A new kind of kinship
1 Corinthians 1: 1-9
I wonder if you can reflect for a moment on the number of different ways that you ‘belong’. For instance, to a family, to a club, a political society, a nation, a religion. In what ways is your belonging constructed? It might be through birth, through shared interests, through a shared ideology, through how you look, through where you live or through choice. Which groups or identities are most important to you? Are they the ones you have specifically chosen or the ones that have simply been given to you?
St John’s presentation of the early part of Jesus’ ministry encourages us to see membership of his kingdom as an open ended and free invitation to, ‘come and see’. There is, seemingly, no anxiety for Jesus in whom he addressees his invitation to; indeed, as Jesus’ ministry progresses he appears to deliberately disrupt the normal expectations of who is and who isn’t in the club. As he redraws the lines of inclusion and exclusion, he invited those with whom he was with to see God and therefore their salvation differently. At the same time his approach invites us to re-appraise our concepts of what it means to belong.
Anxiety about belonging, about control and rules of membership are currently at the fore in our national and international lives as the UK seeks to rewrite the terms of its relationship with the EU. These sorts of concerns about how we determine who belongs are partly due to problems in a world where resources are finite and in which inequality defines our common experience. If everything were equal, why move anywhere else? Our collective anxiety about external claims to membership of our nation relate more generally to fear about how belonging is constructed and controlled. What makes me British and what gives me a claim to live in this specifically defined area of the world (and who has the right to determine those rules?). Is it the way I look, the language I speak, who my parents were, if I like tea, know how to queue, or about where I was born etc. etc. Such collective anxiety about how to validate claims to membership of our nation relate more generally to fear that what we have can be taken away from us; that there is ‘something’ to lose and ‘nothing’ to gain.
In contrast to the unequal and competitive nature of human experiences of both belonging and rejection, Jesus appears and invites us to enter into a kingdom which is constructed differently. Through parables and teaching we are told that the kingdom of heaven is a place of abundance, generosity and absence of fear. Think of the stories in which Jesus enables us to catch a glimpse of such a reality: the feeding of the 5000 where there is so much left over; the Samaritan woman at the well who is included and embraced despite being the wrong ethnicity; the woman being stoned for adultery who is defended by Jesus; the tax collector who is personally addressed by Jesus. It is through such encounters that Jesus describes to us what it means to belong in the Kingdom of God – to belong in the Kingdom of God means to accept that our identity, our belonging, derives from God and nothing else. We belong not because we are perfect; we belong not because we were born here and not there; we belong not because we are full or because we are empty; we belong because our prior identity is that of a child of God and he decides that that identity cannot be taken away.
However, in the parable of the wedding banquet Jesus reflects on our persistent rejection of God. If you remember the parable, the ones who are invited to the wedding do not come and so the servants are sent out into the street to invite anyone that they can find. The Kingdom of God is dismissed and rejected. Why?
Remember the man at the wedding feast who was condemned for wearing the wrong clothes? To accept an invitation to the heavenly banquet is to accept that we are entering a world in which we don’t make up the rules, they are given to us by our Creator. For many this is the first hurdle that they simply can’t jump. It is extraordinarily difficult to let go of our pride and ambition and learn to accept the love and generosity that comes from God. In our contemporary world where constructions of identity and well-being are based on the empty promise that infinite choice will provide happiness, there is an almighty struggle to be willing to accept the limitation of an identity that is given. If we are to live in this kingdom we have to learn again to be dependent and to be disciplined by love. Think of the ways in which the idea of obedience and discipline are thoroughly rejected by modern moralities which see freedom (meaning self-determination) as the ultimate value. To be willing to learn from the One who gives us everything means to be willing to accept that truth is given from an elsewhere, from an external that is not created or determined by ourselves. This is life-giving if it is recognised as gift, but debilitating if it as seen as a limitation of choice. God tells us that we can’t be whoever we want to be. God says: ‘I have made you, given you an identity as my beloved child, and in so doing the bounds of your identity are prescribed and limited’. Human pride and disobedience are quite rightly described as the foundation of original sin because they are the vices that encourage us to believe that we know better. A little glance around our human societies reveals to us the drastic error of such assumptions; true wisdom comes from cherishing the given nature of our identities and rejoicing in our common membership of a kingdom that gives us ultimate well-being and joy.
In spending time with Jesus, the disciples realised that they had to unlearn so much. It is the same for us. God is our teacher and our life-long task is to become better students. But being a student isn’t about ticking all the boxes and being the best. We are invited into a loving relationship with God, to spend time with him. Our belonging is constructed out of our willingness to receive and to offer back what has been given – as the Biblical phrase reminds us: ‘All things come of thee, and of thine own do we give thee’. It is through this re-drawing of our identities that we realise belonging isn’t about competition, mastery and ascendancy, but about letting go of human sin and opening our eyes to divine harmony. If we do that together the lines of human community can be redrawn and we will truly start to experience the gifts of God’s creation: where we saw lack before we will see abundance; where we saw inequality and want, we will see generosity and sharing, and where we saw conflict and fear, we will see the peaceful co-operation that comes from a life lived by God’s design.