Sermon for January 3, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3006 | Fitting In and Belonging

Do you feel like you don’t fit in sometimes? Like you don’t belong? Paul reminds us in Ephesians that, through Jesus even the most diverse groups are united. Because of Christ’s love, we don’t have to change to belong. In the kingdom, our differences are celebrated, gathered together in the body of Christ reflect God’s glory.

Video Transcript

Speaking of Life 3006 | Fitting In and Belonging Cara Garrity One of my favorite movies growing up was inspired by Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. The lead character is a high school female soccer player named Viola. When the school cuts the girls’ soccer program, the coach for the boys’ soccer team refuses to let Viola play, saying that girls can’t compete with boys athletically. Viola spends the rest of the movie trying to prove she’s good enough. She goes undercover as her twin brother and plays on a boys’ soccer team for a competing school, hoping to beat the team that refused to let her play as a girl. Though we likely haven’t gone to the extremes that Viola did in the movie, we’ve all probably experienced something like this—the feeling like we don’t fit in, being excluded based on difference, feeling pressured to change ourselves, or needing to prove ourselves to belong. Maybe we’ve been the reason another person felt like they didn’t fit in. Maybe we’ve excluded others based on difference, pressured them to change, or required them to prove themselves to belong. Wanting to be included is natural – we all want to belong. But sometimes we think that we, or others, can’t fit in and still be ourselves. The Bible has good news for all of us who thought we didn’t fit in. The book of Ephesians was written to a group of people who were very diverse, and it tells us this diversity was intended by God who determined that being unique was a blessing. Notice what Paul writes: With all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Ephesians 1:8b-10 (NRSV) It says that God’s will is for Christ to bring everything together, to unite diverse peoples and things in heaven and earth. This is who he is—the great unifier. After all, he created us differently; he loves our differences, and he wants us to love and appreciate diversity. On our own, we struggle with diversity. When someone is different from us, we sometimes have a hard time celebrating those differences and embracing them. But that is what Christ in us enables us to do. Regardless of our feelings of being excluded, or our practice of excluding others, we can be confident that God’s perfect plan is for everyone’s complete inclusion. Christ is the way we first accept our own uniqueness and then accept the unique personhood of others. What does this look like? When we know we’re loved and accepted and valued by God for who we are, that loving acceptance cannot help but overflow to others. How the mystery is carried out might be difficult to explain, but we can witness its effects. Christ in us is at work, “gather[ing] up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” As you move through the world, you might feel pressured to change to belong to a group, like Viola did in my favorite high school movie, or you might feel tempted to exclude someone like the boys’ soccer coach did in the movie, but Christ’s way is to help us lovingly celebrate, appreciate, and embrace the differences we encounter in the world. A mentor once told me that “because of who God is, we don’t have to ‘fit-in’ to truly belong.” The mystery is this: when we appreciate God’s loving acceptance for ourselves, we can extend it graciously to others. May you be a gracious participant in Christ’s gathering together of all people. I’m Cara Garrity, Speaking of Life. 

Psalm 147:12-20 • Jeremiah 31:7-14 • Ephesians 1:3-14 • John 1:(1-9), 10-18

The theme for this week is God the gatherer, emphasizing God’s desire to include everyone, even those marginalized by culture. The call to worship Psalm discusses the ways God looks after and provides for human beings, including them in his blessings. Jeremiah talks about God’s plan to gather and comfort the ancient Israelites who were scattered as the result of foreign conquerors, and John tells about Jesus and how he gathered us into himself to become “children of God.” Last, Ephesians 1:3-14, our sermon text, reveals God’s wish to gather all people, in all their uniqueness, into loving relationship in Christ.

God Gathers Diverse People

Ephesians 1:3-14

If you’ve done any traveling, you’ve probably noticed cultural differences, often within the same country or even the same state or province. There are different accents and different slang words, depending on where you are. In the Midwestern part of the U.S., a soft drink like Coke would be called “pop,” but on the Eastern or Western coasts, it would be called “soda,” and in the South, it’s called a “coke”—regardless of the carbonated soft drink’s flavor. These are simple examples of how different people experience and label the world. Culture influences how we talk, the language we use, and the systems (or rules) that are in place to help everyone coexist.

Unfortunately, some systems unfairly benefit some people and hurt others, especially those who don’t conform to cultural expectations. God, on the other hand, welcomes diversity. The book of Ephesians offers us wisdom about navigating the choppy waters of diversity. It’s a letter written by a Jew (Paul) to a Gentile audience with a message that emphasizes how God has broken down the cultural wall between these two different groups—keeping in mind that any non-Jew was considered a Gentile. In Christ, God resolved the animosity that diversity can bring. Let’s look at Ephesians 1:3-14 to see how God gathers us together.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6 NRSV)

The passage begins by praising God for blessing us all—Jews and Gentiles—with spiritual blessings in Christ. God is the giver of all good gifts and we are the recipient of those gifts. The greatest blessing or gift he gave us is Jesus, and only Jesus can give us the spiritual blessings the rest of the passage speaks of.

 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:7-10 NRSV)

The blessings include (and you can expand these thoughts):

  • A new identity—“being holy and blameless before him in love”
  • Adoption—“as his children through Jesus Christ”
  • Grace—“that he freely bestowed on us in the beloved”
  • Redemption—“through his blood”
  • Forgiveness—“according to the riches of his grace”
  • Knowing the mystery of his will—“according to his good pleasure”
  • An inheritance—“having been destined according to the purpose of him”
  • Given the Holy Spirit—“the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption”

All who are in Christ are given these blessings—spiritual blessings in Christ. Sadly, many believers feel they have a special link to the blessings of God that others don’t have. Perhaps they believe…

  • … their day of worship is better than others—and thus they judge.
  • … their method of worship is better than others—and thus they judge.
  • … their theology is better than others—and thus they judge.
  • … their race is better than others—and thus they judge.
  • … their gender is better than others—and thus they judge.

See a pattern here? Paul was continually dealing with Jews judging Gentiles and Gentiles judging Jews. Sadly, judgment continues today. We judge denominations; we judge methods of worship; we deal with misguided notions of superiority; we judge things we do not understand. Paul wanted to emphasize a couple points:

All are blessed

Paul is making the point here that all who are in Christ have the same spiritual blessings—every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. This includes a new identity, forgiveness, redemption, grace, adoption, inheritance, knowing the mystery of his will and being given the Holy Spirit. Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free—all are blessed in Christ.

None of this was an afterthought or a plan B. It was “before the foundation of the world,” and our adoption gave God great pleasure. “The riches of his grace” was “lavished on us,” without any prerequisites to meet.

Even the adoption wording here is interesting in that it is not speaking to an individual but to a community, and it hearkens back to God’s choosing of Israel back in the Old Testament. Community, the gathering of all people, is the emphasis, not individual believers and personal salvation. God is throwing the doors to the kingdom open wide.

All are forgiven

 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:7-10 NRSV)

Our sin of believing we were cut off or separated from God because of things we have said, done, or thought, has been forgiven—proven by Jesus’s willingness to shed blood as a witness of God’s grace. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus says in John 14:9 (NRSV). In submitting to the suffering of the cross, Jesus showed God’s willingness to absorb our hatred and our death into himself, only to transform it into life and love. It’s a mystery to us, this love and grace, and it fulfills the plan “before the foundation of the world” to bring everything together: heaven and earth united in Christ.

All are included

 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-14 NRSV)

Our commonality is our inheritance, the seal (or presence) of the Holy Spirit. This shared spirit enables us to live and thrive despite cultural differences or even our individual human eccentricities. We experience transformation as we embrace our inheritance and acknowledge God’s gathering of all people in Christ. The Holy Spirit enables us to widen our view to see how all the pieces of the world are necessary to create the beauty of the whole. It’s like the fractals of a kaleidoscope view—we don’t realize how many diverse components, whether in people, culture, or nature, create the entirety of our human experience.

Application:

1) God’s intention and plan is to include everyone. That should be our intention and plan, too. As human beings, we sometimes place burdens on people that God never does. We can expect people to look or behave differently than what feels comfortable to them. People that don’t fit with our unwritten cultural norms are in Christ, too.

2) Be aware of hidden, personal biases, and learn how to lessen them.  Sociologist Charles Gallagher at LaSalle University in Philadelphia says, “When you think backwards, what you think is normal is really cultural pressure that pushes you into bias, implicit and conscious.” Some communities in the U.S. are still segregated today as the result of the legacy of institutional racism, and it’s from these communities that we create our social circles and close relationships. Experts say that our relationships, including the experiences associated with them, affect hidden biases. These biases can start in children as young as six years old, and they’re reinforced by the media and social settings. It’s important to know that we can mitigate implicit biases by recognizing where they exist and also by intentionally exposing ourselves to people and cultural experiences that are different than our norm.

We are God’s agents on earth, tasked with participating in the plan of “gather[ing] all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (v.10). This means we need to create an intention to overcome any biases we might hold as part of our participation in God’s great gathering of all in Christ. We do this by continually listening to the Holy Spirit for ways we can communicate God’s love and inclusion to all.

For Reference:

https://virtualspeech.com/blog/cultural-differences-in-body-language

https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/test-yourself-for-hidden-bias

https://www.cnn.com/2015/11/24/living/implicit-bias-tests-feat/index.html


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • In the Speaking of Life video, it mentions a movie plot where a female athlete went undercover to “prove” she could play on a boys’ soccer team. This highlights how sometimes we place burdens on people before we include them, asking them to be different than what they are. Can you think of other ways we might put expectations on people to follow certain norms, especially when it comes to attending church?
  • Cultural norms are like water, and we are the fish. We don’t know life without them. Have you considered that you might hold implicit biases? Why do you think it’s so easy for us to overlook implicit biases?

From the sermon

  • As pointed out in the beginning of the sermon, we can have cultural differences within the same country, even within the same state. How can we learn to expect and even relish difference and diversity when our internal programming only wants the familiar?
  • Which of the spiritual blessings means the most to you? Why?
  • Consider the metaphor of diversity as a jigsaw puzzle. How does exposing ourselves to different cultural experiences help us participate in God’s gathering of all people in Christ? What does this practice do to our worldview?
  • Do you have ideas of what you can do in your area to expose yourself to people who are of a different culture and those who have different cultural experiences? If so, please share them.

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