I am not my own,
but belong with body and soul,
both in life and in death,
to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.
Heidelberg Catechism — Question & Answer 1
I did not grow up in the Reformed tradition and I had never, ever heard of something called the Heidelberg Catechism (or any catechism or confession for that matter). But somehow I wound up at a small liberal arts Christian college that belonged to the Reformed tradition—Hope College in Holland, Michigan—and there I was introduced to, and fell in love with, the Heidelberg Catechism. To be honest it wasn’t head-over-heels love at first sight. I thought the language of the catechism was wooden and contrived (only later would I understand its warmth). I wasn’t yet a convert to Reformed theology so you can imagine as one who grew up in a non-sacramental Arminian denomination the reaction I had to the tradition of Calvin.
I have always had an acute feeling that I didn’t belong. Part of that is due to a desire deep within to be unique, to like strange and unique things, to be the dissenting voice. If I am honest this can manifest itself in a sinful desire to withdraw, to disengage, to turn in upon myself. But more than a deep desire to be unique, there are particular aspects of my life and existence that always made me feel like I didn’t quite belong, that I was different—different from my friends, different from my family, different from most of the people in the churches I grew up in.
Though my experience is particular to me, I know that I am not alone in feeling that I don’t quite fit. For many, home is not a place of shelter and comfort but of pain. For others their marriages, once holding the promise to be intimate places of knowing, have become instead places of loneliness, isolation, and estrangement. Others—racial and sexual minorities—feel caught between cultures and identities, not fully at home anywhere.
Loneliness and isolation is increasing in our society. Robert Putnam’s famous 2000 book, Bowling Alone, seems like it was published in another age, with the internet and iPhones ironically only increasing the lack of thick social networks. The number of adults identifying as lonely has doubled since 1980. According to the General Social Survey, the number of Americans who say that have no close friends has tripled since 1985 with “zero” being the most common answer. And despite social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, hook-up apps like Tindr, and all the rest, loneliness is most prevalent among millennials.
Despite the protest of postmodernism some still speak of Scripture as a meta-narrative—that the story of God as revealed in Scripture is the true and universal—and it is popular to say that the grand narrative of scripture is above all a love story. While there are problems with saying that Scripture is a meta-narrative I still think it’s true enough.1 Scripture is a love story. It is a love story upheld by the faithfulness and mercy of God despite the continual adultery and waywardness of his covenant partner. It is a story in which strangers and pilgrims find a home and belonging in God. As the poet proclaims in Song of Songs: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine!” (Song of Songs 6:3). Ellen Davis comments on this passage: “The words express not clutching possessiveness, but full belonging to another.”
At college I was often told that this is the time in my life when I figure out who I am. I was encouraged to ask and answer this question: “Who Am I?” In our identity-politics driven world, this is the central question. Who are you? What identity will you choose? But I think that is the wrong question. It is the wrong question because it leaves us only to orient the world around the center of the self. The question of Scripture is not “Who am I?” but instead: “Who am I of?” “To whom do I belong?” The question of Scripture, of God, is a question of belonging.
In the Gospel of John Jesus says to his disciples: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:13-16).
I have made you friends. You did not choose me but I chose you.
A friend of mine once said that friendship with God is the heart of the gospel. Strangers and enemies of God, we are made friends in Jesus. Strangers of one another, the baptized become a family adopted of God. I belong. You belong. We belong. We belong to God in Christ. Speaking against my fear that I don’t belong, that I’ll be rejected and left all alone, the Heidelberg begins with the gospel declaration that: “I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” I belong.
Michael Horton writes that the story of scripture turns all of our expectations upside down and inside out. “The outcasts become royal heirs,” he writes, “the outsiders become insiders and the insiders become outsiders, those who thought they were righteous are in fact condemned and those who were beyond any hope of moral recovery are declared righteous.”2
As someone who is single and committed to celibacy; who is tempted to withdraw and to isolate; who fears that I will have no one to celebrate my birthday with and who laments that when I come home at the end of the day I have no one to share the boring details of my day with and no one to listen to as they tell me about theirs; who wonders when I die if I will die alone, the gospel speaks into my sin and into my fear: you are not alone. You are loved. You belong.
In a society where we are increasingly lonely and isolated, the Church needs to embody the gospel and be a place of belonging. As the body of Christ, we can’t just stop at the smiling and shaking of hands in worship as we pass the peace of Christ or sitting together for coffee hour on Sunday morning. We need to open our homes and lives in hospitality to one another throughout the week. Married couples need to invite those who are single into their homes to let them play with their children, to be around the dinner table with them and to help wash the dishes after. The elderly widow and widower shouldn’t live out their final years of life alone pushed off into nursing homes to be forgotten, but instead find rich networks of belonging as they act as spiritual mentors, mothers and fathers, grandparents, and great-grandparents. The Church should be a place of rest for the weary and tired, a community of friendship for the lonely, marginalized, and rejected, a home for those seeking shelter from a steely-cold, hard world. The world doesn’t need another voice peddling the shallow American dream that encourages hyper-individualism, atomization, and worship of the self. It needs a bold and courageous Church doing the hard work of being the family of God, where our sin and brokenness is met with grace and reconciliation, where our joys are shared and lament and mourning is joined by others; it needs the witness of the family of God where blood-lines are not biologically determined but radically redrawn in Christ. The world needs the witness of the Church, embodying the gospel, throwing open its arms in spiritual friendship, witnessing to the belonging and love of Jesus.