lucky, we might start letting you see some of the less important ways to serve. That’s the traditional starting point. From there, we learn how to “believe” – doctrines, creeds, that which we profess, that which we put our trust in. After which we belong – we are part of a family of faith, a tribe. We have a place in this world.
Behave. Believe. Belong. This is the way North American Christians, by and large, have been choosing to be part of church for the vast majority of our lifetimes. But the curious thing is, when you pay attention to how Jesus worked, how He transformed confused or dubious individuals into disciples, you see that Jesus didn’t follow this well-worn methodology. In fact, He did it the other way around.
And, if we think about it honestly, we would have to agree that we’ve gotten it backwards. We may just have created an elite religious club that will turn them away after they’ve been here but a short time. I mean how can we expect newcomers who would be non-believers (unless we’re simply flock swapping), how can we expect them to behave like us and have it all together if they have no earthly idea where they put “it” or even what “it” is?
Just look at how the disciples and Mary responded to the idea of Jesus’ resurrection that first Easter. These were people who had spent years with Christ. Jesus had spoken to them numerous times about His death and resurrection. He’d made analogies, He’d looked them in the eye, He’d warned them of what was to come – the bad and the good. They’d even seen, first-hand, Jesus raise people from the dead and yet, as the disciples ran away from the tomb, John says they didn’t understand. And Mary? She talked to two angels who confirmed Jesus’ resurrection, and still she wept and was confused. If you’re sitting here this Easter morning and you’re not exactly sure you know how you’re supposed to behave, and if you’re not exactly sure you believe, then listen closely: You’re in the right place.
The people who were most in the know didn’t know what was going on. They weren’t even close to having it all figured out. Those who should have had their doctrines nailed down and who should have been displaying behavior that confirmed their steadfast faith undoubtedly were not at all sure this was real, and they were behaving strangely. The gardener walks up to Mary and she questions him as if it is entirely logical that a gardener would be messing around with a dead body. But then he says her name, and it all begins to fall into place – and the order has been reversed.
First, before you behave or you believe, you belong. First, God says, know that I know who you are. I know your name. “Mary, it’s me,” Jesus says.
You see, Mary had experienced Jesus as a young woman. In both Luke and Mark’s accounts she met Jesus early on in His ministry, and she was a mess. The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus cast seven demons from her. You don’t forget that anytime soon. But the Jesus who stands before her now, she doesn’t recognize. Jesus says, “Who is it you are looking for?” Maybe she doesn’t recognize this Jesus because there’s been some time between her dramatic experience of knowing Jesus when she needed desperately to be known and forgiven. Maybe she’s grown used to listening to the teacher, trying so hard to believe, working so hard to behave like the respectable woman that she so badly wants to be. Or maybe, like most of us, she doesn’t expect to see a dead man strolling through a garden. And then Jesus, the gardener, says her name. And that changes everything. She belongs. And we need to remember that, first and foremost, we belong, too.
We are all born into this world belonging – accepted by God who has reconciled Himself to humanity in and through the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ; that is the glorious truth of this Easter morning. Of course, we don’t at first know this – and some go through all their lives not knowing (and experiencing the pain that come in that darkness). But the Holy Spirit is actively at work to help people come to know that they belong. In most cases, we experience a sense of belonging even before we fully understand. It’s our commitment as the Body of Christ (the Church) to help people experience the stunning truth that they truly do belong. And so we reach out to all people – non-believers included; especially non-believers. We know they belong, and we want them to experience that fully and unconditionally. And so we seek to embrace unbelievers. We go, with God’s love, to them. And we welcome them with open arms when they come to us.
As a person experiences that they belong, they begin to see themselves and God in a different light. This change is a gift from the Holy Spirit – an openness to believe what they formerly rejected, or simply were unaware of. As a disciple-making church, we seek to nurture believers – helping them believe by clearly presenting the basics of the gospel, which tells of the love of Jesus Christ and what he has done to save humanity. Our emphasis is not on rules, but on God’s grace in Christ, for we believe that it is by grace that we are saved, and that through grace we are transformed into the likeness of Jesus. And so we seek to nurture believers. We do so in many ways, including providing the nourishment that comes through clearly and accurately teaching the gospel as it is proclaimed in Holy Scripture, the Bible.
A believers being in Christ is a behaving as a becoming. As believers grow deeper in the faith, hope and love of Jesus, the Holy Spirit begins to shape and mold them into the likeness of Jesus. This does not mean that He is transforming them into a first century Jewish rabbis. But it does mean that He is transforming them into who they have been created to be in Christ.
Living into that new creation includes engaging more and more as workers in the ministry that Jesus is doing, through the Spirit in our world. Each believer has a particular calling to share in the ministry of Jesus, and so disciple-making churches seek to equip workers. This equipping takes on many forms, but the primary emphasis is learning through doing – giving emerging workers opportunity to apprentice in ministries relevant to their gifts, interests and callings. Together, we seek to engage actively and skillfully in what Jesus is doing in our world to multiply and mature his followers. As workers mature, some are called and gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve as leaders within the church. And so we seek to follow the Spirit’s lead in multiplying new leaders.
As we move through this Easter Season, we will explore the ways in which Christ lived out a gospel of homecoming and modeled the primary need for and power of belonging, even before we know what exactly we believe or what we are to become. I hope you can join us as we look at Belong, Believe, Become.
Friends, here’s my Easter confession: I don’t fully understand the resurrection. Never will. You’ll never fully understand it either. And none of us will ever behave the way we think we’re supposed to, but know this: You belong. You have a place here. You are known and you belong. That’s a good place to start.