READ : Romans 14:7-9
Some of the most painful things you can ever hear are statements about belonging: “You don’t belong with our kind.” So are some of the most wonderful. Imagine God saying of you, “She belongs to me.”
Last year our newspaper for a brief period ran a section featuring personal ads from people who were trying to meet other people. Those who bought the ads were looking for someone compatible with whom they could connect, somebody, if not to love, at least to be with. Each week an entire page of the paper was filled with personal descriptions in tiny print, listing physical attributes, interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes, all done in a sort of shorthand that the writers hoped readers would interpret and respond to. After a little while this feature was discontinued because so many of the paper’s subscribers complained about the content of the ads. The fact is that a surprisingly large percentage of them were from people who were using this safe and anonymous means to attempt to find sexual partners. I suppose that’s a commentary on our times, but I also think it is very sad. How lonely we must be if we are reduced to searching for intimacy through the newspaper. How far have our personal relationships broken down, that people think they have to advertise themselves like used cars in order to find love?
It makes me wonder about the church. I live in a city chock-full of churches. Why haven’t we reached out to people more effectively with the love of God and of the body of Christ, so that some of the needs presently trying to be filled in wrong ways might be met in Christ? The personal ads were placed by all different types. They came from men and women, from gays and straights, from young and old, but the common denominator linking them all was loneliness. I’m reminded of the refrain from an old Beatles’ song:
“I look at all the lonely people –
Where do they all come from?
I look at all the lonely people –
Where do they all belong?”
Everybody needs to belong somewhere, to someone. Just as loneliness is one of the most prevalent social problems today, so belonging is one of the basic human needs. People are lonely when they don’t belong to anyone, and you only really belong when you are unconditionally accepted. Some of the saddest, harshest statements in our language have the word belong in them – “You don’t belong here. You’re not our kind.” “No, I don’t have anyone I belong to.” “It feels like I have never belonged anywhere.” And so do some of the warmest and most welcome – “Of course you belong here.” “This is where I belong.” “Oh, yes, he belongs to me.” When I was a boy, I learned to express the heart of my faith in these wonderful words:
My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
(Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1)
THAT WE BELONG
The truth expressed in those words is solidly biblical. The apostle Paul puts it this way in a passage from Romans chapter 14:
For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living (vv. 7-9).
The need to belong is a powerful one, and like all powerful things it can be used for evil purposes, to hurt others. Every exclusive group, from posh clubs and “old-boy networks” to racist societies, uses the idea of belonging to establish a sense of superiority over those who don’t belong. This sort of thing begins in nursery school: “You can’t play with us. I don’t like your dress.” Sadly, it often continues into the more serious affairs of adulthood: “You can’t vote. I don’t like your color.” But for the Christian it is different. Belonging doesn’t inflate our pride or make us feel superior, because we know it is not through any merit of ours that we belong to Jesus Christ. It’s all due entirely to God’s goodness. Furthermore, what we belong to, or rather whom we belong to, is Christ, and, far from being exclusive, Christ embraces any and all who believe in him. Everyone in the world is a welcome candidate for membership in Christ, and whoever believes is united to Christ by faith and belongs to him along with all other Christians. The church of Jesus Christ is the least exclusive society in the world. We want everyone, every last man, woman and child on earth, to belong to it.
Our belonging to Christ is a source of comfort and assurance, not pride. It gives us the courage to face anything, and the strength to endure everything, including suffering, because we are confident that God is working all things out for our ultimate good. Belonging to Christ does not make us haughty toward those who do not belong, instead it kindles the desire that everyone should know him and share the same security we enjoy.
Two additional points can be made, one having to do with the extent of our belonging to the Lord and the other with its duration. First, Christians belong to Christ entirely. Our whole self, body as well as soul, is his. In Christ none of us lives to himself any more; our entire life is the Lord’s. If I am a Christian, the lordship of Christ does not cover only the spiritual parts of me, it extends over all of me, including those parts of my life that I might not think of as “religious.” My mind, with its thoughts and memories and imagination, belongs to Christ; my sensory organs and the things I allow them to take in; my property, all my possessions and goods; my time, my leisure interests, the things I do for entertainment; my job, my career, my family – it all belongs to Jesus Christ. Belonging is an all or nothing affair. You can’t be a partial Christian, acknowledging a conditional lordship. To the extent that I still try to reserve something for my own control, I show that I don’t really belong to Christ.
Second, we belong to him eternally. We are Christ’s forever, in life and in death, for “if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.” As far as belonging is concerned, it doesn’t matter “whether we live or die.” Of course I care whether I live or die, and so do you, but it makes absolutely no difference for the security of our relationship with God. Neither alternative, neither living or dying – and these extremes encompass every other possibility between them – can separate us from Christ (see Rom. 8:35 ff.).
WHY WE BELONG
As always, Paul backs up his bold assertion with a careful explanation, grounded in the truth of the gospel events. The basis of our belonging is the objective nature of Christ’s lordship, the place he won by virtue of his mighty saving acts. When the apostle says we belong to Christ he is not suggesting a merely subjective relationship based upon feelings, or expressions of commitment. The relationship has an objective foundation in the bedrock facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
“For this very reason,” writes the apostle – in order to establish the fact that we belong to Christ whether we live or die – “Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (v. 9). Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are not two separate events, but the two parts of one mighty act by which Jesus established his right to the title and position of “Lord.” It’s like a gifted athlete who, by one marvelous performance, earns the title “world champion,” though, of course, Jesus’ dying for sin and rising from the dead is as incomparably greater than any other act as his title is higher. While God has already highly exalted Jesus and recognized him as supreme by bestowing upon him the name Lord, the blessing of Christ’s lordship is at present experienced only by those whose knees are bowed to him and whose tongues confess that he is Lord – in other words, by those who believe in and worship him. These are the people who have been freed from sin by Jesus’ dying, and from death by his rising, and who thus belong to him in life and through death.
IF WE BELONG
Now all of this is not just abstract doctrine. These verses come in a section of the book of Romans devoted to issues of practical Christian behavior. The truth that Christians belong to Christ entirely and forever, whether they live or whether they die, is stated in Romans 14 as part of a very down-to-earth argument which Paul advances to resolve an all-too-common problem. The problem, we learn from further reading, is the insensitivity of some Christians toward others. (It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows us that we Christians aren’t perfect, and don’t claim to be. It’s like the sign says: “Please be patient with us. God isn’t finished with us yet.”)
Members of the church in Rome, like Christians everywhere ever since, disagreed over questions of behavior. Some were stronger in faith and untroubled about legalistic details. Others were more scrupulous, whose consciences did not permit certain behavior. There were disagreements over food and drink as well as the observance of sacred days (questions that are still with us today, by the way.) Now the problem was not so much that the Romans didn’t all agree about these things but that they were judging and condemning each other over them (see Rom. 14:13). That needed to stop.
Paul’s argument went like this: if Jesus died and rose to be our Lord, then we belong to him, and if we belong to the Lord, we belong to each other too. So if we are living for the Lord, that means living with greater sensitivity towards one another, and greater support for one another, always conscious of how we are either helping or hindering each other to live for Christ. The strong must help the weak. The weak should not try to tyrannize the strong.
A man I was listening to was telling about an interview he had once conducted with an expert on redwood trees. These trees, called sequoia, grow on the west coast of the United States and are the largest living things on earth. They are awesome things, some of them thousands of years old, soaring hundreds of feet into the air. The interviewer said he imagined the root system must be nearly as deep as the trees were tall. “Oh, no,” replied the expert, “not at all. The roots are quite shallow.” “Then how can these huge trees withstand the storms?” “Well, they grow together, you see, and each tree’s roots reach out to interlock with their neighbors.’”
That’s how it’s supposed to be with those who belong to Christ. We belong to each other too, and if you’re looking for some help to withstand the storms of life, you might try looking for a group of Christians to grow with.