What do you think of when you hear the word “church”? Someone might say, Well, I think of a building, a nice-looking place. Or, It’s a place you go on Sunday. Others may say, Well, I think of the denomination – like ‘I go to the Lutheran Church.’
Some people have rather distorted images of the church. For some, the church is like a gas station. It’s where you go to fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low. It’s where you can get a good sermon to keep you going for the week.
For others the church is like a movie theater, it’s a place to offer some entertainment. For an hour you can escape, get comfortable seats, leave your problems at the door, and come out feeling better than when you went in.
For others, the church is like a drugstore where you can fill a prescription to deal with the pain in your life. Many churches are therapeutic.
The church is seen by some as a big-box retailer. They see it as a place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. It offers great services at a low price – an all-in-one stop.
The church is a producer of programs for children, young people.
Some see the church in a negative light. A book came out years ago that said, “People love Jesus, but they don’t like His Church.”
Some see the church as an afterthought, something man-made. But really, we know from reading the Gospels, the Church was God’s idea.
John Stott, an evangelical scholar from the last century wrote, “The Church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God. It’s not a divine afterthought. It’s not an accident of history. On the contrary, the Church is God’s new community.”
Today I would propose to you that the Church is not something you go to; it’s not something to be devalued. It is what you are if you are in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
This past year, a show came on television that was a very surprising blockbuster entitled, This Is Us. It’s the story about a family looking back on their past as they deal with the present and come to grips with who they are within the family. In the New Testament is a book that could very well be entitled the same thing – “This Is Us”. It’s a letter written by the Apostle Paul to some Christians who were trying to figure out what it meant to be the Church.
He tells them in the opening parts of the letter how wonderful it is to be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This is what has happened to them. Once they were dead, but now they are alive.
But then, in the nitty-gritty of the whole letter itself, is a talk about what it means to be Church. Paul says, I want to talk Church with you. He holds up different images for them and says, This is us – you and I – the Church. One image he uses is today’s passage where we read we are family. “So now, you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family.” When you become a follower of Jesus Christ, you inherit brothers and sisters who are connected through Christ to each other.
An interesting thought to consider is, How does one become a member of our earthly family? It is through birth or adoption, right? Well, we enter Christ’s family the same way.
In John chapter 3, we find Jesus talking with a religious man named Nicodemus about the importance of being born again – born into the family of God, becoming a new person in Christ. We’re adopted into God’s family through baptism. This description of church families is a very intimate image when you think about it. We, as families, would probably die for each other. As a parent, I would die for my kids. Some of us would even admit that we would be willing to kill for each other.
Family is where they have to take you in. It’s a place where you belong! I imagine those people who received this letter from Paul sat up straight in their seats when this line about them being members of a family was read to them. The Jews and the Gentiles had a history of hostility and suspicion. After all, they were different cultures, different backgrounds, different bloodlines, different religious beliefs. In the early years the only thing they held in common was their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. The only thing they have in common now is their forgiveness in Jesus Christ, which makes them family. It must’ve caught them off guard.
You’ve heard the adage – Blood is thicker than water. Well, God turns this phrase on its head and says to us in this passage today, Water is thicker than blood. The waters of baptism are thicker than blood. Now you are family, Paul says. The walls are down. You are no longer Jews and non-Jews, but now family in Christ!
I tease my congregation – “You’re no longer Vikings fans and Packer fans. Now you’re family in Christ. You’re no longer Republicans and Democrats; now you’re God’s family in Christ. No longer black, or white, or yellow, or red, or brown, but family – brothers and sisters in Christ. No longer employers and employees but family on equal footing in Christ. No longer Dane, or German, Norwegian, or Swedish, but family. This is us; we’re family, Paul says.
We have privileges and responsibilities as a part of the family. In our earthly families, we have family privileges. I had a key to my parents’ house. I knew I had a roof over my head and the security of a loving father and mother. The refrigerator was mine to open and help myself to food. When I was old enough, I had the family car to drive.
In the same way in Christ’s Church – the family – we enjoy privileges as well. We have one Father in whom we can rest securely in knowing He loves us all the same. We belong. Everybody who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone who belongs to Christ. We don’t have to go through life facing situations alone; we have a family to lean on. We weep with one another, and we rejoice with one another. We are sharers in Christ’s promises and the promise of eternal life. The day will come when I will breathe my last, but I know I will be with Him in eternity. I have a place that has been prepared for me. I have forgiveness for my sins. I do not have to live any longer carrying old regrets. I take it to the cross. I have His Holy Spirit working in me, shaping me, molding me, empowering me, being with me.
Of course, along with privileges come responsibilities. Families take care of one another. They honor and respect one another. They serve one another. They love one another. I know it sounds good on paper, but as we all know, it’s not always an easy thing to do. All kinds of personalities are in families. Some are rather odd, peculiar, and difficult to be around.
The same is true in the family of God. So we need to do an honest inventory of ourselves as brothers and sisters in the family of God. Is anyone in your life being excluded? Ignored? Written off? Treated as a little less? Is everybody getting loved by you? How about the low-income person who oftentimes is overlooked in our society in favor of the “haves,” those who can financially give more to the church?
How about the shy, introverted person standing on the fringe of the lobby area at church, wishing someone would notice them? They can be kind of hard to talk to. How about the loud, obnoxious one who is inappropriately seeking attention all the time and causing trouble? How about the kid who smells funny, is always dirty, and wears clothes that aren’t very nice? No one wants to sit next to him in school. Will anybody want to sit with him in Sunday school? How about you?
How about the person struggling with his or her sexual identity? How about the less intelligent student who can’t pay attention in class, can’t keep up, and sometimes acts out? How about the person who votes differently than you at election time? How about the special needs person who can be difficult to communicate with? The person in the wheelchair who sometimes is made to feel as if they’re invisible?
Or the person whose body is covered with tattoos and piercings and their hair is strange? Or the single person who wonders, Does anyone care about single people in the church? Everything I hear is about the family. Or how about the person whose marriage has failed, or the addict who struggles to stay sober and keeps slipping back? How about the person whose theology is a little different from yours, a different slant. You can’t come to an agreement.
The list goes on and on. These are your brothers and sisters, your family in Christ, created in God’s image, redeemed by Jesus Christ at the cross and filled with the Holy Spirit. They are your family. My family. Are they getting our love? How are you doing as a brother or sister these days?
I am sure you’ve heard the statement used in our country – “No child left behind.” The church’s theme must be, No child of God left behind! You are family, called to love one another, serve one another. It’s not something we just talk about it. It begins with you doing just that. Love with your eyes for instance. Start noticing each other. Is someone standing on the fringe? Go to them, make the approach, look at them. Observe to see if you’re seeing troubled looks in people’s faces.
Love with your mouth. Ask good questions and be prepared then to let them respond. Talk kindly to one another. Encourage and affirm.
How about loving with your ears? God gave us two ears and one mouth for a good reason. You can do a lot of love with your ears. Listen to that person. Pay attention, be interested, make them feel as if they are the most important person on the planet as they talk with you.
Love them with your hands and feet. It might be through service. It might be by writing them a card to encourage them or going just to be with them, not needing to say anything, just being present. Let your feet carry you over.
Be committed enough to show up and do for one another. This is what it means to love one another. It’s not always convenient. It’s sometimes painful and may not get noticed or receive a word of thanks or appreciation. But this is what Jesus was talking about when He calls us His family.
Perfect? No! No, no, no. No such thing as a perfect family, as you know, this side of heaven because we’re all sinners. We have a tendency to fall and fail, to look out after number one all too often.
What a vision this is of what could be for this broken world! Think of it! Look at how they love each other! I want some of that. Jesus knew that. He said, “Love one another. By this all people will know that you’re my disciples” (John 13:35). Love one another. “Let your light shine, and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
I like an image I came across about the church as a family. It’s like a bad high school band. But God will use the imperfect us – with our imperfect love – to display His glory.
Earl Palmer, an author, and former pastor wrote this. When California’s Milpitas High School orchestra attempts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the result is rather appalling. He wrote, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the performance made old Ludwig roll over in his grave . . . You might ask: ‘Why bother? Why inflict on those poor kids and their parents the terrible burden of trying to render what the immortal Beethoven had in mind? Not even a great symphony orchestra can attain that perfection.’ My answer is this: the Milpitas High School orchestra will give some people in the audience their only encounter with Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony. Far from perfection, it is nevertheless the only way they will ever hear Beethoven’s message.”
What Palmer is pointing out is that the only way a starving, thirsty, deluded, and suffering world will ever hear the music of the gospel is through the family of Christ. It may arguably be the worst “high school orchestra” ever to appear on a bandstand, but it’s God’s orchestra. It’s God’s ragtag, big band, and He’s chosen to use us as His family to attract others in.
Church! This is us. We’re family. Love one another. Amen.
Rev. Steve Kramer