I was looking back through some family pictures this week and came across a series of pictures our family took almost 2 years ago. My parents had rented a house in North Georgia for a week and invited our family and my sister and her husband’s family to all come together for a vacation. It was a wonderful week with the 12 of us running around this beautiful home, swimming in the lake, and doing all those things families do on family vacations - - like take pictures. There were plenty of candid shots of kid jumping off the dock or fishing in the lake or roasting marshmallows for s’mores at a campfire, but one thing my mom insisted upon before we even got to Georgia was that we would take at least one big family picture before we leave. She even sent us a dress code.
Have you taken that kind of family picture in your lifetime? The kind where either everyone wears the same thing or at least you’re coordinated in some way? In our family picture we all had to wear white tops and denim bottoms. It sounds simple enough, and maybe it was for the rest of the family, but it was a struggle for us. I gave up white tops exactly eight years ago today on the day Karoline was born. I haven’t been able to keep a shirt white, mine or anyone else’s, since children entered our house. And at least one of our kids has an inexplicable aversion to denim. But this was the uniform for the picture, so even though it was just for a few minutes, we all put on our white and our denim and grinned and bore it. We didn’t want to look any different. We didn’t want to look like we didn’t belong!
Belonging is a deep human longing. In fact in his 1943 paper on “The Theory of Human Motivation” psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that belonging is the third tier in his hierarchy of human needs behind only physiological needs and the need for safety and security. Belonging is a deep human longing, and the church in Galatia was having a crisis of belonging. Paul had brought them the gospel, the good news that they belonged to God, that in Christ the blessing God had given to Abraham was now for them and for the whole world. Paul came to the Galatians with the good news that even though they hadn’t received the law, they had received the gift of grace and the gift of the faithfulness of Jesus, and by those gifts they belonged to the family of God.
They received it, and they believed it, especially right at first, but after Paul left it started to get a little fuzzy. They still wanted to belong to God, but with nothing physical and visible to really point to in front of them in order to say this is what gets me in the club, this is my uniform in the family picture, it was hard to remember how they belonged. Other teachers started showing up with suggestions for how they could be sure they belonged - - things they could do to give them reassurance that they were not alone in this larger family of faith. Appealing to the Jewish law, other Jewish followers of Jesus began to teach them to incorporate the law into their daily living – urging the Galatians to live according to the covenant as they always had, keeping Sabbath, practicing circumcision, adhering to food restrictions.
The law for the people of Israel was always a sign of who they were and to whom they belonged, both on a macro scale and a micro scale. On the large scale, the law defined them as God’s people, separate and different from the people around them who worshiped other deities. They were the only people who set aside one day for rest and total trust in God. They were the only people who obeyed rules about what could and couldn’t be eaten. They even had laws about how their clothes were made, how fibers couldn’t be mixed in one cloth, which represented purity and singularlity of their devotion to God. On a smaller scale the law gave them a sense of belonging in certain human sub-groups. There were different laws for male and female. There were different laws for different social classes, for slave and free. There were different laws for Israelites and foreigners. When God established the law within it God even helped meet our human need for belonging by giving different laws to different parts of the human family that we might have built-in communities of belonging.
So when the Galatians were struggling to remember that they belonged some other teachers, still followers of Jesus, but followers who had been Jewish first, not Gentile, began to offer them some new old ways to feel like they belong. When the Galatians couldn’t quite grasp that it was the faith that they had received that united them and gave them a divine spiritual family, these other teachers began to divide them along lines according to their human conditions so they could feel like they belonged.
We’re still tempted to do this even today in the church. It doesn’t look quite the same; we’re not swayed by teachers telling us we need to where certain clothes or eat certain food or change our bodies just to fit into the family of God. Yet we’re tempted even today in the church to organize ourselves officially or unofficially into groups that reassure us that we really do belong. Officially or unofficially, we think of our church as made up of youth and adults. Officially or unofficially, we divide ourselves along boundaries of age. We have children and youth and adults. Even within adults we have young adults, middle-age adults, and those who have lived through many seasons of life. Officially or unofficially, we divide ourselves along lines of newer members and “old-timers.” Officially or unofficially, we divide ourselves into groups of music-makers and music-appreciators. And in the latter category we sometimes divide according to the kind of music we appreciate.
That these categories exist is neither good nor bad inherently. Just as in Galatia there were Jew and Greek, there were male and female, there were slave and free; there wasn’t anything Paul or anyone else could do about these facts. But the problem came when the people were led to believe that because of these categories they had to live in different ways, because of these categories they had to separate themselves from one another. The problem came when the people were tempted to look to these divisions to meet their human need for belonging instead of looking to God and the whole family God gave them through the faith of Jesus Christ. The problem comes when we let these divisions keep us from growing close in fellowship and love to the whole family of faith in the church, when we let these divisions keep us in our smaller, insular groupings of like-minded or similarly-experienced people.
We try to let ourselves off the hook all the time by saying it’s natural to want to spend time with people who have similar needs and struggles and joys. And it is. That’s why much of the world is organized that way. That’s why there are mom’s groups, and professional organizations, and biking clubs, and sports fan clubs, patrons of the art museum, friends of the science museum. These aren’t bad, but they aren’t how the church is called to live. Our first calling is to put on Christ. Our sense of belonging comes from our shared gift of faith. Our family is the WHOLE family and when we neglect our call to relationship with the whole family and give priority to our smaller divisions within the larger body we are missing the whole point of the gospel.
Our unity comes not from which laws we follow or to which smaller group we belong; our unity comes from the one who made the law and created the human experience. For Paul tells us that in the gospel of Jesus, the divisions of this world don’t matter. In the gospel of Jesus, we are united in our need for a savior to redeem us from the pits we dig that separate us from God and one another. In the gospel of Jesus, inequities are stripped away and all we are left with is our common need for the love of God. In the gospel of Jesus, we are brought together into a new family that isn’t based on nationality or gender or age or social status or anything else that divides our human experience. In the gospel of Jesus, we put on a different family uniform, in our baptisms we put on Christ, and he is the one who makes us belong.
This is why the Christian Education Committee works to provide opportunities for growing in faith together across the spectrum of ages. Where else in society are the 9 year old and the 90 year old united in much of anything, but in the family of Christ. This is why we seek a balance of genders in the leadership of our church. This is why we provide a variety of worship experiences and styles on Sunday morning when the whole family gathers, because we are called to live together in our diversity, not divide along its lines.
Yes, it’s natural to want to find people who are just like us and share our experiences. It’s natural to congregate at our favorite tables in Fellowship Hall or in the narthex with our usual suspects. But it’s our calling to do something else. It’s our calling to seek out the people we don’t know well. It’s our calling to live into our unity in our diversity. It’s our calling to eliminate from our vocabulary, “This church has grown and changed so much there are people I don’t know,” or “I’m new and our paths don’t cross so I haven’t met her yet.” It’s our calling to see the whole church as our family and to get up out of our natural groupings to make spiritual family a tangible reality. It’s our calling, and it’s our blessing of belonging, now and forever. Amen.