“Identity and Belonging”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (NRSV)
Paul seems frustrated as he’s trying to help a young and conflicted Corinthian church. And listen to all the different images he reaches for in just nine verses: babies nursing, milk, meat, seeds, planting, watering, a field under cultivation, and a house under construction. Paul is doing more than mixing metaphors. He’s serving up a complete-meal casserole!
In the first section of today’s reading, Paul explains, in a rather condescending way, that the Corinthians weren’t ready to be left alone to govern themselves. Spiritually, they were “infants” and needed support and guidance. Their immaturity was evidenced in the fact of ongoing “jealousy and quarreling.” A division in the house was distracting them from their common ground and shared purpose.
What happened, was that after planting the church, Paul turned the watering,the nurture, over to Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew who, through the ministry of Priscilla and Aquilla, had become a Christian. (Acts 18:24-28) Paul entrusted this gifted new disciple with leading the Corinthian church. And now, one group in the church prefers Paul, and another prefers Apollos.
Some things never change, do they? All-too-often we decide who we are based on whom we like and whom we don’t, whom we follow and whom we oppose, whom we love and whom we fear. Then we ferret out like-minded individuals because they make us feel right and comfortable inside our dualistic little kingdoms of us versus them.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians boils down to a rather terse admonishment: Get over it! Neither he nor Apollos can claim the kind of authority that the contentious little cliques are assigning to their respective leaders. The message of Christ is self-emptying love, humility, compassion, grace, reconciliation, and justice. So, as long as a messenger is faithful to the message, it’s childish for the church to divide over human loyalties.
The Corinthian church’s struggle recapitulates old divides between Pharisees and Sadducees, Hasmoneans and Hellenists, David and Saul, Jacob and Esau, Cain and Abel. And while it may look like just another power struggle, all of these struggles reveal the same deep, ancient, and common injury.
One commentator on this passage identifies that injury as “loneliness…[which] is so much a part of our human condition that we cannot escape it.”1
The abyss of loneliness, he says, becomes the site within the human heart for an acute craving for belonging. The most readily available way for us to meet that profound need is to create and participate in communities: churches, clubs, fraternities, sororities, teams, causes. While such things may help, they eventually disappoint, at least to some degree.2 No human organization can fully accommodate what is really a spiritual longing.
There are two crucial things about this longing. For one, it bears witness to a profound spiritual wound, a wound that all of us carry from infancy.3 We seek belonging in order to heal from the wound of separation from our pre-existent identity in God. The psalmist sings about this: “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed form me when none of them as yet existed.” (Psalm 139:15-16)
Our deepest and truest Self, the Self we were, are, and will always be is intimately attached to that Eternal Mystery, that Creative Energy we call God.
Second, our longing also bears witness to our untapped aptitude for holiness. “Yes, we’re capable of the most awful atrocities,” said Desmond Tutu. “And God weeps until there are those who say I do want to try to do something. It is good also to remember,” said Tutu, “that we have a fantastic capacity for goodness.”4 The source of this capacity lies in the image of God within us. And, as the doctrine of the Trinity declares, God’s very essence is dynamic relationship.
Relationship. Interdependence. This is our truth. Our longing for belonging speaks of an identity of relational holiness within each of us, and within all of us together. It’s a glorious mystery, and one touched only by things like love-wrought empathy and forgiveness, unbidden dreams and wonder, grateful responses in art and prayer, and even by our deepest pain and suffering. Within each of us, there remains a forgotten but authentic self, and it drives our desire for wholeness and for home. Jesus calls this a magnificent treasure hidden a field. This treasure, this hidden and true self is who we are, and it’s worth everything.5
Who we are at the core of our human-being is rooted inextricably in God as a field is rooted in the earth herself. I think Paul and Jesus have the same field in mind, and we’re not simply some crop in it; we are the field that God cultivates.
Now, a field doesn’t lose connection with the earth. However, as people, we do lose awareness of our connection with our environment—with the earth, with Heart, and Soul, and Breath. And when human beings lose awareness of our connection to the Creation, we tend to devolve into materialism. Everything becomes either a commodity to exploit or an enemy to defeat.
When we lose connection, we imagine ourselves as separate fields, belonging only to what we agree with, or what we think we can prove. So, we choose to belong not to the same earth, but to the fencerows of things like creeds and laws, of skin color, power, status, or, as the Corinthians discover, to the fencerows of personalities.
In faith, we claim that we are fields in the same holy Creation, and no amount of division will ever change the fundamental reality of our mutual belonging in God. And no other group or loyalty can permanently replace that belonging. So, even as we ally ourselves with transient fencerows, the inalienable gift of our shared image of God lies beneath us, as firm, as sure, and as perfectly identifying as the earth beneath a field. And just as fields as far from each other as Jonesborough and Johannesburg are connected by the same earth, every human being is connected to the same Ground of Being, the same Giver of Growth.
One of Wendell Berry’s most memorable characters, Burley Coulter, says this about belonging: “The way we are, we’re members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”6
So, there’s no real belonging for anyone until there is belonging for all. And according to Paul, it’s only when we recognize that truth, and when we begin to live it, that we begin to live as mature, “spiritual” beings—beings who experience the image of God within ourselves, who see and embrace it in others, and who dig deep beneath all the transitory fencerows to share the healing miracles of belonging with those brothers and sisters who stand right beside us. And with that one, 7-billion-strong creature called Humankind.
1Roger Gench, Feasting on the Word (Year A, Vol. 1), Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 350ff.
4The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Avery, NY, 2016. p. 116.
5Ibid. (Without quoting Richard Rohr directly, I am using ideas that he develops in his discussion of the True Self throughout his book, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self.
6Wendell Berry, The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership, North Point Press, 1985, pp. 136-137.