Belonging in the Kingdom
Dear brothers and sisters, boys and girls, friends and family of Calvary—I appreciate you may be watching together with your family, or friends, or alone.
One of the things that brings me continual joy is being a grand parent. That’s a funny way of putting it, because it is really my grandchildren who bring me joy. They are Peter and Hope, and I just found out I am expecting another grandchild next year. They live far away in a place called Singapore, so we can only hold them when we visit or when they come to Canada. Of course this year they were not able to visit because of the pandemic. But we enjoy seeing them as often as we can on FaceTime.
As their grandparent, I can tell you that I give them a lot of my time and prayer, and I want to bless their lives. I have treasured the prayers of others for my children, to bless them and enrich their lives. I am sure your parents do the same. Same with my grandchildren; I am glad my grandchildren have loving parents and other people in their lives who care for them. I am happy to know there others who are in their lives as “stand-in” grandparents, older people in the lives of my grandchildren.
At our best a church is inter-generational; that is, we live to value all the generations in our lives.
I love to bless my grandchildren, to put my hands on them, and cuddle them, and express that they are loved and valued—they are beloved. I am sure you have people in your lives who do that too.
Today, in the section we’re going to look at in Matthew, we’re going find two stories that fit together. I’m going to start with the second story, where parents bring little children to Jesus in Matthew 19:13-15. Just before we look at that, I want to tell you what I’m after in this passage. Today I want to speak to the value of Belonging in the Kingdom.
We belong well before we become. We belong to God by virtue of His adopting us as children. We are invited into a Kingdom of Children. We grow into this by virtue of belonging, not the other way around. We are invited to belong to God as His children first; and His Holy Spirit works in us to will and to act more and more like Jesus (Philippians 2:15).
We got a taste of the importance of being a child a few weeks ago when Phil taught from the first part of Matthew 18 where Jesus says “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is a subject of life-long contemplation, for we never get further in our spiritual journey than understanding ourselves as children before God.
In Matthew 19:13-15 we find parents bring little children to Jesus so He would place his hands on them and pray for them. That would be wonderful wouldn’t it. Don’t you love it when someone blesses and prays for you, for your best, for your good?
Praying for little children is a good thing but for some reason the disciples rebuked the parents, they scolded the children from coming up to Jesus. Why? Did the disciples think that bringing children for Jesus to lay his hands on them and pray for them would annoy Jesus? Did they think Jesus was too busy to do this? Did the disciples themselves think that only mature adults were allowed to follow Jesus?
I am quite sure that most of you children listening know for certain that Jesus would not be annoyed; He would not be too busy. Every child knows this in their heart, that Jesus loves to bless children.
In this series, “Matthew: An Invitation to the Kingdom”, Jesus makes no barriers to anyone to come into His Kingdom. He invites us where we are, as we are, and how we are to follow Him.
Whatever reason the disciples had, listen to Jesus:
Let the little children come to me, and don’t prevent them from coming to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
In other kingdoms the kingdom belongs to the King. Only. Government belongs to people in power. Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven actually belongs to you, to little children. This is an amazing thing to say. It is a mystery. It is a mystery that the Kingdom of heaven belongs to children.
We never quite leave the status of child as we belong to Christ’s Kingdom. A child learns, not by lesson plans but by the daily, ordinary, constant love of their parents what it means to belong to the family.
I like what the Irish Poet John O’Donohue writes, “Belonging suggests warmth, understanding, and embrace. No one was created for isolation. […] True belonging is gracious receptivity. This is the appropriate art of belonging in friendship: friends do not belong to each other, but rather with each other. This ‘with’ reaches to the very depths of [our] souls. ” (Eternal Echoes, p. 2, 3)
We belong with each other, in ways we don’t quite understand, and we learn this most profoundly as a child. My own struggle with truly knowing I belong to our Abba Father started with my earliest questioning if I belonged in the family I grew up in. It’s taken most of my life to begin to accept that when Jesus came into my life He came to save me by bringing me into belonging to God; He saved me into being adopted by His Father.
Jesus saves us into belonging in the Kingdom. It’s no wonder then that Paul writes this in Romans 12:5, “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”
Is this your experience of the Body of Christ? Has it been? Is this what you want?
Do you think that just because Calvary is going through the convulsions of what it means to belong, that belonging is an elusive ideal?
At our best we feel belonging, and what is more, we invite everyone we can into the family of belonging to God. We have enjoyed, by and large, being a church family that has been welcoming to everyone.
At our worst there’s hurt, misunderstanding, wounds; we feel awkward, like we are in the middle of divorce proceedings in the middle of our living room.
With that, I want to go to the first section of Matthew 19:1-8 where Jesus faces questions about divorce. I want to approach this passage as something Jesus said in the context of life in His Kingdom. I want to speak to this pastorally.
We know among us are people who have been divorced, and those who have remarried. Jesus knows this; He understands us. Many of you may know that Mercy & I have been marriage mentors for some 35 years. Many of you may know that Mercy and I have no illusions of how difficult marriage can be – since we are continually working at. Sometimes couples are surprised by our openness about going to marriage retreats, seminars, conferences, reading yet another marriage book, or going to marriage counselling. “Are you two okay?” some might ask with honest concern. “Of course not. We’re two different people who want different things a lot of the time; we’re prone to be selfish, to get tired, and we’re unique. You know, like everyone else.”
I like how Stanley Hauerwas writes, “[…] marriage […] means we are not the same person after we have entered it.” (You can read more on that on my blog.) I like how he put that: “we are not the same person after we’ve entered it”—and this is more profoundly true as we enter the Kingdom, isn’t it?
Jesus fully welcomes everyone to the table (may we be as welcoming as Jesus!), and then we watch in the Gospels, one by one or handfuls and crowds begin to abandon Jesus as they come to understand the implications of what it means to be in His kingdom. However, not everyone who is welcomed to the table continues to follow Jesus; for we are to be transformed, we will not remain the same person who entered.
This is certainly true in marriage (my example, “we were no longer the kids who married 3 years earlier”). I have nothing but empathy for those of you who have endured divorce. I have never met a person who has gone through divorce who hasn’t suffered deeply. This suffering is a clue to the significance of belonging to another person in marriage.
There’s that word again: belonging.
Jesus encounters some Pharisees in the first part Matthew 19 and they asked Him a legal question about divorce: “Is it lawful/legal for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
They ask Jesus a legal question, and Jesus gives a relational answer that finds it source from the earliest passages in Scripture. Jesus doesn’t have to make up a new answer, He just points us back to Scripture: “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” [Gen 1:27] and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? [Gen 2:24] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
I don’t have time to go into all the implications of Jesus’ answer, I just want to point out that Jesus is continually revealing what life in the Kingdom is all about.
When He calls us to “repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near” it is to return to this reality: we are made in God’s image, male and female; when we marry as man and woman it is to become one flesh, to be united, to belong.
In marriage we belong to each other as husband and wife. In Christ’s radical Kingdom marriage is a living parable of living of Christ’s love for the church, and the Church’s love for Christ, just like being like a child is a living parable of what it means to belong in this Kingdom.
The Pharisees weren’t satisfied with Jesus answer, maybe you’re not satisfied either. “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Dear Pharisees, my learned friends, are you sure you want to hear the answer? Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you [not God] to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”
Please do not hear a word of condemnation from me, or from Jesus on my behalf. The reality is we all have to deal with our hard hearts. To repent into the Kingdom invariably means we undergo heart transformation.
Moses permitted divorce and in Deuteronomy 24 the “certificate of divorce” was meant to protect the wife from further abuse from being cut off or cut out of the marriage. But Moses permitted divorce, he didn’t command it. The legal experts weren’t look for a change to their hard hearts, they were looking for loopholes.
There were legal debates in Jesus’ day over the conditions when divorce would be granted. But Jesus cuts through all that, which is why right after this discussion Jesus reminds us the Kingdom belongs to children. Children represent our beginning—an age of innocence, the ultimate status of belonging: I belong because I am a child.
When I showed my notes to some members of the teaching team for feedback, I loved what Dan wrote to me: “Marriage reveals our weakness, our vulnerability, and hard hearts; but even if we divorce there is grace as we are invited into belonging in the Kingdom.”
We would rather that couples not divorce—and I know there are reasons for divorce, for example, we wouldn’t counsel a person to stay in an abusive relationship. The church in the past may have been guilty to keeping wives in marriages where it was known that the husband was abusive, and then not deal with the abuse! We repent from this.
But you see, it rather illustrates the problem of the heart, doesn’t it? You might remember that last week Ingrid talked to us about forgiveness as kingdom people. The last words of Matthew 18, I will remind you, are “forgive your brother and sister from your heart.”
Forgiveness is impossible for hard hearts, and hard hearts are impossible to soften without the transformative power of Jesus’ forgiveness first.
Do you see how it fits together: we’re invited into Christ’s kingdom as children; we belong to our Abba Father through Jesus as we are given the Spirit of adoption. Romans 8:14-16 says,
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to [belong to His family]. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies/affirms with our spirit that we are God’s children.
Our spiritual lives are lived along the arc of what it means to belong to God as His child. We learn what it means to belong in a family, in a marriage, in church, in Christ’s Kingdom. Through this belonging we become more and more like the One we worship, more Christlike.
We started today talking about the value of belonging in the Kingdom. We belong well before we become. We belong to God by virtue of His adopting us as children. We are invited into a Kingdom of Children. We grow into this by virtue of belonging, not the other way around.
We are invited to belong to God as His children first and His Holy Spirit works in us to will and to act more and more like Jesus (Philippians 2:15).
We heard Jesus say, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” We heard Jesus put marriage in the context of belonging to each other—united, male and female, joined together by God.
We belong well before we become. We “becoming people”, growing to look and act like Jesus not because we tried so hard, or because we’re so wise, so good, or so righteous. We become the people of His Kingdom because He brought us into it, invited as children.
This week – may I invite you to contemplate:
- What does it mean for you “to belong” to the Kingdom of heaven? (Click here for additional reading on “belonging”)
- How do you respond to what John O’Donohue said: “friends do not belong to each other, but rather with each other. This ‘with’ reaches to the very depths of [our] souls.”
- Share about how you feel “belong” in your family. This might be a time you can share how you have not felt as if you belonged.
- Consider how God continues to deal with your hard heart.
- Read the whole of Matthew 18 and 19 to see the theme running through this section on what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.
To end our time together let me leave you with what Brennan Manning called “the Abba Prayer”, a prayer I often repeat many times as I start my day: (breathe in) Abba, (breathe out) I belong to you.
And a variation as we pray together: Abba, we belong to you.
If you are interested in a little more discussion on what it means to be a child I invite you to read my paper “Invitation to a Mystery” posted it on my blog:
If you are interested in exploring the real life implications of divorce I recommend reading Tanya Lyon’s book Come Home Laughing: A Novel for Adult Children of Divorce.