Jesus told his critics that they don’t believe because they don’t belong. They don’t believe that he is the Messiah because they do not belong to his sheep. (John 10:26)
Now this is odd, at least it’s odd if you’ll really let what Jesus says sink in and confront the ways you normally think. Jesus has just said something about following him that turns our customary way of talking about our faith on its head.
Most of us assume that the first step in belonging to Jesus’ flock is to confess your belief in him as your Lord and Savior. In other words, you have to believe to belong. But Jesus himself has just said that you’re not going to believe in him until you belong to his sheep.
“Belonging” and “believing” must not mean what we think they mean. And I think that our confusion about them has been holding back our ministry as the community of Jesus-followers. So, for the sake of more effective ministry, let’s think for a while about belonging and believing, starting with what Jesus means by belonging.
Peas and Carrots
In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest’s best friend and lifelong love was named Jenny. As Forrest put it, he and Jenny went together like peas and carrots. They belong together.
Their relationship is no storybook romance. They met on the school bus as children. Here’s how Forrest describes it:
“You know it’s funny what a young man recollects? ‘Cause I don’t remember bein’ born. I don’t recall what I got for my first Christmas and I don’t know when I went on my first outdoor picnic. But I do remember the first time I heard the sweetest voice in the wide world.”
That sweetest voice was Jenny telling him he could sit with her after no one else would share their seat with him. Forrest and Jenny belonged together.
They were not perfectly compatible. Forrest was mentally handicapped and socially awkward, the son of a single mother in the deep South of the sixties. Jenny was a gentle but desperate survivor, struggling to piece together a life shattered early by her father’s regular abuse. Forrest was perpetually naive, and Jenny was world-weary before reaching her teens.
They were not like puzzle pieces to one another. Their lives were too ragged and uneven for that. But Forrest could not conceive of being Forrest without Jenny. And even though it took many miles, and more abusive relationships, and drugs, and desperation, and even AIDS, Jenny came to see the same thing. Jenny could not be Jenny without Forrest. Peas and Carrots.
That is how we belong to Jesus’ sheep. Like peas and carrots. Not just with Jesus. But with his sheep. His ragged, plain, sometimes quarrelsome, often unspectacular sheep. We belong to the flock. Then we believe in the shepherd.
It’s more common today to approach this in exactly the opposite way. We think that individuals must first confess belief in Jesus and can only then join a flock of like-minded people. In fact, many of us assume that belief in the Shepherd is the criterion for belonging to the flock.
But apparently Jesus doesn’t think that belief works that way.
Suit Up and Show Up
Strictly speaking, you would think that we know this already. Like many other denominations, we Episcopalians baptize infants. We incorporate people into the flock before they can say, well, flock. Or Jesus. Or feed me. Or change me. They belong before they could possibly believe.
Now some parents and godparents act as if that’s all that there is to it. You get the magic sprinkle and you’re done. But belonging is a process. Believing emerges out of that process over time.
For instance, I belong to my wife Joy and she belongs to me. She’s not my possession and I’m not hers.
We can anticipate each other’s thoughts. When we’re in the kitchen we share the work in ways that take no discussion. As a mental reflex I think about my time with her and the effect on her of any commitment I consider making. She’s on my mind when I’m away from her and I want to share what’s on my mind when she’s around. Peas and carrots.
But we didn’t get there overnight.
I remember the very moment I fell in love with her. Exactly what she was wearing, where we were, and who was present. I knew that we were peas and carrots in the making. (She, by contrast, took significant convincing.)
That was over thirty years ago. Or more accurately, that was a long string of individual days. A string that now runs thirty years worth of shared cups of morning coffee, morning walks, evening talks, grocery lists, chauffeuring kids, arguing and making up, Christmases and Monday mornings, child vomit, science fairs, and flat tires.
We suited up and showed up. Every day. Regardless of how we happened to feel about it at the moment.
Being me is being this marriage. We belong together. I still have to choose this marriage every day. But now the force of habitual choice and affection, shared memories and shared dreams, comes to bear on each new day. Peas and carrots.
That’s how you become one of the flock. Sure, God does something remarkable at Baptism. And we acknowledge how far that work has come, and our devotion to stay at it, in Confirmation. But we will still have to suit up and show up.
We worship together week in and week out. That’s where it all starts. But that’s not where it all ends. We join in baptizing and burying, confirming and marrying. Together we join each other in study and prayer groups, break bread together in fellowship, and visit each other when grieving or lonely. We bag groceries for the hungry, collect clothes for the ragged, and provide comfort and medical treatment to the sick and suffering.
Over time, we develop what the Germans call a Gemeinshaftsgefühl. That’s a felt sense that we belong together. We are known and valued. We are part of something greater than ourselves that would be diminished by our absence. And we could not be who we are without these other people. We are peas and carrots.
Believing in the Shepherd
Belief follows belonging.
For instance, I believe in my marriage, in marriage generally, because I’m living one. Now I know what marriage is because I am living it and I can begin to say something remotely articulate about marriage.
What I say is not definitive or final, but it’s based in a lived reality. It is true, and it needs to be fleshed out and complemented by what others have to say as well. We will speak the truth together, those of us who are already living it as best we can, those who have had the heartbreak of failed marriage, and those with grace and courage enough to try it again.
We come to believe in Jesus the Good Shepherd as we belong to his flock over time. When we really live it, we begin to understand it. Together we begin to be able to say meaningful things about the reality we are living. That’s where statements like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed come from.
Creeds are statements of belief. But it is a mistake to see them as a list of theological statements to be memorized and recited, material for some final celestial exam.
Think about them this way, instead. Creeds point back to a vibrant experience had by the flock and forward to an experience that we too can have as the flock.
Our experiences of the living God will not be exactly alike. In fact, they will be as unique as each individual. And yet, the Creeds assure us that there are recurring contours within our experiences. The one God makes us one flock, but he is always the living God of a lively flock. We know him, and grow to rely upon him, from within the flock.
Jesus sends his flock into the world to transform the world. We get that, but we’ve been going about it the wrong way. Somewhere along the line we narrowly defined the flock’s mission in almost purely intellectual terms. We put most of our energies into changing people’s minds and insisting that they think like us.
Our minds, hearts, and souls do change when we follow Jesus, but the purpose of the flock is to live the pattern of love within a world that does nothing of the sort. Our common life in congregations is meant by Jesus himself to foreshadow the new heaven and the new earth, the fruits of his resurrection.
We model the peace and joy that comes only from an unshakable sense of belonging in a world infected with loneliness and suspicion. We offer unconditional acceptance in a world defined by entrance exams and performance reviews.
Injury meets with forgiveness in our flock. Competition gives way to cooperation. Our disputes drive us to patience and deeper understanding instead of division and violence.
At least, this is our dream. This is us at our best. And when we are at our best we are an attractive, a nearly irresistible alternative to the world’s business as usual. And there’s the key to our mission. Through us, Jesus offers the whole creation a new way.
Our role is to welcome the stranger, the new potential sheep. Give them a taste of genuine belonging. Jesus will take it from there. That’s because we already belong to him, and he already believes in us. Like peas and carrots.
This sermon was preached at Good Shepherd, Lake Charles.