As you consider the theme of “Belonging” in your context, follow all or parts of this Bible study for personal or small group reflection.
As a group gathered together, use these prompts first.
- Tell a story of a time when you experienced a place of meaningful belonging. What made it unique? How did you know that you—and everyone else—belonged?
- What spaces exist in your parish where the whole community feels a sense of belonging?
Next, get your Bibles ready. Read Genesis 2:4-9, 15-22 and John 1:1-5.
When God transformed the chaos of the cosmos into the ordered beauty of a garden, God created a space where every living thing belonged. Night sky, sun and star light, creeping things, swimming things, flying things and green things all ordered into a place and celebrated for their gifts.
Follow the reading from Genesis with Jeremiah 29:4-7, 11-14.
- When have you seen God work, growing good things in spaces you believed to be desolate?
- How can you devote yourself to nurturing things where you’re planted, even if it’s not the reality you would have chosen?
Exile is disorientation. The Israelites had been conquered by the Babylonian empire and were living far from their homeland. They yearned to go back to the way things were. The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that life back in the promised land was not actually all that great; social injustice was rampant, the most vulnerable people in the community—the widows, orphans and immigrants—were being taken advantage of.
And still, the people of God longed for freedom and asked questions about liberation.
Maybe we can relate to the questions that the people of God were asking in exile. How in the world did we—our churches, communities and neighborhoods—get here? And how long will it be until we can go back? It’s a question coming from the lips of folks in exile, but a question that resonates through the whole biblical epic. It’s a story inside a story, inside a story within the Hebrew Scriptures. After all, the peace of the original garden only exists for three chapters of Genesis, with humankind exiled just one chapter after coming into the story!
Belonging and transformation
In Babylon, the exiles didn’t belong. More than that, the empire of Babylon had displaced the people of God and the prophets were saying that this disruption—this disorientation of exile—would last another seventy years. All they could think about was when things would get back to normal; when would this extended exile end? When would life—in the glorious memory of the promised land—go back to the way things were?
God encouraged the exiles in Babylon to imagine what transformation of their communities could look like, not when they returned, but here and now. The image painted by Jeremiah is one that takes us back to the Garden of Eden, and that would have stirred the memory of the promised land for the people in exile. Planting gardens, building homes, and settling down with loved ones? It seems counter-intuitive to put down roots in a time of disorientation. You don’t plant a garden in a place you plan to abandon. You don’t raise food to eat together with people whom you only see as captors. But in God’s abundant grace, you do.
It’s amazing what God can do with a garden. To seek the peace of the place where you are, where this generation won’t see the fullness of return to what was always promised, is an intimidating task. Yet to adopt an ethic of peaceful pursuit of the good of the whole community, cultivating belonging and renewal not just for ourselves, but for the whole of the community, brings us a little closer to a glimpse of the kingdom.
- What might it look like to seek the welfare of your city, beyond the walls of your church building?
- In whose welfare might you find your own?
Consider John 19: 41-42 and John 20:1-19.
The people of God held out hope for a king who would reign, defeating all forms of exile and empire. But the son of God himself seemed to wander, from place to place, without a place to call his own. In word and deed, Jesus cared deeply for people who didn’t belong. Speaking in parables about outcasts, and literally casting out demons and healing diseases that had kept people from belonging, Jesus cultivated relationships that grew a great image of God’s Kingdom on earth.
Walking alongside this loving teacher, Jesus’ disciples found a new way of renewing community by creating spaces of belonging. This new way of being wasn’t a return to where the people of God had been, but rather a journey towards what God had always intended.
This way of life—of creating space through service and care of neighbors was radically offensive to the empire—this time the Roman empire. Jesus was captured for trial and execution by the state where he had been praying—in a garden. The body of Christ, still without home or place to belong, was buried in a garden tomb by the generosity of one of his followers who believed in this new way of life.
Of the four gospel writers, only John sets the scene of Jesus’ time in the tomb and resurrection in a garden. But against the backdrop of John’s gospel account that begins with creation—of ordering the cosmos into a garden—and brings us back around to the ultimate ordering of life in Christ’s resurrection in a garden, it makes sense. The resurrection of Jesus welcomes all of creation back to the original garden.
It was in that same garden that the crucified and risen Jesus was first encountered by one of his dearest friends. Mary Magdalene is the first to see and recognize the risen Jesus. So often we read her calling out to Jesus the gardener as a mistake—that so caught up in the trauma and grief of the violent death of her friend, she was disoriented, confused about who she was speaking to. But what if we are given a gift in Mary’s prophetic identification of Jesus as the gardener? She isn’t wrong. This is actually the only place in the Bible that the word gardener is used, and it is used to refer to Jesus—the one who was present at the creation of the first garden, and who has returned from the dead to cultivate a new culture of life. A kingdom garden where everyone belongs.
With what more beautiful words could Jesus have welcomed Mary into this work alongside him, but to call her by name in her own language? Jesus welcomes her into the work as a fellow cultivator of this new hope, signifying her belonging—and sends her forth as the first bringer of the good news to her community, and to the world. Mary’s experience of the gardener God begins a resurrection-movement of folks living into re-creation. It is Mary’s witness to the good news of our gardening God that brought us into this work alongside Jesus.
- How can your parish grow the garden, partnering with Jesus to re-create and cultivate ever-expanding places of belonging in your community, even when it is hard to see what could grow, or when it’s easy to be too fixated on how lovely the garden was in the past?
Finally, consider Revelation 22:1-5
In the gorgeous way scripture tends to do, we find ourselves at the end, brought back to the beginning. Back to the garden, we get a glimpse of what we hold onto hope for—a place where every good thing belongs. In Revelation we see the Garden of Eden, not restored, but re-imagined, re-created. The way it was always meant to be. Jesus is there: the gardener and source of a new creation, where all belong, and nature is being healed.
In light of this, the resurrection is a piece of God’s great re-creation story, and we are invited in to envision how that story is unfolding in our place, today. We have the pleasure of working alongside the great gardener, towards restoration, re-creation, and renewal of our communities and the world.
Together, get to work:
- What has God already sown in your community? How can your parish nurture those seeds?
- How can you partner with our gardener God to create places of belonging that are glimpses into the beauty of God’s kingdom?