Monday, February 8, 2010

Notes on Being the Church, Part III: The Church as Family

Basic to most traditions’ practices of education and initiation into the life of the church is that the church is now one’s “new” or “extended” or “true” family, that through baptism and participation in the life of the community, one now “belongs” as a “brother” or “sister” to others with whom there is, of course, no actual shared blood relation. It is so commonplace, even clichéd at times, that it is easy to forget just how radical it is to claim that here—in whatever particular ecclesial community we belong to, whose life and members claim us as their own—we have a new family, in many ways more important, more binding, and truer than mere blood relations with father, mother, sister, brother.

The church’s claim to family status is, on the one hand, undoubtedly odd, yet on the other hand, makes perfect sense in the context of the history of the people Israel. Though the alien and the stranger were to be welcomed and treated hospitably by Israelites living in the land, the essence of Torah—spoken as gracious Law for the ordering of Israel’s life together—was that as a Brother Israelite, simply by virtue of the pure grace of having been delivered from bondage and covenanted as a people with Yahweh, one must treat one’s fellow Brother Israelite as given family in the Brotherhood of Israel, as one would like to be treated oneself, as in fact Yahweh has treated Israel in steadfast faithfulness. That is, since it was the grace of Yahweh that created Israel through promise and deliverance in the first place, no individual Israelite can claim to belong to such a people by virtue of any fact except birth and unmerited blessing. Therefore to be a part of Yahweh’s family is to treat the rest of the family with respect, honor, trust, peace, and justice—especially toward the powerless or marginalized.

This assumption about what it means to belong to God’s family, this connection between what God has done in making us a people and how then we ought to act given the gift of peoplehood, is carried straight through into the New Testament’s language of the church as family. What is both unique and startling about the church, then, is illuminated by its difference from Israel; one’s “brotherhood” with fellow Israelites was not merely a theological claim, much less a sociological fiction, but a biological fact: God’s people are the descendants of father Abraham. The church’s claim to “family status,” however, has no basis in either blood or common ancestry, but rather in the singular action of the triune God in the incarnation, life, ministry, suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah. In the person of Christ all enmity has been destroyed between Israel and the nations, as well as between personal divisions of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. In this one man, exalted as Lord of the cosmos, the doors of Israel have been thrown open, all are welcome to come in, and by the work of the Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism, the coming new creation inaugurated in the resurrection intrudes into the present and establishes the people of God as truly reconciled brother and sister in Christ. In a way more real than we can know or understand, the waters of baptism are indeed thicker than the blood of kith and kin.

However, to be welcomed, received, and incorporated into God’s family in Christ—which, we might add, is simply another way of describing salvation—is no mere happenstance that happens either to us without our participation or for us without our response. What it means to be a brother or sister in Christ, what it means to live in and as the household of the God and Father of all, is not simply to be made family but to live as family—to belong to others in radical trust and interdependence, to learn the language and practices of worship and Scripture, to treat the community not as a group visited once a week but as one’s very lifeblood for survival and flourishing in a harsh and unforgiving world. It means, in other words, to live in love; as it is written in 1 John 3:16: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” And again in 1 John 4:19-21: “We love because he first loved us. If we say we love God yet hate our brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love our brother or sister, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen. And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another.”

This is the church as God’s own family: a people created and united in the holy love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lifted toward God in prayer and praise and demonstrated to one another by our lives, our words, and our actions. This, concretely and quite simply, is what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ.

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Therefore our working thesis will be:

The church’s life together as family is the singular act of God, in the cross and resurrection of Jesus and through the work of the Holy Spirit, of calling all nations to himself through Israel, breaking down the barriers that formerly alienated one from another, reconciling these diverse differences as gifts rather than threats, and constituting all in Christ as brothers and sisters in the household of God.

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