Welcome to the family of God.
You may have missed that message in today’s Scripture; it’s kind of hidden in all of 1 John’s overly poetic language. Hear it again from 5:1:
“Everyone who believes in Jesus the Christ has been born of God…”
In this family tree, God is the parent. We don’t have to be genetically related; God is the one who created us, and by faith we are made officially God’s children. Most of us think of God as our Father. Jesus called God “Abba,” an Aramaic word that translates better as “Daddy.” But many of believe that God is neither male nor female; maybe today, on Mother’s Day, it helps to think of God as “Mommy.” That works, too – God is our perfect parent.
“…and everyone who loves the parent, loves the child.”
We are not God’s only child; we have siblings in the faith. Look around! Everyone here in church today is your brother or your sister. If you love God, 1 John tells us, then you love them too.
What a nice image. We are a big, happy, faith-based family, like this one:
That’s nice… except that families aren’t really like the Cleavers.
This was a rude awakening to me when I had kids of my own. I had all those picture-postcard memories from childhood in my mind: that picnic on the beach, that trip to Disney World, all those family dinners. I didn’t realize the messy struggle behind those moments. Leading up to that cute Disney picture was a week-long packing session that makes a parent reconsider whether any trip could possibly be worth all that preparation. Before we took that sweet beach picture, my parents had to hogtie and sit on each one of us to apply sunscreen. And family dinners? I don’t even want to talk about family dinners. Who knew I’d ever spend so much of my life planning and purchasing and preparing meals?
That’s all in a relatively “normal” family (for lack of a better word). Then there’s families like the one my friend Allie came from. She never knew her biological dad. Her “father figure” was a stepdad who was much more into alcohol and abuse than love and support.
Real families are not the Cleavers. Often we can be more like the Ewings…
…or the Bundys…
…or maybe even the Sopranos.
None of our families of origin are perfect, and they all affect who we are and how we treat others as adults. This means that our faith-based family – where God is our Father and we are each others’ siblings – will resemble our real-life families. We sometimes treat our brothers and sisters in Christ a lot more the Bundys or the Ewings or the Sopranos than anything resembling the Cleavers.
So this image in 1 John is pretty poetry, but is it helpful? How can we build a family of Christ that is better than anything we’ve known here on earth? It doesn’t seem possible.
This is the time of year when we Methodists begin to think of Annual Conference, our once-a-year meeting for worship and learning and making decisions. All the pastors from our Western North Carolina Conference will get together at Lake Junaluska, with one or more lay representatives from each church.
I genuinely look forward to Annual Conference each year. I love the worship and the reunions with old friends and the teaching. I even kind of like the long “meeting” sessions. There’s a lot about Annual Conference that’s so uplifting, it makes me think our Christian family *is* like the Cleavers.
There are a few things, though, that feel more like the drama of the Ewings, or the disrespect of the Bundys, or the organized badness of the Sopranos. This year, for example, we’ll be voting on who gets to go to our larger “General Conference” in 2016. We elect just 10 clergy to represent us – that’s 10 out of nearly 1,700 pastors. There are quiet campaigns for certain people and against other people. Some of this is done in a positive way. Some of it is not.
Last year’s Annual Conference involved a lot of discussion about human sexuality. I was impressed by some conversations about marriage and ordination that were amazingly constructive, exploring the opinions on either side with respect and love. I was equally impressed (but in a different way) by the deconstructive conversations – ones that failed to view those of a differing opinion as brothers and sisters in Christ.
I went home afterward concerned about the future of our church in general and my church in specific. If we can’t talk about this issue in a loving way, then what kind of family are we? Will we become one of those families where Uncle Ned hasn’t spoken to Uncle Joe in twenty-five years? Where we stop having reunions because we can no longer get along?
I laid awake one night praying over this, unable to sleep. I kept mulling things over in my mind without coming to any productive solution. Finally, in that desperate hour just before I resort to a snort of Nyquil, I began to pray. “God, what do we do? What do I do?”
“Love me first,” God replied.
It wasn’t an audible voice, but it was very clear; a loud thought that immediately stopped all my inner dialogue. I don’t get a clear response from God like this very often – only a handful of times so far in my life – so when I do, I try to shut up and listen.
It’s a kind of strange response, though. I was worrying and praying about my Christ-born siblings, not my relationship with God. What does loving God first have to do with getting along with each other?
But I remembered Jesus saying something like this when the lawyer asked him about the most important commandment. Jesus answered with two, and I’m particularly fond of the second one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). I can sometimes get caught up in that command, partly because I really love people and partly because I’m a bit of a people pleaser. I might sometimes act like “love your neighbor” is the first commandment, but it’s not; the first is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Loving God comes first.
This is what 1 John is getting at, too. God is the start of it all. We’re in this family because of God; we love each other because of God. God is our Father Creator who made any and all people who we might want to love. When we love God first we acknowledge that truth, and we enter into a first love that is a good, perfect, healthy love.
For most people, our first love experience is our family of origin. We have no choice in this family which may or may not be a positive environment. Our parents might show us a healthy way to love, or they might show us a strange way to love. For better or worse, that is the first love we are born into and the one which effects every relationship we will ever have.
But what if we had a first love, even before that?
God knew us even before our parents knew us, after all. God is our first love. When we accept that, we begin to lean into that love. We experience a love that is truly unconditional. One that forgives endlessly. One that is not earned by performance or retracted because of failures. One that not just wants the best for us, but knows the best for us. A truly perfect love.
We spend time in that love. We read Scripture, go to worship, pray. We love God first.
And then, over time, God’s love becomes our first love – and the love from the Father shapes the way we love our fellow siblings in faith.
The end result is that our Christian family does not look like the Sopranos, Bundys, or Ewings. It doesn’t look like the Cleavers, either.
As the guys from Pulpit Fiction put it this week, it looks more like this:
It starts with God. By faith, we are God’s child, and God loves us. But God doesn’t just love me or you – God has many children, and God loves all of them. So we love those other children, too, and it’s a healthy love born out of God’s perfect love. This love keeps feeding itself, encouraging us to love God more, which makes us love the children more… around and around, more and more, ever increasing, bringing the Kingdom of God here on earth.
So, welcome to the family of God. It’s not the Cleavers – an idealized, fake-perfect family – but an eternally recycling relationship that continuously grows out of God’s truly perfect love.
Let 1 John tell you again how that family works:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:1-5).
Credit to Pulpit Fiction podcast, the New International Bible Commentary, the Peoples’ New Testament Commentary, and the Lectionary Lab Commentary.