Saturday, January 24, 2015

Belonging to God

Belonging To God
Psalm 139:1-12; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20[1]
One of my favorite confessions of faith isn’t a confession at all. It’s a catechism. It’s called “Belonging To God,” and it was approved by the PCUSA in 1998 as a “children’s” catechism.[2] In fact, when it comes to explaining our faith, that which is intended for children usually does a better job of getting to the heart of things. After all, with children, whether it’s a translation like the Contemporary English Version or Sunday School literature or a catechism, the goal is to keep things simple. When it comes to understanding what it means to live our lives in the power and presence of the Spirit, I would say that simplicity is a very good thing.
Here’s a sample. The first questions go like this: “Who are you?” And the response is: “I am a child of God.” “What does it mean to be a child of God?” To which the response is: “That I belong to God, who loves me.” I find it interesting that this catechism defines our relationship to God, it defines what it means to be a “child of God,” by saying, “I belong to God, who loves me.” I’m not sure about you, but I think that says a whole lot about our faith in a very few words: we belong to God. And “belonging” to God is about the fact he loves us. And so as a result a later question asks “How do you thank God for this gift of love?” And the answer is, “I promise to love and trust God with all my heart.” We respond to God’s love by seeking to love and trust God with all our hearts. I like the simplicity of that statement: the life of faith is about knowing that God loves us and about loving God back.
Some of us might object to the language of “belonging” to anybody. In its most negative sense, to “belong” to someone can be humiliating. To be in a situation where someone “owns” us and has complete control over us would normally be something harmful. But I think our Psalm for today gives us a different idea of what it means to say that we “belong” to God. Part of what that means is that God knows us completely. He knows our inmost thoughts, even the ones we may not want anyone else to know. He knows all our actions, both good and not so good. He knows our path; he knows where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. We might be tempted to avoid having someone who knows us so completely.[3] It can be frightening. And yet, the end result is that no matter what we’ve said or done, no matter where we’ve been or where we’re headed, “we belong to God, who loves us.”[4]
But there’s more. Belonging to God means not only that God knows us completely, but also that God is always with us. No matter where we go or what we do, we are always in God’s presence. The Psalmist uses the language of his day to describe this. He says, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:8). In his world, “heaven” was the highest you could go, and Sheol, or the underworld, was the lowest.[5] The Psalmist also speaks of taking the “wings of the morning” and settling “at the farthest limits of the sea” (Ps. 139:9).  This refers to going as far to the East and West as you can. Essentially, he’s saying that we can go as high and as low, and as far in any direction we may choose, and still God is there with us.[6] As Gene Peterson puts it, “you’re already there waiting!” (Ps. 139:10). Belonging to God means that no matter where we go or what we do, God is always with us. Where ever we may find ourselves, “we belong to God, who loves us.”
I think all of this is summed up well by St. Paul when he says, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,” which means that “you are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19). The heart of what it means to live in the presence and power of the Spirit is the idea that we are not our own, but rather we belong to God. Living the life of the Spirit means that we recognize that we “were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20) and therefore, as St. Paul also says elsewhere,  “whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). In this respect, belonging to God who loves us can be challenging. It inspires us to rise above living only for ourselves. It calls us to live our lives to fulfill God’s purposes in this world.
When it comes to the idea that “we belong to God, who loves us” in all that we are and all that we do, we may respond with the Psalmist by saying, “I can’t understand all of this! Such wonderful knowledge is far above me” (Ps. 139:6, CEV). Knowing that we belong to the God who knows us through and through, and the God who is never farther away from us than the air we’re breathing can be a great comfort to us.[7] But it’s also a challenge to realize that our lives are not our own, to do with as we please, because we “were bought with a price,” the precious price of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. That can be intimidating. But I don’t believe God is demanding of us some kind of impossible ideal. It’s as simple as the catechism puts it. Because we know that “we belong to God, who loves us,” we respond by seeking to love and trust God with all our hearts. We respond by seeking to live our lives in the awareness that God is always with us, always loving us, and therefore we seek to love God back with what we do.[8] Living in the power and the presence of the Spirit is both as simple and as challenging as knowing in the depth of our souls that “we belong to God, who loves us” and living all of life out of that fundamental conviction.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/18/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. “Belonging to God: A First Catechism.” A catechism approved by the 210th General Assembly (1998) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Accessed at pdfs/catechism.pdf
[3] Cf. Paul Tillich, “Escape From God,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 43-44. He says, “Nobody wants to be known, even when he realizes that his health and salvation depend upon such a knowledge. We do not even wish to be known by ourselves. We try to hide the depths of our souls from our own eyes. We refuse to be our own witness. How then can we stand the mirror in which nothing can be hidden?”
[4] Cf. Tillich, “Escape From God,” 50: “We are known in the depth of darkness through which we ourselves do not even dare to look. And at the same time, we are seen in a height of a fullness which surpasses our highest vision.”
[5] Interestingly, Karl Barth insists that God is present even in whatever kind of “hell” we may find ourselves. Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:482: “For the man whom God has created and with whom He covenants, there is no corner in which he does not exist for God, in which he is not enclosed by the hand of God behind and before. There is no heaven or hell in which he is out of the reach of God’s Spirit or away from His countenance.” Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 91: “By entering into the God-forsakenness of sin and death (which is Nothingness), God overcomes it and makes it part of his eternal life: ‘If I make my bed in hell, thou art there’ (Ps. 139:8).”
[6] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:327: “He ‘encloses us before and behind’ (Ps 139:5), and therefore altogether and in eternity. That we are in Him is true unreservedly and without any loophole for escape.”
[7] Cf. William P. Brown, “Psalm 139: The Pathos of Praise,” Interpretation 50 (July 1996): 284, where he says that the message of this Psalm is “You don’t have to explain yourself before God.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 12-18: “The divine becomes the all-embracing presence in which what is human—indeed everything that lives—can develop fruitfully and live eternally: ‘You encompass me on every side and hold your hand over me’ (Ps. 139:5).”

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