“The Power of Belonging”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
3rd Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 5B)
The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Our fundamental identity is Christian, as those baptized into the Body of Christ. Now we are brothers and sisters of Christ and each other because we have done the will of God and drawn near to the Savior.
This is easier said than done. To place baptism first means to reject the kinds of identities that so often separate us and segregate us. None of those identities has been more destructive in American history than race. The Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings puts it this way:
“The central tragedy of the racial condition is how it has stolen from the Church its revolutionary power of belonging in Christ. People from vastly different regions, histories, and ways of life through the optic of race imagine themselves or imagine others as part of a white race, or a black race, or something in-between. The point here is not how they designate themselves. The point is the power to imagine connection, belonging. In almost all cases such racial imagining is always stronger, more enduring, and more decisive than ecclesial [church] belonging. Moreover, even in places where other forms of belonging are strong - of clan, tribe, or people - the church, crippled by its colonialist born disease, is utterly impotent in the face of ethnic strife, becoming in many cases simply the church of a particular people and not a place for the radical belonging of all people. Thus the Church itself has been baptized into racial existence and is in need of a way forward.” (Jennings, “Being Baptized: Race.” p. 284)
The problem isn’t that we identify as black, white, Latino/a, or Native American. The problem is that these identities often provide more meaning to our lives than the fact that we are Christian. For most people, Christian identity has not proven itself to be the most important marker. It hasn’t changed behavior.
For example, during the American Civil War, very few church leaders called for ceasefire or challenged the popular calls for war. Very few clergy in the South called for the end of slavery and peaceful reunification with the USA. Most denominations split in half at the start of the war, becoming essentially churches of the Union or churches of the Confederacy, not churches of Jesus Christ. The Episcopal Church reunited almost immediately after the war, but during the war, the Stephen Elliott, Bishop of Georgia, was the Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. And while some brave souls did speak up for peace and justice in the name of Jesus, hardly anyone listened. People remained in their racial and national silos.
This isn’t entirely the fault of people of color, of course. Our racial condition is the result of European colonialism. Black and brown people didn’t choose not to be a part of European led churches. We were excluded. At times we have been forced to segregate into ethnic or racial enclaves for our own protection from the powers of white supremacy. We all know that that’s why there exist such a thing as black Episcopal churches.
But when someone crosses those boundaries, people notice (for good or ill). That’s precisely the kind of behavior that got Jesus in trouble. He was going around Galilee preaching and teaching a message of love and reconciliation. He was telling people to love God and love their neighbor. But then he also added that they should love their enemies. They should walk an extra mile with their Roman oppressors. They should turn the other cheek to face a slavemaster who would disrespectfully hit them on the right cheek.
So as the crowds gather around Jesus to hear this Good News, his family comes out to restrain him because they thought he had gone crazy. He was telling people to love those who hate them. He was telling people to love their enemies and oppressors. He was going too far.
When confronted by this accusation, Jesus reframes the very meaning of family. “Who are my mother and my brothers? … Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother!” Family isn’t defined by blood relations, or by human constructs like race, ethnicity, or nation. Our family is given to us by God. Those who do the will of God, who follow Jesus into the waters of baptism are more closely tied together than your hand is to your arm. We have become One Body in Christ.
That means tearing down dividing walls. It means that the things that are supposed to separate us no longer have that kind of power over us. When we are baptized, we aren’t simply becoming part of a clique or inner circle. We aren’t baptized into the Body of St. Matthew’s or the Body of Episcopalians or the Body of Black Christians. We’re baptized into Jesus’ Body. We are incorporated into something bigger and better than we can imagine.
So to break down the divisions of race or ethnicity or nationality, we’ll have to do the really difficult work of joining and belonging. The Holy Spirit of God is more powerful than the racial imagination. But we have all succumbed to the idolatry of race because of the world we inherited from our predecessors. All of us believe that we have a kinship, even a natural kinship, to people who look like us. We don’t always believe we belong with other Christians. How can we change that sad fact?
Perhaps the only solution left -- the only solution there ever was --- is to form genuine friendships with “others.” We need to see each other as people, real human beings, in order to love one another. We must work on becoming a community of belonging for all people. And we can’t be a community for all in the abstract. It has to be specific and concrete. Nobody really loves everybody. You start with the people you know and you say over time, “I love you.” The challenging part for a church community can be when the Christian call to love anyone bumps up against our deeply ingrained forms of racial, ethnic, or national identity.
Dr. Jennings says, "Baptism means that our baptized loved one may, by the desire of the Spirit of God working in them, decide to love other we don't want them to love, others we don't like, others that we believe are troublesome and that we do not want among us” (p. 286).
Even in the Church’s checkered past, there have been shining examples of people crossing racial boundaries in the name of Jesus. The Most Rev. Desmond Tutu, retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, witnessed to a Love that breaks down human-built barriers and divisions.
Apartheid was a system of institutionalized racial segregation and oppression enacted in South Africa in the second half of the 20th century. Much like in the USA, black people were legally sectioned off into ghettos, discriminated against in job hiring, and forced to comply at threat of injury, arrest, or death. Abp. Tutu spoke out against these injustices throughout his long ministry, and used his public influence to change policy peacefully over the course of many years.
After the Apartheid party was ousted from governemnt in the 1990s, Abp. Tutu helped to design the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many white people had committed heinous crimes against blacks, violating human rights and dignity. Under Tutu’s and President Nelson Mandela’s leadership, white criminals were offered pardon for their apartheid-era crimes against blacks under one condition: confess these crimes publicly to any surviving victims.
This powerful civic act worked wonders for South Africa’s ability to heal and change as a nation over the last two decades. But many people criticized this decision. Didn’t criminals need to be punished? Shouldn’t they suffer in the same way they caused others to suffer? In the name of Jesus, Abp. Tutu said no. Forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation were possible. Violence doesn’t need to make more violence. We can love people from other races, even those who have hurt us. Tutu shows us what it’s like to love those whom they are not supposed to love, because that’s the kind of God whom we follow.
God calls us to expand our imagination of who belongs, who is worthy of our love and friendship. True love and friendship in Christ is not the same as assimilation. It’s not being absorbed into another culture or racial identity in order to fit in. It’s about choosing “to become different, never leaving who [we] are behind but joining who [we] are to who [we] are becoming” (Jennings, p. 288). Me and you and stay me and you while being transformed into new creations together. That is the ministry of reconciliation at the heart of the Gospel. That’s how Jesus can transform us into brothers and sisters, not apart, but together. Amen.
Jennings, Willie James. "Being Baptized: Race." In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, 2nd edition, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.