The Family of God
June 21, 2015
I’d like to begin this morning by making a confession—and it’s a terrible confession to make given that it is Father’s Day and I genuinely hope all of the fathers in the congregation feel appreciated today! But my confession is that I do not like celebrating secular holidays in worship services. I know, I know. Such a Scrooge! Such a killjoy!
Now to be clear, I never missed a single Mother or Father’s Day when my parents were alive. I was a grateful and dutiful daughter who enjoyed spending time and taking care selecting a card with just the right sentiment and considering what might be appropriate gifts to celebrate the parents who loved and raised me.
But I just don’t like celebrating these secular holidays in church.
Our backgrounds and experiences inevitably have an impact upon our preferences and, I confess, my own experiences have colored my view of celebrating secular holidays in church worship services.
Having married for the first time at the age 53, I have at times struggled, trying to handle being bombarded with commercial advertisements for red hearts, chocolates, and flowers taken to represent romantic love on Valentine’s Day every February, especially during periods when I wasn’t dating anyone nor even had any prospects.
Similarly, not having had the opportunity or pleasure of having my own children—and then losing my mother in 2007—I similarly have mixed feelings each time Mother’s Day rolls around. Ditto after having lost my father in 2003.
So because particular secular holidays can be difficult for those who are excluded from celebrating them by virtue of not fitting in, when churches have added to this pain by incorporating the secular celebration into holy worship, not realizing they may be adding to the pain the single or childless or motherless may already be experiencing, it hasn’t been easy. Making the celebration of secular holidays part of Sunday worship could cause me to question my core identity as a single woman seeking to follow Christ.
As I anticipated Mother’s Day this year, I decided to Google its origins and learned an interesting bit of information from the <history.com> website:
the clearest modern precedent for Mother’s Day is the early Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday.” Once a major tradition in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, this celebration fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent and was originally seen as a time when the faithful would return to their “mother church”—the main church in the vicinity of their home—for a special service.
Isn’t that wonderful??? A celebration of mothers understood not as our earthly mothers but as our mother church? Now there’s a celebration I can get on board with!
Now though I don’t actually view the local church as “mother,” nonetheless I’d like to suggest that referring to it as such is more in keeping with a Scriptural understanding than any secular celebration of lovers, mothers, or fathers. The notion of a “mother church” views believers as being connected to one another not because the church is our mother but because God is our Father and we therefore are brothers and sisters to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and to one another. And this is because believers are family to both God and other believers in a profound and wonderful manner.
As Bob was reading our passage this morning, you may have thought: “Hmmmm. Did Laura forget what month we’re in? Lent and Easter are behind us. Why are we considering Jesus’ crucifixion now?” Good question!
The reason we’re doing so now is because for the past few weeks we’ve been considering biblical images of the church and this passage is a poignant one that can deepen our understanding of who we are corporately as a church. In this passage we see Jesus crucified—being put to death by being nailed to a cross. This is a horrific way to die, filled with shame and anguish. He is hanging on the cross with two common criminals, one on either side of him. And, per the custom of the day, a notice or inscription has been placed on his cross to indicate the crime for which he was being executed, presumably as a deterrent to others: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”—at which notice some Jewish leaders take umbrage, noting he merely claimed to be king of the Jews. But Pilate leaves the sign as is. What’s done is done.
To make matters worse, the soldiers who crucified Jesus—who placed him on the cross—take his clothes and divide them up by lot. Jesus is still alive. The removal of his clothes adds to his humiliation. And though the soldiers may have thought they had power over Jesus, they’re wrong for John tells us that even this seemingly mundane act of dividing Jesus’ clothes by lot is not simply an independent act on their part, but one that was prophesied by David in Psalm 22:18: “They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” So in their greedy actions, the soldiers are also fulfilling a prophesy made nearly a thousand years earlier.
So think about it. Can we even begin to put ourselves in Jesus’ place? Over the course of a few days (beginning with John chapter 18),
he has been betrayed by one of the disciples from his inner circle, Judas Iscariot (John 18:2ff);
he has been denied three times by one of the disciples from his inner inner circle, Peter (John 18:15ff);
he has been questioned by Annas the high priest, a leader among Jewish believers (John 18:19ff);
he is slapped in the face by an official simply for answering Annas’ questions (John 18:22);
he is sent bound to Caiphas, the official high priest, who presided over the Sanhedrin (John 18:24);
he is taken to the palace of Pilate, the Roman governor (John 18:28ff);
he is tried as a criminal (John 18:29ff) and,
when Pilate offers to release him to the crowd as the one prisoner that was allowed to be released at the time of Passover, the crowd cries out “No—give us Barabbas,” a criminal who had taken part in an uprising (John 18:39ff).
In John 19, the account of Jesus’ disgrace continues.
He is flogged (19:1);
he has crown of thorns placed on his head and is clothed in a purple robe (19:2);
he is mockingly hailed as king of the Jews and is again slapped in the face (19:3).
Then when Pilate presents him to the Jews that have gathered, the chief priests and officials shout out “Crucify! Crucify!” (19:6), and continue to do so despite Pilate’s attempt to intervene (19:12ff).
Despite his exhaustion, Jesus is made to carry his own cross (19:17) and is then crucified.
And it is while he is being crucified—while he is hanging nailed to the cross; while he is wearing a crown of thorns that is no doubt cutting into his head; while he has had his clothes removed—that John draws our attention for a moment not to Jesus, but to three different Marys  his mother;  his aunt; and  Mary Magdalene, an early follower of Jesus who, according to Luke, had seven demons cast out of her (Luke 8:2). All of these women are watching Jesus as they stand nearby.
Despite his suffering and humiliation, when Jesus sees his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby—and scholars are pretty much in agreement that this disciple is John, since elsewhere he seems to refer to himself in this manner (John 21:7)—Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, here is your son” and, conversely, he says to John, “Here is your mother.”
Have you ever thought about the transition that takes place in family relationships as we move from the Old to the New Testament? In the Old, we have the establishment of the nation of Israel from the seed of one man, Abraham—who bears Isaac—who bears Jacob—whose name is changed to Israel—and from whose numerous sons the 12 nations of Israel are founded; but in the New Testament, although these national distinctions aren’t erased —for example, Paul identifies himself as being from the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5)—nonetheless they become far less prominent. With the grafting in of Gentiles into the descendants of Abraham’s family—and so fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham that through him all of the nations of the world would be blessed (Gen. 12:1–3)—being identified with a particular tribe from the nation of Israel begins to fall by the wayside. What comes to matter isn’t what biological family or tribe one is from but oneness is now due to knowing and worshipping the same God—the one and only—Father in heaven.
And this reality is beautifully expressed when Jesus, knowing he would soon be dying, turns to his mother and indicates she is to take John as her son, and similarly turns to John and indicates he is to take Mary as his mother. And John acts on this immediately for we’re told “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” Isn’t that beautiful??? Two people who aren’t related to one another by any blood or family lineage are now going on to live as though they were—as though they were mother and son.
Well, we may say that this passage simply illustrates Jesus being a dutiful son who is trying to make sure his mother is provided for once he dies. But here’s the thing. As we know, referring to believers as family and brothers and sisters becomes the customary way in which the New Testament church understands and refers to itself.
Being rather compulsive, I actually did a search of the NIV online Bible, looking for any references to “brother” or “sister” throughout the New Testament and ignoring those that referred to biological family. And do you know what I found? Anyone want to venture a guess as to how many times—approximately—believers who are not relatives of one another are referred to as either “brother” or “sister” or “family”? It’s around 250!
Here is just a small sampling of believers being regularly referred to as brother or sister:
Ananias refers to Paul, who was then Saul, as “Brother Saul” (Acts 9:17);
Paul commends “our sister Phoebe” (Romans 16:1)
and says to “Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them.”
He notes that Gaius, Erastus, “and our brother Quartus send…their greetings” (Romans 16:23).
He speaks of “our brother Sosthenes,” (v. I Corinthians 1:1) and
“our brother Apollos” (I Corinthians 16:12)
adding that “All the brothers and sisters” send their greetings.
Five times Paul refers to Timothy as “our brother” (2 Corinthians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, I Thess. 3:2, Philemon 1:1, Hebrews 13:23).
So, too, “my brother Titus” (2 Corinthians 2:13).
Tychicus is “the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord,” (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7)
Epaphroditus is Paul’s “brother, co-worker and fellow soldier” Philippians 2:25.
Apphia is “our sister” (Philemon 1:2).
Paul has an awfully big family, doesn’t he????
And it isn’t just Paul who uses this language. Silas is regarded “as a faithful brother” by Peter (I Peter 5:12).
Peter also refers to Paul as “our dear brother Paul” (2 Peter 3:15).
Similarly John refers to himself as “your brother and companion” (Revelation 1:9).
This truth—the fact that believers are to view one another as family— is so fundamental that it becomes a part not only of the early church’s practice but also of the New Testament’s teaching:
In I Timothy 5:1–2 Paul says “1Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, 2older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters.” That pretty much wraps up all the members of a nuclear family—except this nuclear family is comprised of people whose union is Christ, not blood relations.
The fact that we as believers are family to one another should even break beyond our economic and social position. In Philemon 1:16 Paul exhorts Philemon, a man who owned a slave who had run away from him and whom Paul was sending back to him, to treat this slave whom Paul calls a son in verse 10, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” He then adds—in case Philemon missed it—that this slave, named Onesimus, “is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” In case Philemon is tempted to treat Onesimus merely as a slave once he returns and perhaps punish him for having run away, Paul reminds Philemon that Onesimus is more than a slave—he is Philemon’s brother in the Lord.
Do you see what Jesus Christ—the second member of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God the Father—started? By taking on human flesh and living and suffering and dying and rising for us and for salvation—by providing a way for us to love God as Father—he has provided a way not only for us to become his brother, but also to become brothers and sisters to one another. And his family is recognizable because, like him, we seek to do God’s will. This is what Jesus taught even before he was crucified stating that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50; see parallels in Mark 3:35; Luke 8:21). Jesus’ true family is comprised of those who seek to do our heavenly Father’s will. Not only that but we are told that it is impossible to love God as a follower of Christ and not love other believers—something we saw last week in considering Matthew 25. What we do—or do not do—to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to Jesus himself (40).
In I John 4:20–21, we’re told: “20Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” Elsewhere John again reminds us that “9Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 10Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them” (I John 2:9–11). I John is full of these reminders. In chapter 3, he states: “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister” (I John 3:10). And then again in vv. 16–17: “16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
After Jesus’ resurrection Christians came to see each other so much as family that they treated each other in ways that the culture at that time indicated family should treat one another. An example of this is kissing each other as a form of greeting. In Acts 20:37, when Paul is saying good-bye to the elders of the church at Ephesus, whom he doesn’t expect to ever see again, we’re told that these elders “all wept as they embraced him and kissed him.” Paul exhorts the churches in Rome, Corinth, and Thessalonica to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; I Thessalonians 5:26). So, too, Peter encourages believers to “Greet one another with a kiss of love” (I Peter 5:14).
Earlier this year Ron and I went to the seminary to hear an Old Testament scholar, Gordon Hugenberger, and one of the things he noted was that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was a double betrayal because he not only turned Jesus over to those who were trying to indict him, but he did so by kissing Jesus—thus using a gesture used to indicate affection for one’s family (Mt. 26:45–49; Mk. 14:44–45; Lk. 22:46–48).
Throughout the New Testament the fact that we are family provides the basis for urging one another towards holiness—urging one another to live our lives the way God would have us live them. Jesus tells us that if we’re offering a sacrifice to God but at the altar remember that a brother or sister has something against us, our first obligation is to make things right with the sibling in Christ (Matthew 5:23–24). And, if a brother or sister is the who has sinned, we are to go to them that they might be won over (Matthew 18:15ff)—and we are to do this seventy times seven times. In other words, as often as needed (sa Luke 17:3ff).
The fact that believers are family provides the basis for helping other believers—even those who aren’t a part of our local congregation. In Acts 11:29 we’re told that “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.” This help needn’t be monetary only but can also be by way of encouragement. When Paul and Silas came out of prison they went to Lydia’s house “where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them” (Acts 16:40). So, too “the brothers and sisters encouraged” Apollos to go to Achaia (Acts 18:27). This help can take the form of hospitality. Luke tells us that while in a region called Puteoli they “found some brothers and sisters who invited [them] to spend a week with them” (Acts 28:14). When Paul lands at Ptolemais, he and those with him “greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day” and he states similarly that at Jerusalem “the brothers and sisters received us warmly” (Acts 21:7).
As God’s family we are called, time and again, to love and care for one another. The author of Hebrews tells us to “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters (Hebrews 13:1).” Paul exhorts us “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10). So, too, Peter—“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (I Peter 2:17).
That fact that we are family to one another provides the basis for church discipline. Paul admonishes, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently…” (Galatians 6:1). And again, “…we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (I Thessalonians 5:14).
This passage also reminds us of the fact that being family provides the basis for the weaker brother or sister principle or the idea that simply because we have liberty in Christ, we shouldn’t flaunt that liberty, demanding our own rights, but we should consider that others may be tempted in areas that aren’t a temptation to us (Romans 14:15ff). This is one reason many Christians choose not to drink. It isn’t that drinking is wrong—Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1ff) and Paul encourages Timothy to take a little wine for his upset stomach (I Timothy 5:23)—but if someone, for example, has struggled with alcoholism—and getting drunk is forbidden in Scripture (Romans 13:13, I Corinthians 5:11, Galatians 5:21, Ephesians 5:18, I Peter 4:3)—then for their sake it may be better for us to abstain as well. As Paul states, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall” (Romans 14:21).
Brothers and sisters, do you see how all-encompassing our relationship to one another is because of Christ’s love for us. We are here this morning to worship Jesus. But we are here as a part of his family. And being part of God’s family means not only that we worship together but we should be caring for one another—helping one another where there is need.
Ron and I are reading a book by Gary Thomas entitled Sacred Marriage and in it he states the following: “When we love well, we please God. This shouldn’t be hard to figure out. The best way for someone to get into my good graces is to be kind to my children. All Christians are God’s children; by loving others, we bring enormous pleasure to our heavenly Father” (41, emphasis added).
Brothers and sisters, when we love each other, our Father in heaven is brought enormous pleasure. Part of the reason we encourage you to share prayer requests each week in the friendship folder is that we want to pray for you and do whatever else is possible to care for you.
This is also why when I have been sending you e-mails to the Linebrook Church distribution, I always and intentionally begin with “Dear Linebrook family” because we are family.
This past week we have been praying for and I’ve been keeping you updated on one of our sisters, Sue Lindsay. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster, hasn’t it?—learning that she had been taken to the hospital Monday, then waiting for test results, then the wonderful news that she was home and recovering. In my short time here, I’ve come to adopt Sue and Dave as my parents in Christ and I’ll tell you, when I received an e-mail from Sue Friday morning telling me she was home, I practically jumped out of my chair for joy!
But our connection isn’t just with our local body. Our love for our family in Christ should extend to Christians throughout the world. This past week we learned of a horrific shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine members of an AME church were killed during a prayer meeting. We should continue to weep with and pray for these dear brothers and sisters for they, too, are out family.
I received the following notice in my Gordon-Conwell e-mail from Dennis Hollinger, the seminary’s president, in response to this tragic event:
“When one part of the Body suffers, the whole Body suffers with it (I Cor. 12:26). Thus, as a seminary community we grieve for the loss of precious human life through the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina. We grieve for the families and church members who have lost loved ones, but we also grieve for our nation that too frequently suffers from hatred, violence and racism.
“We pray that God’s tender mercies will be poured out upon our brothers and sisters in Charleston, and upon our African-American friends throughout America as they once again ask, “Why us?” As a seminary we believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to suffering, injustice and hatred. We renew ourselves in the call to live out the implications of the Gospel and to faithfully proclaim it in the midst of human loss and brokenness.”
Please pray with me….