Our society teaches us that we belong solely to ourselves, and while this can seem freeing, we are burdened with constantly trying to respond to the question “Who am I?”. A better question to ask is “Whose am I?”, and as people created by God, we ultimately belong to God and not ourselves. Like Jesus’ first disciples, choosing to belong to Christ and finding our identity and worth in him is the key to an abundant and joyful life.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Luke 5:1-11
I still like listening to the songs I grew up with in the 60’s and 70’s. The other day I heard an old classic by the group The Duprees called “You Belong to Me”.
The song is about someone who’s significant other travels all over the world, and the one at home is reminding them that while they’re away, always remember that “You belong to me”.
Here’s how the song begins: “See the pyramids along the Nile, watch the sunrise on a tropic isle, just remember darling all the while, you belong to me.” (You’ll have to pay to hear the rest of the song. Maybe I’ll sing it at a karaoke night sometimes.)
We humans were created to belong. Our Creator did not wire us to live in isolation.
That’s a big reason why this pandemic has been so hard to live with for the past two years– we have felt isolated from people and from groups that we have some sense of belonging to—family, friends, schools, colleagues, clubs, church.
The 17th century poet, John Donne, wrote a poem called “No man is an island”. Thomas Merton wrote a book with that same title that had a big influence on my life.
Simon and Garfunkel sang the haunting song “I am a rock. I am an island. I am shielded in my armor, I touch no one and no one touches me.
And it’s clear that they were depicting the pain of loneliness, of not belonging, in a sarcastic way when they closed the song with the words “and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”
God created us humans for companionship not only with each other, but to enjoy fellowship with our Creator Himself.
Saint Augustine writes in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
This beautiful quote points to a profound truth, that we will never be completely at peace until we realize that ultimately, we belong to God, and then grow deeper in living in communion with the God who created us.
Prayer is one of the keys to nurturing our relationship with God, as we have been seeing as we have been reading What if Jesus was Serious about Prayer? by Skye Jethani.
Our scripture story today is ultimately a story of belonging.
Jesus is inviting Peter, James and John to belong to a movement to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, and to go even deeper, Jesus is inviting them to belong to him, he who is God in human form.
This encounter by the Sea of Galilee is the initial invitation to join their lives with his and become his disciples. And then over the three years that they were together on earth, there were times that Jesus reminded them that their identity was rooted in him and not anything else.
For example, in John chapter 15, Jesus describes belonging to him using the image of the vine and the branches. I am the vine, you are the branches, he says, Abide in me, and I in you.
Other versions say “live in me” “Make your home in me” “remain in me”, “stay connected to me”, like branches belong to a vine that is the source of their life.
When there’s this close connection, when our identity is found in belonging to Christ, Jesus says, my joy will be in you, and your joy will be full. (John 15:11)
Why is it that so often we don’t experience this joy of belonging to Christ?
Joy may be one of the fruits of the spirit, but sometimes it seems about as hard to find as a perfectly ripe avocado in the grocery store to make guacamole with. Not hard like a rock, or soft like a rotten banana, but just the right amount of ripeness.
Too often, instead of joy, we experience despair or burnout, instead of the contentment that comes from resting in God, we find ourselves restless and fatigued, as St. Augustine said.
Could this disconnect, this lack of joy, have to do with identity and belonging, with how we see and understand ourselves?
I’ve been reading a fascinating book lately that is helping me sort through these questions. (Cue holding book up in sermon) “You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an inhuman world” by Alan Noble.
I want to share a few ideas and insights, I would say truths from the book about identity and belonging.
Near the beginning of the book, Noble talks about this phenomenon called “Zoochosis”. Zoochosis is what lions and some other big cats do when they are in captivity in a zoo-
They pace back and forth, back and forth, over and over again, for no reason.
Noble says that in some ways we humans experience our own type of Zoochosis-we live in an environment that was not made for us, that creates conditions that are inhuman. (p. 11)
Some of these inhuman conditions are things like 1) a distorted view of sex, manifested by objectifying people as sex objects, which robs them of their humanity;
Another inhuman condition is a consumer society that fosters overconsumption (some weeks it seems like I get Amazon package deliveries every day of the week);
Another inhuman condition is a healthcare industry that is more concerned about profits instead of wanting people to live healthy lives and get the care that they need;
The difference between us and the lion at the zoo, Noble says, is that we humans are more successful at treating our Zoochosis than a lion is.
Our society has devised all kinds of ways for us to cope, survive, and deal with the inhuman conditions we live in.
But he says that the root of the problem remains, and it has to do with how we understand identity and belonging.
Noble says that our society is built around the premise that we belong to ourselves, and that we are wholly responsible for our lives. When this is the case, the primary question we ask is “Who am I?”
And we spend our whole lives trying to answer that question. Self-discovery is our contemporary hero’s journey.
Noble says that we like and we value the idea of belonging to ourselves, because that’s part of what it means to have freedom and autonomy. American culture idolizes mavericks and free thinkers.
He says we always need a reason to live, a vision of the good life to work toward, so our lives make sense.
And it can be a very exciting and rewarding journey at times, that takes courage to navigate. Noble quotes Brene Brown as an example. Any Brene Brown fans here?
I appreciate Brene Brown. I’ve read a couple of her books and really like them. She talks a lot about the importance of risking being vulnerable in order to grow and to have meaningful relationships.
Brown talks about the idea of belonging in her book “Braving the Wilderness” that Noble quotes in his book. She says,
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.”
There’s a lot of truth in this. But then Noble points out that this worldview that Brene Brown espouses defines belonging as something that resides solely inside a person.
It’s a subjective, internal, fluid approach which means that the modern person in today’s world belongs everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
In this worldview, our idea of the “good life” changes over time, depending on our stage of life and events that happen to us. How we see ourselves and envision the good life is like a moving target. And this leads us to identity crises.
One of these is the infamous “midlife crisis” that so many people go through. You see a guy with gray hair driving a shiny red sportscar? It could be that car is the product of a midlife crisis!
Noble says that choosing our identity, knowing ourselves, is both a great freedom and a heavy burden. It can be exciting, but also terrifying at the same time.
It can be a burden and terrifying because defining ourselves in the world we live in today is a competitive process, where we always measure ourselves up against other people.
We’re always trying to prove something. And our value and worth largely depends on how successful we are, usually in comparison to other people.
Everything becomes a competition, and it’s easy to get swept into. I know I do. For example: How many of you know what Wordle is? How many of you play it?
You have six tries to guess a five letter word. People are posting their results on social media, especially if they solve it quickly, like in 4 tries or less.
In the past year, Wordle has become this big competition that for some people, it seems like it can make or break their day. Now Wordle is just a trivial word game that means very little in the grand scheme of things. But that’s the point—
if people get so worked up over something as minor as a word game, imagine how much stress and anxiety people get when they’re competing with other people in school, at work, in sports, or for people to pay attention to them, often measured by likes or loves on social media.
In this kind of competitive environment, Noble says, the search for identity, belonging and fulfillment can easily lead to feelings of inadequacy, despair, anxiety, and coping mechanisms that can turn into addictions.
Then Noble gets to the remedy for these unwanted feelings and behaviors. He says that we need to ask a different question about belonging. Asking “Who am I?” has a lot of merit, but it’s not the most important question. Instead, the question we must ask ourselves is “Whose am I?”
The question Who am I? implies that I belong only to myself, but the question Whose am I, implies that maybe there is something, or someone greater to whom I belong than just myself.
His book title says it well- “You are not your own; belonging to God in an inhuman world.”
Knowing ourselves, discovering our identity, says Noble, is not a goal in and of itself; self-knowledge is a byproduct of knowing God. If we call ourselves Christians, our goal is to know God and become like him.”
The apostle Paul describes his identity of belonging to Christ and becoming more like him so powerfully in his letter to the Galatians:
20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (2:20)
When Peter and the other fishermen chose to leave their boats, their nets, their lives as fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, they were embarking on this journey of learning to know Jesus and becoming like him.
That’s why they were called “disciples”. Disciple means learner, and they became learners from a new master, Jesus.
Jesus was seen as a rabbi, a Jewish spiritual leader, and when people decided to join up with a rabbi, in a very real sense they were deciding that they no longer belonged to themselves, but to the rabbi.
Where he went, they went. What he taught them, they soaked in. How he lived, they lived. It involved putting your future and your trust in someone else’s hands.
There was a cost to being Jesus’ disciple then. And for the same reasons, there is a cost for you and I to be disciples of Jesus now, to belong to him, in today’s world. As Sara Wenger Shenk said in her message to the Virginia Mennonite delegate gathering yesterday, fully trusting Jesus means to go “all in” with him.
But there is also a cost of not choosing to be a disciple of Jesus.
The late great author, theologian and disciple Dallas Willard expresses so well the cost of non-discipleship, what we’re missing out by not belonging to him. (on back of bulletin) Willard says:
“Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil.
In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10). The cross-shaped yolk of Christ is after all an instrument of liberation and power to those who live in it with him and learn the meekness and lowliness of heart that brings rest to the soul…” Dallas Willard, “The Spirit of the Disciplines”
Friends, I believe that belonging to Christ is the key to an abundant, joyful, hopeful, fulfilling life. But it can be scary because you are surrendering ultimate control of your life to someone outside of yourself,
and you don’t always know where Jesus is going to take you. You have to fasten your seat belt, put on your mask, and hold on!
In our story today, Jesus says to Peter, “don’t be afraid”. And throughout Peter and the other disciples’ journey with Jesus, several times Jesus assures them, “don’t be afraid”.
I opened with a song, and now I want to close with a song, one that we’ll listen to and sing along as we’d like. It’s a simple song that repeats the same phrase over and over again, and it comes from the Iona community in Scotland.
It’s Jesus telling those who choose to be his disciples these words: “Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger than your fear, and I have promised to be always near.
May we continually remember this promise from Jesus during our journey as disciples.