“I Am, Because We Are”

Hebrews 11: 1-16, Matthew 8:5-10

Every summer at Silver Lake Conference Center, the summer camp where I spent last week, and many in this church have spent a lot more time, there’s a theme. This year, the theme was broadly about a phrase and a concept that although it’s from South Africa, might be familiar to some of us.

That word is Ubuntu, which roughly translated means, “I am because we are.”

Some of us might have heard of that word before, but if you haven’t, you might have heard of the person who has helped popularized outside of South Africa- Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Tutu, was one of the leaders in the fight against Apartheid, the system of minority white legal, economic, and political dominance and segregation that ruled South Africa for almost 50 years.

The philosophy- and theology- which he preached and taught was centered in this idea of Ubuntu, “I am because we are.”

If this idea seems strange to us, that’s because it is! In some ways, it is a worldview that runs counter to American rugged individualistic notions- that if groups exist, they do so because of the individual persons inside of them.

Our American conception of the church is that it is made up of individual Christians who come together for fellowship, edification, and worship, while Ubuntu tells us something different. Ubuntu- “I am because we are”- tells us that we are Christians, indeed, that we are humans, because of and through others.

Let me explain.

I hope that we can all agree that we are Christians because of Jesus Christ, through his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Ubuntu goes a step farther. Ubuntu says that we only make sense as Christians, indeed, as humans, in the context of other people.  In other words, our relationships define us. No one is an island, nor is Christianity a solo sport.

As foreign as Ubuntu- I am because we are- might sound to our American ears, I believe that this is closer to the biblical view of how we should see ourselves than the hyperindividualism we find here in America, that says that we exist- or ought to exist- independently and self-sufficiently from one another.

We see some evidence today for this in our Bible readings for today. Let’s look at our reading from the book of Hebrews first.

Our reading from the book of Hebrews is part of what I like to call the “heroes of the faith” section. This is, in many ways, the final build up to the climax of the sermon.  This is that third point, the crescendo of rising tension before it’s released.

It is the testimony of the faithful of ages past, a reminder to a people we can imagine to be struggling that their ancestors struggled too, yet through their faith, through their relationships with others and God, they persisted. They might not have received their reward in this lifetime, but they would receive it eventually, in that city that God has set aside for us, where God will dwell with us.

And it’s important for us to note that none of the heroes of the faith are faithful in isolation.  Even the most alone, Enoch, is faithful in response to God; Noah builds the ark to attempt to save a portion of a condemned world, taking his household with him onto the ark.  The stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not really about their individual faithfulness, but how they set out to build peoples and nations. They could only be because they were part of a people.  When they were alone, like Abraham was, like Isaac and Jacob were, they found others to be with.

This passage reminds us that although God works through individuals of great faith, God often does not do so through lightning bolts of inspiration in solo encounters, but through human relationships and encounters with the living God.

Put another way, it’s difficult to imagine a Biblical character not in the thick of their society, embedded in a community.  Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph’s family dramas and movements of peoples, Moses, Miriam, and Aaron leading the multitude of people of Israel in exile, Jesus leading the 12 apostles not into mountaintop retreat but into cities and towns.

There’s a reason that Bible characters, even when they do go to mountaintops to connect with God, come back quickly and teach and interpret alongside the people. There’s little space in our Bible, indeed, in our Christian tradition as a whole for someone who talks to God and does not want to then be with and among the people.

This is part of why the “spiritual but not religious” phenomena that is becoming increasingly prominent when people leave the church saddens me so much. People who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious often claim that religion is too controlling, that they may have a personal prayer or other spiritual practice- indeed these folks aren’t atheists- but that “organized” religion is too restrictive on their free spiritualities, their individual searches for God, for truth, meaning, and beauty.

Unfortunately, folks who go down this path often find themselves feeling isolated. They become disconnected from spiritual community both past and present, they might feel the weight of searching for God falls solely on their shoulders, and lack models for how to relate with others and God.

Spiritual but not religious folks will often say that they find God in a sunset, or curling up with a good book by a fire. But when has a sunset taught us compassion, and forced us to confess the wrong we have done to others? When have the stars held our hands and comforted us as we mourn, or celebrated with us as we rejoiced?

Nothing against sunsets or good books- I happen to love them both, but our spiritual lives, our work of faith must happen in the context of community, or else it too often becomes self-serving rather than God and others serving.

I firmly believe to be a Christian one needs to be part of a church, and indeed, the church, the universal body of Christ that transcends denomination, location, and time. To be a Christian is to be a part of a family of faith, that, although it has problems, as all families have problems, stretches back into the past and forward into the future, and grounds us in the practice of community and our connections.

I believe our Gospel story today tells us that becoming aware of how we are connected to each other and God is a key part of faithfulness.

Our gospel story is from the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant.  The story is a curious one, an interfaith one.  For the Centurion, a local roman commander of soldiers, would have been a follower of the Roman religion, believing in Jupiter and Mars and all those Gods.

We shouldn’t think of this centurion as the local police chief- he was an occupying soldier of the foreign Roman empire, an empire Jesus opposes, and which would ultimately execute him. Yet Jesus hears him out, and agrees to heal his servant who is paralyzed. Yet that is not the end of the story, when it very well might have been. Instead, this centurion, who we can imagine to be a tough guy, probably in his 30s or 40s, a veteran of war, a soldier, recognizing Jesus’ power and authority over life and death. “Simply say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

The centurion is able to recognize Jesus’s authority because he knows, he’s aware of his own power and authority and how they affect others. This centurion essentially says in more poetic language, “I order people about and they do things, so I understand that you can do the same thing.”

The centurion is, because of his community.  The centurion makes sense because of the Roman soldiers, and because he realizes it, he is then able to recognize Jesus’ own authority. Ubuntu- I am, because we are.

And these are not the sole times in the bible in which people’s faith, identity, or humanity is best understood as part of a group rather than as individuals. In the Old Testament, salvation is often talked about as happening not to individuals, but to the whole nation of Israel. 

I am, because we are

Paul reminds us that we are part of one body of Christ, ears and eyes and hands, working and living together in following Christ.

I am, because we are

Indeed, the stories of faith- from the first people, to the Exodus of the Israelites to their Exile to Babylon, from Jesus’s birth to his death, and resurrection, are stories of communities, not just individuals.

I am, because we are.

So if the Bible tells us that we are only through and because of the communities we inhabited, the saints that nurtured us, our relationship with those who will come after us, and of course, the God who loves us, what does that mean for us?

What does it mean that I am, because we are?

I’m not going to be the one to tell you, as I’m figuring it out too, but, I’m willing to help us all out in moving closer to the answers.  After all,

I am, because we are. Amen.