The B... Word
One evening just before Christmas, the doorbell rang. A man and a young boy I assumed to be his son said that they were from a Baptist Church and wanted to give me a flyer. I said we were Methodists and as he turned to leave and I started to shut the door, he asked, “God forbid, but if you should die tonight...” I interrupted him and said, “I would go to heaven.” Slightly annoyed at the Baptists, Jehovah Witnesses and Mormon missionaries who come to the door, I admit that I've never had a Methodist knock on the door and witness. Nor have I ever knocked on a door and asked what would happen if they should die tonight.
But let me ask now. What about you? If you should die tonight do you know, are you sure you are going to heaven? Or do you say, “I hope so”, or “I've tried to live a good life” which are not very confident or adequate responses. I visited a terminally ill elderly woman who hoped she was going to heaven because she had lived a good life--a life-long Methodist who had sadly never understood the gospel, the good news of salvation.
The lesson read this morning describes two ceremonies which Luke mixes up and presents as one. Luke was a Greek physician who traveled with Paul, and not that familiar with Jewish customs, he confused the Ritual of Cleansing with the Presentation of the first-born male child. Luke 2:22 reads, "The time came for Joseph and Mary to do what the Law of Moses commanded and perform the ceremony of purification. So they took the child to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord." Luke doesn’t seem to understand these are two separate rituals.
The ritual of cleansing is for Mary. According to Leviticus, a mother was considered unclean for 40 days after the baby’s birth. To end this period of defilement, she would bring a sacrifice to the temple. Because Mary took two doves or two pigeons, we learn that Joseph and Mary were poor. Those who could afford it were commanded by Leviticus to sacrifice a lamb.
The second ritual was the Presentation. Joseph and Mary brought the infant Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord. All first-born males were dedicated to the Lord, recalling the miraculous night when all the Egyptian first-born sons died while death passed over the Hebrew sons. After the baby was presented and dedicated, parents made an offering to buy him back, rather than leaving him there to serve in the temple as Hannah did with Samuel when he was born.
There in the temple Joseph and Mary met two old people—Simeon and Anna--who recognized the baby as the Messiah. They understood who the baby was--not the rulers of the temple, not the high priest, not the Sadducees, not the Pharisees; but two old people! Take heart, you who think you are old with your best days behind you, there is hope for us; there is a place for us; we old people are of use!
Old man Simeon who had waited his entire life to see the Messiah felt his heart jump when he saw the unpretentious family. Surprising Mary, he took Jesus in his arms and began to praise God:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
“Now I can die, I've seen the Messiah. I have seen salvation.”
What is salvation? Simeon longed for his nation to be saved from the Roman Empire. On a personal level, salvation is a conscious relationship with God, a relationship that begins now and continues through death into heaven. I say “conscious” because God is always in relationship with us. But when we don't recognize it or claim it, it is one-sided. When the relationship is conscious, when we claim it, we then have the assurance, the knowledge that we are saved, that I know I am a Christian, I know that Jesus loves me and I know that I am going to heaven when I die.
Salvation, the state of being in relationship with God, begins with God. You were made by God for God. It is mind boggling to think that the Creator who made all that there is, who made the vast galaxies, and who made the tiniest atom loves you. Some find it difficult to understand how the Creator would even notice them, much less love them. It helps to stop thinking that God is a person. For how could a person relate to the seven billion people who live in the world. How could a person notice you out of seven billion? Well, God is not a person. God is spirit and is everywhere. And the outlandish Christian gospel dares to believe that the nature of the spirit is love. God is love and God the Spirit not only knows you but loves you. Imagine! You were made in love and you exist in love. God is love and is working for your salvation, your well being, your future, your success.
God is spirit but God does have a face. God the Spirit came to the earth in the person of Jesus to reveal that God is love, that God saves you and the world. John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave His only Son.”
One of the most beautiful words in the English language is the B.. word—belong. Psychologist Alfred Adler says that the basic human drive is to belong. The basic motivation that propels us is the need to belong. We flounder, drift, yearn-- flitting from one unsatisfying endeavor to the next until we belong.
Look at the opposite. To not belong is to be lost, alone, lonely, isolated, disconnected. I recently read The Ciderhouse Rules, the classic by John Irving, which tells the story of Homer who began and ended his life in an orphanage. Perhaps some of you can imagine a life where you are not wanted and are placed in an orphanage. Imagine the pathos when one of the orphans is adopted. The Doctor announces, “Let us be happy for John Wilbur. He has found a family. Good night, John,” and the boys murmur after him a plaintive, “Good night, John!” Yes, John now belongs to a family, but the rest remain in the orphanage unwanted.
Blessed are you who belong to a family—some families are dysfunctional but they are still families. Blessed are you when you have friends and belong in a relationship. Blessed are you who belong to a church family.
But, the need to belong is also at a deeper level than family or community. We were created to belong to Jesus. Saint Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. We were made to be in relationship with God. This relationship is called salvation.
God the Spirit who we know in Jesus wants to be in relationship with you. Jesus reaches out. How do you respond? How do you say “yes” to God's invitation? What do you need to do to know you belong to Jesus? ABC.
A: Admit your human condition. Admit that your best is not good enough. Admit that you need and want to belong to Jesus.
B: Believe that Jesus loves you, accepts you, reaches out and invites you into a relationship where you belong.
C: Commit your life to Jesus. Give Jesus all you are and all you have.
ABC: acknowledge, believe and commit.
And then receive Holy Communion. Communion is a means of grace, a means by which salvation is received and experienced. I've been talking about salvation to the left side of your brain, but that is not enough. An intellectual understanding is not an experience. The right side of the brain—the emotional—must be addressed and Communion speaks to the right side. All five senses are involved. You see the bread and wine. You hear the Words. You touch the bread. You taste the bread. You smell the juice. You come to the table with your church family, your sisters and brothers in Christ. This is where you belong. This is where you realize intellectually and emotionally in the depth of your being that you belong; you belong to the Creator who made you, you belong to Jesus who loves you.
When the radiation no longer had any effect and our doctor, who was also a close friend, told my Mother he could do nothing more for her but give her morphine for the pain, my Mother called her brothers and sisters, called my brother and sister, told them all she belonged to Jesus and said, “Goodbye.” Then she courageously sat up in bed in her pink jacket, and without any fear of death, said, “Call the doctor. I want a shot. I’m ready.” My Mother wanted to die as she had lived her life—in dignity. But we had to explain how our society no longer allows doctors to exercise compassion. She died a horrible death without dignity; but also without fear. Without fear she affirmed, “I belong to Jesus.”
I belong to Jesus. Do you?
© 2014 Douglas I. Norris