If there’s one thing that will happen across America in the next couple of weeks, it’s the gathering of family members and friends to “have Christmas” together. After all, no one wants to be alone at Christmas, unless I suppose it’s a choice between being alone or entertaining notorious relatives like Cousin Eddie in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Whether you’re observing the religious significance of the day or not, there’s widespread agreement that “Christmas isn’t Christmas” if you’re alone through it all.
Some might argue that these gatherings are simply nice traditions we’ve developed to make the holidays different from the rest of the year, but, according to social psychologists, we all, to varying degrees, have a need to belong with others.
Not sure we really needed psychologists to figure that one out, seeing as how we all knew that already, but whatever. Good to have confirmation I suppose.
But not only do doctors confirm this truth, so do artists and writers and musicians. Seventeenth century English poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” Four hundred years later, Billy Joel wrote the lyrics to “I Don’t Want to Be Alone.” Donne and Joel, and countless other poets, songwriters, philosophers, psychologists and theologians agree: As a species, humans do not like being alone—at least not all the time. While many of us introverts crave alone time, we do still long for community and togetherness.
Human beings have a need to give affection to others and receive it in return; it’s one of the forces that urges us to connect with others. And most of us will do such connecting aplenty throughout the Christmas season and, to some manner or another, throughout the rest of the year as well. We have a year-round need to belong.
With all of that in mind, hear what the apostle Paul wrote to early Christians in Rome: “… through [Jesus Christ] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”
This scripture reminds us that we “are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” But what does that mean? We can get some sense of that by considering what belonging in general does for us.
We belong to our spouses, to families, to friends, to congregations, to church groups, to clubs, to political parties and so on. Some of these associations are by birth and kinship, but many are by choice—a choice that was made from many other options and possibilities before us.
For the sake of unpacking the need to belong notion, let’s step into this a little more concisely.
Say for instance, I am a member of our church’s immensely talented and gifted chancel choir. That says something about my interests, my values and my willingness to participate in worship; and it points to a group of people with whom I identify.
But it also says something about what has drawn me to belong to the choir. It may have been my enjoyment of singing and for music but more likely it was because someone in the choir invited me to join—the choir was an option and a possibility of a place where I could belong.
We all want to belong because belonging is done by invitation—which has as part of its nuance, acceptance and welcome. Think of our relationships—all of them were by invitation where were accepted and welcomed. Belonging to Jesus is the same way—it’s always by invitation.
When Paul talks about those “called to belong,” the emphasis should not be just on “belong” but on “called to belong” which is another word for “invitation.”
Belonging brings significant benefits. Anyone who went through High School knows this. Belong to the right group, the cool “clique” and the benefits are enormous. Don’t belong to the right group and you’re on the outside looking in, longing to belong. But the belonging that Paul is talking about when he says, “…including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” has far more reaching benefits.
When we belong to Christ’s community, we receive care from those to whom we are now in community with. In our times of pain or need, friends and relatives— even members of the choir if we belong to it—are sources of great care and comfort. In times of joy, those with whom we fellowship rejoice with us. Through such times of comfort and support, and in the rituals and ordinances of the church, such as dedication, baptism, first Communion, graduation, wedding, birth, funeral— we are able to say, “This faith and this congregation are my home. I belong here.”
The Apostle Paul understood the human need to belong—and he was addressing it to the Romans and to us. The Apostle Paul understood the motivation such a need produced to explore the options and possibilities of belonging. The Apostle Paul understood the immense power of invitation to be in community. And the Apostle Paul understood God’s call as a powerful word of invitation that offered a new life that brought hope and peace. And hope and peace always lead to joy.
Now it should come as no surprise, just as belonging has its benefits, belonging brings with it responsibilities as well.
Your family expects you to show up at the family Christmas gathering, and, if you don’t, you’ll have to answer to Grandma. The word “community,” when referring to people and not to a place, denotes the obligations, efforts, skills and services that we bring to one another, what we have partly “in common.” So, if that love is not there, you have to wonder, “What’s the point? Why belong, anyway?”
When we “belong,” there’s a responsibility to love, uphold and help one another. If there’s to be any sense of community among us, love, you could say, is obligatory. But belonging is more than obligatory. Our response to belonging should naturally derive from the relationship itself.
We can better understand responsibility as a part of belonging when we realize that a contrasting term to “community” is “immunity”, and that word means “not under obligation” or “exempt.” No responsibility.
A parallel word, as well as a biblical word for this sense of community is “covenant”, which is applied not only to relationships between people, but also to the connection between God and people.
Covenant is a “belonging” word. But covenant is also a word of obligation, of responsibility. We are called to love God and love our neighbor as we love our self. We may not think of those things as obligations, but in fact they are. For there can be no full community or covenant with God without them. Just as God takes on obligations and responsibilities to us, we accept responsibilities and obligations to God.
Among the responsibilities belonging lays on us is the expectation that we will reflect the values of our group or family. Belonging to God then means we should act and live like people of God.
Now it is certainly an option and a possibility that by not embracing the values of our families and friends— by becoming notorious like Cousin Eddie—these groups will turn us away.
We can, likewise, distance ourselves from God, we can break from the covenant, chose other options and possibilities before us, but as the parable of the prodigal son teaches us, God is eager for us to return so God can put the ring of belonging on our finger.
Belonging is a fundamental need of all human beings because belonging meets and nurtures us with the life giving assurance that we are not alone, that we matter, that we are loved. Belonging though, just as it has benefits, it has responsibilities. But they are worth the effort because belonging brings forth life that has hope; that has peace. And when you have hope and peace, you can always find joy.
In my years of preaching, I have discovered that the Lectionary can be an obtuse entity—especially during Advent. Some of the texts never seem very Christmassy, and some don’t even make sense within the season whatsoever. Case in point today.
This is Paul’s opening salutation to the Romans, which is really a lot of fluff about who he and they are. But there is this subtle reminder—a simple little phrase that becomes a nuance for what he is saying and doing. It happens when he references Jesus as descending from David.
Paul, in just these few opening verse, slyly takes us the readers all the way back to the early days and times of God’s promise, of God’s covenant—of a time when God was living up to the covenant established in Abraham and Sara, and coming to full reality in David, and how now that same covenant, promise, responsibility, hope, and peace was still being presented as an option and possibility today. And just as it was then with David, it was so today in Jesus—an invitation to belong—an invitation to hope, an invitation to peace, an invitation to joy. And that is Christmas.
The season of the year when we are reminded that though we human beings have fallen away from God, though we have choose paths that took us away, though we saw a greater allure to the options and possibilities in this world, God still comes to us offering a better option and a better possibility through the birth of Jesus. It is God’s invitation to us, to belong, again, to God, no matter what.
No one wants to be along at Christmas. But no one wants to be alone any other time of the year either. The birth of Jesus, the coming of the Messiah, shows us God’s level of commitment to live up to, and live out, the covenant God made to us that we would never be alone. It is as if God is saying, Christmas isn’t Christmas without you.
So may we hear again God’s invitation to belong. May we respond to it. May we accept it. May we share it with others… because when we do, then this invitation will lead us back to a covenant of belonging that will give us hope and peace. And hope and peace always lead to joy. Amen.