Thursday, May 9, 2019

Biblical Belonging

When I am preparing to preach, I spend the whole week reading and thinking about the passages. Usually, I read them in the morning and then think about them as I write a blog post, take a shower, drive to work, go for a run, or lie in bed falling asleep. Sometimes, in busy weeks, I spend more time thinking and less time reading, and the result is often a sermon that, while resemblant of the text, is not a direct reflection of it. This week, I've focused on John 10:26, the verse in which Jesus responds to the Jewish authorities who question his messianic identity, saying, "But you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep." All week, I've been wondering what a sermon will be if my focus is on the relationship between belonging and believing, but, this morning, I discovered that the word "belong" doesn't belong in the text.

It just isn't there. In fact, there isn't really a Greek verb for belong (at least not in the NT). Maybe this is obvious to others, but belong is just a way of saying "be of." The English "belong" comes from the Old English "belangian," and it has to do with property rights. Although not fair to the etymology, think of the verb "to be" plus "go along with" to get "belong" or "something that goes along with." If I belong to you, I go along with you. If that hat belongs to me, it goes along with me. If I move, I'll pack it up and take it with me. If I don't want it, I release my possession of it, and it no longer goes along with me because it does not belong to me anymore.

The Greek of John 10:26 is "ἀλλὰ ὑμεῖς οὐ πιστεύετε, ὅτι οὐκ ἐστὲ ἐκ τῶν προβάτων τῶν ἐμῶν." Literally, that means, "But y'all don't believe because y'all aren't of my sheep." I understand why the NRSV (and the RSV before it) added the word "belong" to that verse. The preposition ἐκ, which means "of," means that those to whom Jesus is speaking are not from, of, taken out of his sheep. Forgive the cumbersome language, but those who are not not of his sheep are of his sheep, which is to say that they are identified as belonging to his sheep. The implication, of course, is that those to whom he speaks are not part of his flock and, thus, do not belong to his sheep. But there's no word for belong. Note that the NIV, ESV, CEB, CEV, and KJV all find other ways of saying it, ranging from "you are not among my sheep" to "you are not of my sheep" to "you are not my sheep."

Most people may not think this makes a difference, but I think it does. Before I launch into a sermon about belonging before believing and ask a congregation what it means to belong to Jesus, I need to recognize that, when Jesus spoke to the authorities, he wasn't asking them to think of themselves in that social, hierarchical, with-which-group-do-you-identify kind of way. He was asking them something more fundamental about their identity. This wasn't a question of what club or faction or persuasion they were. Jesus is naming that they aren't of his sheep. Are you of Jesus or not? Are you of his sheep or not? Not, when you woke up this morning, did you recommit yourself to Jesus' flock? Not did you remember to mail in your club dues? But are you of Jesus' sheep?

In biblical terms, belonging isn't part of our identity. I belong to a church. I belong to a civic organization. I belong to a neighborhood association. I belong to an alumni association. Those things go along with me until I put them down, stop paying my dues, or stop showing up. Being of Jesus' sheep is different. Sheep don't decide which flock is theirs. They are or they aren't. As I prepare to preach this week, I'm asking what it means to be of Jesus' sheep in that deep, larger-than-the-intellectual-decisions-we-make sort of way.

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