I grew up like an only child since I had a brother twelve years older than myself. That meant he was around a lot when I was an infant and toddler but by the time I got to kindergarten age, he was about ready to fly the nest. It was sort of lonely since there weren’t really any neighborhood kids so I played alone a lot. Ok, I had our family dog, Bitsy, as a part-time companion. Luckily she accepted bit parts as Rin-Tin-Tin and Bullet although her interest didn’t last long.
I lived in a community where everybody knew each other, warts and all, but nonetheless, it was a place where a small child could play safely. If I got bored with imaginary people, I would go visiting to any house in the neighborhood and be entertained by whoever was home. That did not go over well with Mama, who expected me to stay in the front yard, which was the proper thing to do. I knew how much trouble I was in by how many of my names she would call. When she got to first, middle and last, I knew it was time to head home, to be greeted with “You get back in this yard where you belong!” It worked, for a while, but I would always escape again; I never quite stayed where I belonged.
Belonging is a primary need along with air, food and water. Belonging means safety and has ever since the first hominids watched animals in packs or groups or herds and figured out it was safer to be part of a group than to be on their own in a predator-laden world. Belonging means being a part of something, a group or a place where a person or thing fits, where they are accepted. Things belong to people, and, as our lamentable history has shown us, people sometimes were believed to belong to other people in a sense that had nothing to do with being a true part of a group, only as a convenience for that group.
People belong to families, groups, organizations, and whatever other entity of more than one person could be called. It could be said that each person belongs to a lot of different things on different levels. Being an accepted part of a family means something quite different than being part of a large corporation where 95% of the others there wouldn’t even know your name. People use their sense of belonging to define themselves as well. “I belong to the _____ party.” “I belong to the _____ church.” “I belong to the (Masons/country club/American Legion/bowling league/PTA/class of ____/Troop ___, etc.).” It gets to a point where belonging is an identity, something that tells others about who another person is, what they think or believe and/or where their loyalties lie.
It was that way with the people Paul was writing to in this passage. The Corinthians were playing a game of one-upmanship by claiming to belong to a group that followed any of several religious figures to whom they looked as leaders. Paul seemed to indicate that Chloe was the top person, with several others recognized as people of influence, namely Cephas and Apollos. Naturally, each group of followers thought their teacher or mentor was the best, and there’s where Paul’s verbal strike was aimed. They were focusing too much on earthly leaders and not the true one, Jesus.
When we are baptized we are set apart as belonging to Christ. We reiterate that bond at our confirmation and again every time we participate in witnessing the baptism or confirmation of others or on specific Sundays when it is a part of the liturgy but there are no baptisms. We make a set of promises and are reminded of those promises each time. It identifies us as belonging through an individual and corporate rededication to the common goals and promises shared by all.
So what does that belonging cost us? If we do it right, quite a bit, it seems. We are supposed to renounce evil and in this day and age, that can be really hard to do. There’s a lot of different evils running around rampant — hunger, violence, fear, anxiety, money-grasping, inhospitality, denial of services, poverty, inequality, greed, and a host of others. Jesus calls those who belong to him to give up those things not just for themselves but to try to build the kingdom of God here on earth where that was the original plan. We are called on to trust Jesus, his love and grace, and to follow and obey him. Oops! How can we obey Jesus when we allow all those evils to continue to exist? How can we who belong to Jesus let others go hungry, homeless, rootless, even country-less (remember the resident aliens we are supposed to treat with kindness)?
In that baptismal covenant we share, we are asked if we will continue with the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, table hospitality and prayers, but then come the zingers: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” “Will you seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”* Each time we assent by saying, “I will, with God’s help.” We get a feeling of togetherness, rededication, and belonging–and then we walk out the church door after the service and return to the same life we’ve been leading with little or no change.
When was the last time you bought a bottle of cold water and carried it until you found a homeless person on the street and just gave it to them instead of just walking by and drinking it yourself? When did you last spend time on a weekend (or evening or even part of a weekday) working at a food bank or animal shelter or Habitat for Humanity? That’s belonging to a group of volunteers, but also a sign of belonging to the one who preached loving one’s neighbor and doing good things for those who can’t do them for themselves. And it represents a small sacrifice of either time or treasure (or both) to help someone else belong, whether to a home, a family, or even just a recognition of another as a human being.
Belonging has benefits but it also has responsibility. I hope I have a bit more sense of that responsibility than I did when Mama had to call me home every day from some unauthorized visiting. Still, I know that I don’t fully live into the belonging thing, at least the belonging to the Body of Christ. A sign that reads “Free kittens” means that the acquisition of a small cat costs nothing at the time but in the end will cost a lot in food, vet bills, scratching posts and sometimes heartbreak. Belonging may not cost anything monetarily but there are always costs incurred.
Belonging can be the easiest, nicest thing in the world but it can also be some of the hardest work a person can ever do. Am I up to the challenge?
*The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979 (304-5).