The Need to Belong – Sermon on Romans 8:12-17 (Trinity B)


We all want to belong. When we are kids, we want to belong to the right group of friends. As we grow older, we look for places where “everybody knows your name,” places where we know we will be accepted, places we can call home. As Robert Frost put it, “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”[1] The desire to belong is a deeply felt need, and when it isn’t met, the consequences can be devastating.

Kids especially need to belong, to know they are loved, to know that they matter. Children who have been neglected, who don’t have a strong sense of belonging, are statistically more likely to suffer from at least one psychological disorder by the time they reach age 21. According to the Kids At Risk Action Group, “Children who experience child abuse & neglect are about 9 times more likely to become involved in criminal activity[2] than children who grow up in safe, loving households, places where they know they belong.

We all need to belong. The question is, where will we find that need satisfied? The Apostle Paul addresses this question in the 8th chapter of his letter to the church at Rome. 

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:12-17)

Where do you satisfy your need to belong? Where do you find your primary identity? Paul offers two choices we can make. One is the sinful world of the flesh, which ends in death. For Paul, the term “flesh” encompasses everything associated with mortality.

This physical body is susceptible to decay, to illness, to sin. Flesh has its limits, and the ultimate limitation is death itself. This body will certainly die. Living “according to the flesh” then, means living with an expiration date always looming over our heads.

For some, that means living to satisfy physical pleasures while it’s still possible to enjoy them. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is their motto. (Luke 12:19; 1 Corinthians 15:32)  The problem with this approach to life is that physical pleasure really never satisfies. It fades, and we want more. We stay hungry and thirsty, no matter how much we eat or drink. We become slaves to our desires, and that way leads only to sin and death.

But there is another option. We can be led by the Spirit.  Paul writes, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” So living according to the flesh leads to death, but living according to the Spirit leads to life.

Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Given the choice between life and death, don’t we all want to choose life? And isn’t that what grace is all about, anyway? If we call ourselves Christians, don’t we get an automatic “Get Out of Death Free” card? Not so fast, Paul says.

Paul does not assume that all non-believers live according to the flesh while all Christians live according to the spirit. After all, his audience is “my brothers and sisters” – that means he is talking to us, the church, believers who struggle constantly between living like we’re dying and living abundantly in the Spirit. We all have to deal with this ongoing, day-by-day choice between slavery to our mortal desires and living into our heavenly identity.

And when we claim this heavenly identity, something miraculous happens. We belong. We are not slaves – it isn’t that kind of belonging. And we aren’t suddenly members of some special secret society or club, either. We belong to God in a profoundly intimate way. We become God’s children, deeply loved, always welcome.

We have been adopted. Not conceived by accident, not born as an afterthought.
Chosen. Brought into the family on purpose.
Beloved children of God.

We become children who can call on our Heavenly Father in familiar terms, just as Jesus did. Since Paul also uses this phrase, “Abba, Father” in his letter to the Galatians (4:6), scholars think it must have been “an established formula in the churches known to Paul.”[3] It was the pattern used for prayer, calling on God specifically as Father, and that makes us brothers and sisters of Christ.

Earlier, we heard the familiar verse from John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” I think sometimes we skip over that word “begotten” because it isn’t part of our common vocabulary anymore. We aren’t sure exactly what it means to be “begotten.” But you all have been begotten. The simplest way to explain it is to say that you were born, but from your dad’s perspective. Because of your dad’s participation in your conception, you have been sired. You have been fathered. You were brought into this world as a new life formed in your mother, to be sure, but by your father’s doing.

That’s why, back in the Old Testament, all the genealogies listing the fathers’ names use the verb “beget.” Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob and Esau… In other words, Abraham fathered, Isaac, and Isaac fathered Jacob and Esau. Begotten is just another form of the verb ‘beget.’ So Jesus, born of Mary, was begotten of the Father. And Jesus was the only Son that God the Father begat.

Yet we are also God’s children. We have been adopted into God’s family. – “See what love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God – and that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1 NIV)

Paul writes, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (vv 15-17a).

Your share in the inheritance is the same as Christ’s – it is the Kingdom of God. Your place in God’s kingdom is as a beloved child of God. You have been adopted. You belong. And all this is because of God’s Spirit, living in you, through your faith in Jesus Christ. “For Paul Christians do not become God’s inheritance independently of Christ; that privilege becomes [ours] only as a consequence of [our] belonging to Christ; … as Son of God … his status as son and heir becomes one which can be shared by [all] who identify with him.”[4]

You belong, not only to God, but to God’s whole family. This is not an individual undertaking, and it isn’t something you do by your own strength or will: “every verb Paul uses in 8:12-17 (to refer to his audience) is plural.”[5] Every time he says “you” he is saying “all of you.” We are all part of this family: brothers and sisters with Christ together, through the Spirit of adoption.

And because we are joint heirs with Christ, we inherit an equal share with Christ of eternal life and glory, just as we inherit our share of his suffering. What does Paul mean by this? It goes back to what he wrote at the beginning of this passage. Our suffering is tied up in the tension between living in our mortal bodies and yearning for our heavenly home.

This tension lies at the heart of living as a Christian in a world that does not call Jesus Lord. Throughout Christian history, people have attempted to separate themselves from the world in order to stay pure, following only the life of the Spirit. Throughout Christian history, those people have learned that “being of this world is an inevitable consequence of being human.”[6] We can’t avoid this tension. We can’t avoid this suffering. Part of being human is living among other humans.

The need to belong is a basic human need. The question for each of us is where that belonging will find its home. We can attempt to find our place in society, dressing like the people we admire, joining the same clubs or organizations as the people we want to be like. We can wear the right clothes and drive the right cars and live in the right homes, as symbols of belonging to the right groups. Some of you joined this church in order to belong to a group of people with whom you could identify. But in the end, all this striving to belong is just that: striving.

Or we can find our identity in Christ alone, as beloved children of our heavenly Father. When we choose to follow Jesus and live in his Spirit, we belong to God, as his own adopted and dearly loved children. We belong to that eternal community of love that claims God as Father and Christ as brother, and Holy Spirit as the sustainer of life everlasting.

This is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the intertwining, constant movement of the Triune God. This mystery has sometimes been described as a relationship among God the Lover, God the Beloved, and Love itself. This profound and unexplainable mystery invites us into its embrace, adopted into God’s own household, not only to be with others who also seek to belong, but to be with God in all God’s three-in-one-ness. See what love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are! This is the Good Jesus News: in Christ, you belong.

May 30, 2021

[1] Robert Frost, Death of the Hired Man,
[3] Word Biblical Commentary-New Testament, vol. 38A, 461.
[4] WBC-NT, vol. 38A, p. 464.
[5] Matthew Rindge, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 43.
[6] J Barney Hawkins IV, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 40.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.