Belonging is important. We want to feel that we belong. Even those of us who are introverts still want to feel that we have a place in society. And so many of us join different clubs and societies. So, we belong to things like Soroptimists, Rotary, Round Table, the Bowling Club, the Needlework Group, a Fan Club, a Football Team, we engage in other sports, and nowadays we join on-line groups – we have a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, some of us even have a blog. Even on-line, we belong!
Yet, as adults we like to believe that we a strong enough to make our own decisions, to be our own people. For some of us acknowledging that we need others, that we need to belong can be quite difficult. But we have to accept that it is true when we look at teenage culture over the past 50 years – the need to belong to the ‘in-crowd’, to wear the ‘right’ clothes, to listen to the ‘right’ music, to have the ‘right’ attitudes. All so very obvious and never more so that during the 1970s when I was a teenager. And those of us who are now in our 30s, 40s, 50s ….etc…. have to admit that when we were young we felt the possibility of rejection quite keenly. Indeed it is one of the main causes of serious teenage problems – eating disorders, drug/solvent abuse, delinquency. The need to belong often overcomes all other priorities – it can become more critical than right/wrong. And if we’re honest we’ll admit that it is true for all of us, whatever age we claim to be. The need to belong is so very important.
It’s not just peer groups/clubs/societies – we’re part of families – I’m a Farnworth – I couldn’t be anything else – I’ve habits that I recognise in my father, I’ve got the same concern for neatness and detail that my mother has. I inherit my baldness from my mother’s father. No matter how much I might have wanted to rebel against it in the past, I’m a Farnworth. I belong.
Then there’s our work. Before I went to college to train for the ministry I was a Civil Engineer, a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, something that I’d worked hard to achieve. I was a manager in Stockport Council – with 120 staff. I had a definite place in society – I belonged. Leaving all that and going back to college was surprisingly disorientating. The way I defined myself, and the sense of place and belonging had suddenly been taken away. Who was I now? How was I going to make my mark? Would I be accepted in this new world? If you’ve changed jobs, or perhaps left work to raise children, or gone back to work after raising children you’ll perhaps know what I mean. Not the end of the world by any means – actually a really positive challenge – but still a need to establish a new identity, a new sense of belonging.
This month the Parish of the Good Shepherd, Ashton-under-Lyne celebrates its Patronal Festival on the 4th Sunday of Easter (11th May). On the 4th Sunday of Easter we always read something from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, a chapter where Jesus talks of himself as the Good Shepherd. In that chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus talks of belonging. “You do not belong to my sheep,” he says to his adversaries in the temple. “You do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
There are at least three things that Jesus is saying about those who belong to him:
Firstly – “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.” Those who belong to Jesus have been ‘called’ by him – they’ve heard his call and have answered that call. We’ve been chosen – we’ve not just muscled our way into the club, we’ve been selected to play on the team. We have been called by Jesus and we follow his call. But not only are we called, we are known – nothing is hidden from him, he knows us inside out – and even knowing all the things we like to keep hidden, he has still chosen us! … And why are we chosen? … To follow him – to live differently, to try to be like him, his attitudes/actions – to follow him.
Secondly – ‘I give them eternal life.’ Those who belong to Jesus have been given eternal life. All equal, all loved, all given the greatest of gifts – eternal life. Life lived now in friendship with God, life which is no longer purely part of a world which passes away. We often say that it is quality not quantity which counts – but here in Jesus gift of eternal life we get both – life to be enjoyed beyond our imagining, life which continues beyond the grave, both quality and quantity!
Thirdly – ‘No one will snatch them out of my hand.’ The best news of all. Those who belong to Jesus are safe, secure. Jesus is committed to them, no matter how tentative their commitment to him. Belonging depends on his love, not our faithfulness! No matter how black things seem, no matter how rebellious we are. He has hold of us with a grip that he will not release. If we wander away he will draw us back, if we stumble he will pick us up and set us back on our feet.
Belonging to Jesus is real belonging – its for keeps. It gives us the strength we need to cope when all other certainties have gone. We are at home, we’re safe. But don’t just take my word for it, listen to Jesus:
“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”