What does your family look like?
I met my friend Eric the summer before senior year of high school. At first, we got to be friends through a large of people who hung out together. Pretty soon, though, we became inseparable. What sealed the deal was the fact that Eric had no curfew, so I often ended up spending the night over there. Truth be told, though, we were rarely up to anything more adventurous than drinking gallons of Mountain Dew to stay awake, driving around listening to R.E.M.
As I describe it that way, this doesn’t really seem like the sturdiest basis for a friendship. But even now, I would consider Eric one of my closest friends. He lives with his family in Denver, and I don’t see him very often – maybe once a year or so – but it’s a friendship that still feels like it can pick up where we left off.
Who is like that for you? What does your family look like?
There is something crucial about this kind of friendship. They seem to exist to remind us that we are not alone in the universe. Literal family relations can be complicated – we know that. No one knows you like family, and that’s a double-edged sword. Families remember things about you, like that time you lied about spending the night at a friend’s house, and they can get stuck in the assumption that nothing has changed, that those temper tantrums you threw when you were seven years old are still the way you operate in your 30s or 40s. That said, families can be there for you when no one else is.
At the same time, there’s nothing truly universal we can say about families. They can be messy, even destructive. And in those situations, the healthiest thing we can do is protect ourselves and those we love, even if it means we have to sever relationships with those whose DNA is closest to our own. We can’t choose our families. But we can choose our friends. And sometimes, they can become our truest family.
There is something powerful about redefining family. There is also something deeply Christian about it, too. Jesus inherited the assumptions about bloodline of his day, and chose to challenge them directly. “Who is my mother?” he asked. “Who are my brothers?” The letter to the Ephesians takes these questions and runs with them.
Paul, the originator of the letter, was in a unique position. He had once been known as Saul, a fierce Pharisee, a scholar of the sacred Law, a persecutor of the fledgling Christian community. He oversaw the murder of Stephen and was on his way to Damascus to stamp out the movement when he was struck blind so that his eyes might be truly opened.
Paul was, as the saying goes, more Catholic than the Pope. He had all of the tribal bonafides of Jewish observance of Law and blood relation. So it is intriguing, to say the least, that his call ends up being not to those he is like, but to those very different from himself. Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish nations and peoples.
This was a controversial issue within the early church leadership. All of them were Jewish, and in the earliest days, most of those who had become Christian were Jewish as well. In fact, Christianity began not as a separate religion, but as a sect of Judaism, meeting in synagogues and following Jewish rituals. Paul broke all of that wide open, and pretty soon, other apostles were being confronted with similar revelations about the universal purpose of Jesus and his gospel.
By the time we get to Ephesians, things have evolved to the point that we have this radical statement: “Christ is our peace, bringing Jews and Gentiles together.” It goes on to say, “You are no longer strangers or aliens. You are citizens with the saints, members of the household of God.” In other words, family within the church is a very different reality.
I’m struck by that truth – or by the vision it paints, at least – in light of developments in the Middle East. In many ways, the place that gave birth to Christianity seems more divided than ever. Our own nation is gearing up for war with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a brutal movement sweeping through Syria and Iraq. They seem intent on wiping out what little cultural and religious diversity is left in that region.
Some of you know that Elizabeth and I spent a significant part of our lives living in the Middle East. We were blessed to visit with Christian communities in Syria and Iraq – communities that, in some cases, no longer exist thanks to ISIS. Churches where we worshiped ten years ago are now shuttered. Friends have been threatened, a few even killed. If we as a church take Ephesians seriously, that means that our family is in danger.
What does your family look like?
I don’t plan to get into the politics of all of this today. In fact, I don’t even know what I think about any of it. On the one hand, I know that ISIL is a horrific threat. You know you’re out there when even Al-Qaeda looks at you and says, “What ever happened to subtlety?” On the other hand, if Jesus is the Prince of Peace as we say he is, then what place, if any, does war have for those who call him Lord?
Even if I knew what to do, I struggle with what I could do as only one person to affect some kind of change. But today, I am convicted by this idea that we can do more, much more, to build the family of faith, the household of God, within our own lives and communities. Long before we get to the point of having to decide whether or not to pull the trigger, we should expend our energy strengthening God’s family – that is, our family.
One of the things that sticks with me from our time in the Middle East is the overwhelming presence of hospitality. When you are welcomed into an Arab household, you are greeted with a beautiful phrase: ahlan wa-sahlan. Most people will tell you it translates to “welcome”, and that’s more or less true. The more literal translation, however, reveals something potent: “May your way be easy; and may we welcome you as though you were family.”
We heard this phrase from Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims alike, this desire, this hope, to be knit together as family. So even as I hear this lesson from Ephesians, I can’t help but wonder: do we try to limit God’s grand vision for humanity by building walls to divide? According to our text today, that walls are not meant to go up, but to come down. Whatever confessional divisions we might create, no matter how important those connections within the community of faith might be, I’m pretty sure that God has a bigger picture than any of that for who matters and who is in God’s circle of grace.
That’s one of the reasons I’m committed to participating in Oglethorpe University’s interfaith panel each year. I am a Christian. And on good days, I’m fairly sure I know what that means. That said, if I treat faith as a way to keep others out or keep myself in, then I think I might be missing the point.
The more we are able to put ourselves out there, the more likely we are to be moved by the things that move the heart of God. It may not be the easy thing to do. But it’s almost certainly the faithful thing to do. And in our highly mobile world, especially within the odd and wonderful diversity of this nation, we have more opportunities to erase those lines and enter into new and challenging relationships. The Oglethorpe University panel is just one opportunity of many before us.
At the same time, I don’t have any illusions that what I do today will change the world. But if that’s the requirement we put before we act, then we won’t get much done, will we? It always starts with something small. And yet, those small things can build together to change the world, to shape little corners of it into grace-filled corners of the kingdom of God.
Today, I want you to think of people in your life who are not blood family and who are not part of your church community. And I want you to send them a simple note, saying something like, “When I think about my life, I am grateful that you are in it.” Feel free to link to this blog.
It’s a small step. And yet, it’s one that can help us remember who is important to us. And when we do that, we begin to take down those walls and open ourselves up to the promises of what it looks like to live in the household of God!
May it be so.