A Sense Of Belonging
From the second chapter of The Book of the Acts, Peter has just preached his Pentecost sermon, and at that point, the narrative picks up, describing for us the result of that sermon. The second chapter of Acts, beginning to read at the 37th verse: “Now, when they had heard this, they were cut to the heart. And they said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for the promises to you and to your children and to all that are far off, everyone whom the Lord, our God, calls to him.’ And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added, that day, about 3,000 souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship and to the breaking of bread and to prayers. And fear came upon every soul and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number, day by day, those who were being saved.”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The most basic need of our human experience is a sense of belonging. We need, all of us, we need to have someone to love and to love us in return, someone who will care for us, and who will care about what happens to us. That’s the most basic of all human needs, the need to have a sense of belonging.
So I say to a lady, “Where do you live?” And she says, “I live way out in the country.” And I say, “Isn’t it lonely out there?” And she says, “Isn’t it lonely everywhere?”
Samuel Beckett, one of our playwrights, sits down to write what is, in fact, his greatest play. It’s called Waiting for Godot. And what’s the story? The story of two men who are waiting hopefully for someone to come and take them into a sense of belonging, and the play is a tragedy because no one ever comes.
The sociologist engages in an extensive study of our society and of the plights which are ours because we’re a part of this society, and as a result of that study, he produces a book. And what is the title of the book? The Lonely Crowd.
The American Medical Association meets in Kansas City and decrees that one of the most severe and debilitating illnesses of our time is the illness which you and I know as loneliness.
I say it again; the most basic of our human needs is a sense of belonging, and I think that’s why this passage in Acts thrills me so, because, you see, it’s all about belonging. Let me show you what I mean.
This passage in the Book of Acts begins by announcing to us that we belong to God.
That’s the first thing. Peter, in preaching his great Pentecost sermon, was simply announcing that God loves us and that God desires to have us as his very own in the most intimate and personal of relationships. Peter’s sermon was, in fact, a love song, a song of God’s love poured out to us. And the people who heard that song that day were moved by the melody of love so that they opened their hearts up to receive what was being offered. So anxious were they to have a sense of belonging.
You know, what happened on Pentecost reminds me of an incident which occurred early in the history of our country in the middle-Atlantic states. There, for a period of years, the Indians had been perpetrating acts of terrorism against the white settlers of that region. The Indians would cluster together in war parties, and they would swoop down to burn homes and to destroy crops and many times, even to kidnap children. That continued for a period of years. And finally, in desperation, the settlers there banded themselves together as an army, and they waged war against the Indians, and they won. And when, at last, the Indians were defeated, the settlers found in the Indian encampments dozens and dozens of settler children, children who had been kidnapped and held prisoner, some of them for a period of a number of years. Well, at that point, they gathered all of those children together in one place, and then they brought together all of the settlers who had lost children in Indian raids, hoping, you see, that they could match up the parents with the children. The problem was that, in many cases, so many years had elapsed that parents and children could no longer recognize one another. Then someone had an idea. It was suggested that the mothers proceed to sing to the children the lullabies that they had sung to their children when they were babies, and that’s what the mothers did. They began to move out amongst that group of children, singing those little love songs. And as they moved and sang, suddenly, from over there, a young stripling of a lad, or from over there, a comely young miss would rise up and say, “Mother!” And they would fall in one another’s arms in recognition. You see, it was the song. It was the song that announced to them that they belonged to one another.
That’s precisely what happened on Pentecost. But through the lips of Peter, God sang His love song to the world. And the people who heard that song recognized that they belonged to God. The Bible says very specifically that the message of Peter’s sermon cut right to their hearts, and they cried out in response, “How do we respond to this love of God?” And Peter has the answer; he says, “Repent.”
Now, what is it to repent? Well, I can only tell you what it is for me. To me, to repent means to share the deepest secrets of our lives with God. And you and I know enough to know that a secret is something which is very individual. A secret is something that we keep securely tucked away down at the center of our being, and a secret is something that we will share only with someone whom we deeply love and trust. And you and I also know that a secret shared creates a kind of bond between us and the person with whom that secret is shared. You know how that is. You’ve probably experienced it. A little girl crawls up into her father’s lap, and she whispers into his ear a secret. And by so doing, she is saying to him, “Father, I belong to you, and you belong to me.” Or a man and a woman holding one another in their arms, whispering to one another the secrets of love, are saying to one another, “I belong to you, and you belong to me.” Well, just so, when we dig down, way down deep into our lives, down to those dark and shadowed places where no one else ever sees, when we dig down there and bring up what is there and offer it to God in prayer, when we do that, we are saying to God, “Lord, I belong to You, and You belong to me.” And when someone does that, when someone opens up and shares the secrets of sin and guilt with God, when someone repents, when someone does that, do you know what the Bible says? The Bible says the angels in Heaven start to sing with joy.
That’s what happened on Pentecost. There, Peter cried, “Repent!” And the people repented. And they were filled with great joy because they belonged to God, and they knew it. And so, like Peter on this Pentecost, I say to you, repent. Share the deepest secrets of your lives with God. For by so doing, you will come to know the joy of belonging to Him, and oh, what a joy it is.
But the passage doesn’t stop there. It continues on to declare to us that we not only belong to God; we also belong to ourselves.
That’s important. We belong to ourselves. The passage says that the people who heard Peter preach repented. They shared the deepest secrets of their lives with God, and at the moment, they were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and they moved out of that place, possessed by a magnificent boldness. They began to speak the Word of God with truth and with certainty. All of the ambiguity in their lives was gone. And the Bible says that signs and wonders and marvelous deeds were done by them. They began to march like a mighty army across the face of the Earth, so empowered were they by the Spirit of God. Their lives were filled with power and with certainty because they got a grip on God. And you see, once you get a grip on God, then you can begin to get a grip on yourself.
Too many of us, in the battle of life, have forgotten that. Too many of us have faced life’s battles with our flags furled and our swords sheathed and our armor doffed and with the trumpeters of our spirit commanded to be silent. Too many of us have shaken hands in life with the enemies of God. Too many of us, in the face of the attack of evil in our world and in our lives, have simply responded by adopting an immoral pacifism; that is to say we have said of the evil in the world, “I will not fight. I surrender. I lay down my defense.” Too many of us have compromised with sin in our lives, and as a result, our lives lack a sense of boldness, of power, of certainty. But thank God there are those among us who have gotten such a grip on God that they have then been able to get a grip on themselves.
I offer but one illustration. His name is Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I regard him as one of the greatest living human beings in the world. It’s remarkable, when you stop to think about it, that after nearly seventy years of cruel, unrelenting, atheistic, communistic totalitarianism in Russia, after nearly seventy years of that, the best known and most honored Russian on the face of this planet is none other than a radiant disciple of Jesus Christ, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He paid dearly for that discipleship. He’s been broken in body, tormented in mind, imprisoned for years, tortured to the extreme, driven out of the land that he loves, dishonored by people who should have honored him. Oh, he’s paid dearly. But how is it that, in the midst of it all, how is it that he has continued to live with power and with courage and with boldness? If you want to understand that, if you want to understand it, you have to go back, back in the writings of Solzhenitsyn, back beyond The Gulag Archipelago, back beyond Cancer Ward and August of 1914, back beyond A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, back to the very earliest writings of Solzhenitsyn, and there you discover a little essay; it’s called “Repentance and Self-Limitation.” There, Solzhenitsyn writes, “Repentance is the first bit of firm ground underfoot in life. It’s the only one from which we can then move forward. Repentance is the start of spiritual growth for everyone.” He was simply saying, if you can’t get right with God, then you’ll never get right with yourself.
He was announcing what is as old as this passage in the Book of Acts, that if we repent, then we are filled with a power of the Holy Spirit, and our lives then take on an atmosphere of boldness and power. He was saying, “Get a grip on God in your life; then you will begin to get a grip on yourself.” That’s what he did in life. He got that grip on God early on, and it’s carried him through. He heard the Lord Jesus Christ say, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hell shall never prevail against it.” And he believed that. And when you begin to understand that and believe it, my friends, that puts iron in your soul and steel in your spirit.
About 200 years ago now, an enemy of the church said, and I quote, “I would rather face a whole army attacking me with drawn swords than to confront one Presbyterian who was convinced he was doing the will of God.” That is kind of power turned loose at Pentecost, and that’s the kind of power that can be turned loose this Pentecost. And so, with Peter, I say to you, repent. Every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, share the deepest secrets of your life with God. But then, you shall be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Ah, but there is yet one thing more; the passage in Acts declares to us that we not only belong to God and we not only belong to ourselves, but we belong to each other.
Did you hear it in the reading? Those early Christians gave themselves to a life together. They spent time together. They worshiped together. They prayed together. They studied the scriptures together. They ate together. They even sold their possessions so that when one of them happened to be in need, they could then respond to that need and meet it immediately. They did everything they did together. Theirs was a shared life. They belonged to each other. And I submit to you that that kind of belonging can be found only one place on Earth; in the fellowship of the faith, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, that kind of shared life together.
I was speaking at a men’s gathering in South Alabama. The subject; building relationships with Christ and with each other. And when it was over, we were divided up into groups of six to discuss that subject. None of the six of us in my group knew one another. And so we spent a few minutes in small talk. And then, suddenly, one of us, a man named David, suddenly just blurted out, “If you’re going to have a relationship with anyone, you got to do what’s right. You got to be good. That’s it.” He said it just like that, just as harshly, just as brusquely as I have said it now. Then he stopped, and he looked away. Well, one of the men in the group said – it was obvious that something was on his mind. One of the men in the group said, “Of course, you’re right, David, but it sure would help me if you would spell that out a little bit.” David hesitated a moment, and then he said, “Well, I mean, you can’t go through life taking everything and giving nothing. You can’t go around trampling all over other people. You can’t be cruel and selfish. You can’t be – You can’t be like I am.”
And when he said that, it was as if some great stone began to roll away. He continued, “See, I’ve hurt someone I love. Just the other afternoon, my wife and my son and I, we went down to the city park for a time together. It was hot. We didn’t have a very good time. There was tension, frustration. And then, somehow – I don’t know how it happened, but somehow – my son got lost. It wasn’t for long, just for a few minutes, but he got lost. And when we found him, he was crying. At that point, I said some rather severe things to him. And my wife turned and said to me, ‘That’s cruel.’ And I wheeled around at her and said, ‘Shut up.’ And at that, she turned, walked away. She’d never done that. She walked away, and I cried out, ‘Stop! Come back here!’ She didn’t stop. She kept walking. And in a rage, I ran after her, and I reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around. And at that moment, my hands slipped, and she fell, and she hit her head hard. It knocked her unconscious. Oh, she’s all right now. What about me? I could have killed her. She’s all right, but what about me?”
And with that, he simply buried his hand in his hands. The rest of us didn’t know quite what to do. One of us turned and looked out the window. One of us began to thumb through the pages of the Bible. And one of us just stared at David. But there was one of us; his name was Ben. He got up, and he walked over, and he put his arm around David’s shoulder, and he said, so simply, “Christ is here, David. Christ.” And suddenly, at that moment, for the rest of us, it was as if we were drawn by some strange, mysterious, magnetic power of the Holy Spirit, and we all reached out and gripped hands with David and with each other.
Have you been brave enough to follow me this far? Do you see what was happening here? Do you see that David was being set free from his sins so that, like some great, mighty eagle, he could rise up and fly? Do you see that? Do you see that it was for this that Jesus Christ was born and lived and died and was raised again? Do you see that it was for this that God chooses to impart to us the power of His Holy Spirit? Do you see that this is what a foretaste of Heaven is going to be? Heaven will be the place where we love one another and hug one another and hold one another and forgive one another and free one another and energize one another and encourage one another. Do you see that? Do you see that this is what God wants for each of us, that we should belong to Him and belong to ourselves and belong to each other, that God wants this for us, that we shall never be alone? Never, forever; do you see that?
If you see it, then for the love of God and for the love of Christ and for the love of the Church and for the love of yourself, let it begin to happen in you now. Repent. Open your life, all of it, to God. You may have done that before. That’s okay. You must never stop doing it. Repentance is not once and for all. Grace is, yes, but not repentance. Or you may never have done that before; do it now. Share the deepest secrets of your life with God, even as I now shall try to open my life to Him anew. Because, you see, there it is, right in the Bible. If we do this, if we do this, you and I, then we shall this Pentecost receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and we shall belong to God, and we shall belong to ourselves, and we shall belong to each other forever.
Let us pray. Most gracious God, we open up the deep, dark places of our lives because we long to belong to you, to experience the power of your Spirit, and to be tied inseparably to one another through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.