While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other."
Note: Who Belongs? Pt. 2
One of the hardest questions for the church to answer-- from the earliest gatherings in the first century up until today-- is: Who belongs with us? It is the question of all movements, all nations, all tribes, all families, all social and political and meaning-making groups: Who is in and who is out? At it's heart, the question is one of group identity. Who are we?
This question of belonging was at the forefront of the Jesus movement in the first century. Before there were statements of faith, New Testament Scriptures, or ordained church officials, the apostles of Jesus had little but story, prayer, and consensus to determine these big questions of identity and belonging that would set the course of Christianity.
Last week, the lectionary text in Acts told the story of a Philip and an Ethiopian man, who was a eunuch. This unnamed man was an outsider according to the Torah, but would be welcomed into the fold as a child of God, according to Isaiah. And Philip choose on behalf of the Jesus movement that Isaiah's prophecy would be fulfilled, and the circle was opened to eunuchs in the moment. Philip continued by opening the circle of belonging to a Samaritan and a sorcerer. Then the apostles in Jerusalem open the circle to Saul, a former persecutor of Jesus-followers. And in our text today, we reach the climax of belonging: Do Gentiles-- not just wayward Jews or one guy on a road-- but Gentiles as an excluded group, belong? Are they in or out?
The answer comes, not from arguing finer points of theology and Scripture nor from a vision of the future Christian movement, but rather from the recognition that God had already encircled them. There was no argument to be made: God had already included Gentiles. They already belonged. The Spirit of God already choose to dwell in them.
Just as God had already loved, accepted, and acted in the lives of Saul and the Samaritans and Simon and the Ethiopian man...so God already loved, accepted, and acted in the Gentiles-- those formerly defined by their outsider status.
As Peter would later say to the leaders in Jerusalem: If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?
Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Roman soldiers, tax collectors, prostitutes, Pharisees, zealots, women, children, eunuchs, those in Judea, and those in the far corners of the earth-- ALL BELONG. People of color, white people, LGBTQIA identifying persons, blue collar workers, academics, the poor, even the wealthy, developers, community organizers, Americans,, Afghans, Australians, and ALL nations...ALL BELONG.
The question arises: If all these people who we thought were out are actually in-- Who are we? What is our identity? If everyone belongs, does belonging even matter?
And here we turn to the words of Jesus in John 15:
Remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in God's love. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you...I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit...This is my command: Love each other.
Jesus loves us all. Jesus choose us all. We belong to God through Jesus. Our identity is those who are loved by Jesus and love others as Jesus has loved us.
This way of belonging that Jesus teaches requires a shift in our paradigm. There is no "in" or "out." There is, instead, proximity to love. Remain in love, and you will love all those who belong to Jesus (read: everyone), and that love will bear fruit in this world that will last. Stray from love, and you will not love all those who belong to Jesus, and you will not bear lasting fruit.
So often, those who belong in God's love, stray, and find meaning and belonging in fear, hate, worry, pride, or envy. You may find yourself there now. Or feel the frustration of seeing others far beyond the center of love, out in the field of fear.
We are invited and called to come back to God's love. To remain in the love that has been tangibly shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God's love that is defined by the actions of Jesus. That is our truest identity-- as Christians and as humans.
All belong to God in Jesus Christ. This does not water down belonging or identity-- it is an invitation to our truest identity; it is an invitation to remain in God's love and invite others closer to love. It is a way of being in the world that looks with compassion and love on others, rather than building up walls to keep them out.
We belong. So may we remain in God's love, bearing fruit that will last, and loving one another in the way of Jesus that all people may know that they, too, belong to God and to us.