|Wedding Procession – Peter Bruegel the Younger|
It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we’ve lit the Love candle, and the sights and sounds of Christmas are all around us. The lectionary offers us a reading from Matthew 1, where we find the story of an angel who visits Joseph and informs him that Mary’s child should be called Emmanuel, because in this child God is with us. It also offers us a word from the opening greeting of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Since Paul hasn’t ever visited this congregation, this greeting is a bit longer than in some of his other letters. He wants them to know to whom he belongs.
Paul introduces himself as a servant of Jesus and an “apostle set apart for the gospel of God,” which has its roots in the promises given through the prophets and recorded in Scripture. This gospel or good news is focused on Jesus, the Son of David and the Son of God. Paul reveals to them that God has called him to share the good news of Jesus with Gentiles so they too can belong to Jesus.
When I read this passage the question that came to mind was this: To Whom Do You Belong? That’s a very fitting question for the Sunday we light the love candle. That’s because love is relational. It speaks to matters of belonging. So to whom do you belong?
Paul starts the conversation by identifying himself in relationship to Jesus. He’s a servant and apostle. He ends the letter in chapter 16 by greeting a large number of people with whom it appears he has relationships with, even though he’s never been to Rome. The first person he names is Phoebe, whom Paul wants the Roman church to welcome. It’s possible that this woman leader from a suburb of Corinth carried his letter to the Roman church. He also speaks of Prisca and Aquila, who were Paul’s co-workers, along with his relatives Andronicus and Junia, who were numbered among the apostles. The names Paul mentions reveal that this is a very diverse congregation. These are some of the people to whom Paul belongs.
Not only does Paul provide a map of his own relationships, but he also provides one for Jesus. He tells us that Jesus descended from David according to the flesh and that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God through the resurrection. There is a lot to unpack in this statement, but at the very least it describes two sets of Jesus’ relationships. Then, he moves closer to us. He writes to a congregation that probably was meeting in a number of homes. He reminds them that they all belong to Jesus, whether they are Jewish or Gentile Christians. It seems, from the entire context of the letter, that there was some uncertainty about this important set of relationships. It’s possible that Jewish Christians didn’t know what to do with Gentile Christians, or it could be the other way around. Whichever is true, Paul wants them to know that they all belong to Jesus. If they belong to Jesus, then they belong to each other, no matter their background.
So, here’s Paul’s question for us on this last Sunday before Christmas: to whom do you belong? What is your relational map? We might want to start with our family relationships and then move outward. In my case, I’m a son, a brother, a husband, and a father. Moving further out, I could say that I’m a friend, a pastor, and a colleague. Sometimes our relational maps become broken, which appears to be the case in Rome. Since Paul hadn’t visited this congregation before, he wanted them to know where he stood on matters of belonging.
We hear this word at a time of great brokenness in many of our own communities. This may even include our families. The other day, my clergy group talked about the difficulty in facilitating productive and civil conversations in politically fragmented communities. The question of the day was how to get a group of people who identify as blue or red to sit down together and find pathways to understanding?
The recent impeachment process has revealed how broken our nation is. I think most of you know where I stand on the issue. As important as this issue is for our nation, I’m even more concerned about the way we relate to one another. We find it more and more difficult to hear one another. This is true in the Christian community, where we seem to be forgetting who we belong to. So, I wonder, when we look at our relational circles, are they open or are they closed?
Karl Barth hears Paul telling the Roman church that they are a people “called to holiness,” so they “no longer belong to themselves or to the old world which is passing to corruption. They belong to Him who has called them” [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 31]. To be in Christ, it would seem, changes every form of relationship. In Christ we take on a new identity, for we are “called to be saints.” Because we are God’s beloved saints, we receive God’s grace and peace.
We live with a variety of relationships. These include our families. Some of these relationships are healthy and some are not, still others might be a bit of both. This congregation represents another set of relational circles. There are still others. Some are work-related and others are social. Next Sunday we’ll gather as an extended spiritual family to worship with our brothers and sisters from First Presbyterian and Northminster Presbyterian churches. We belong to different congregations and denominations, but we also belong to each other in Christ, and this service allows us to celebrate that fact.
So, as you sit down for meals and fellowship over the holidays with family and friends, what will be the lens through which you view these relationships? Can we see each other as children of God and bearers of God’s image? Can we not see our relationships in Jesus transcending political, social, racial, ethnic, gender, and national boundaries?
In his reflections on Romans 1, our friend Ron Allen, asks us to consider to what degree our congregations and the wider church “represent the kind of eschatological community as in Rome, that is, bringing together people who are as different in our day as gentiles and Jews were in Paul’s time.” Then he asks: “What could the congregation do to attempt to move towards becoming a more eschatological community?” Ron speaks of the eschatological community because Advent is an eschatological season. What he seems to be asking of us, is whether we can consider ways of living into the fullness of God’s reign on earth as it is present in heaven. After all, isn’t that the request we make of God each week as we share in the Lord’s Prayer before we come to the Lord’s Table? May God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.
As we consider the question of belonging on this fourth Sunday of Advent, may we take to heart the words found in the fourth stanza of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: “O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.” It is in that spirit that we have lit the Love Candle and prepare to light the Christ candle, which declares that in Christ, God is with us.