Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Church Family

One day, a religious “know-it-all” approached Jesus and asked him to choose among the 613 commandments enjoined upon the religious of Jesus’ day (613 = 365 – one for every day of the year, plus 248 – one for every bone of the human body). Jesus captured it with two simple obligations: Love God; love your neighbor. In this claim, Jesus was reaching back to the teachers of Torah (Ex. 20:16f.; Lev. 19:18), and stretching forward to the teachers of the Church (Paul – Rom. 13:9 and James 2:8), in affirming the solidarity and unanimity of biblical voices calling for a “good neighbor policy” as an essential characteristic of the life of faith.

In Jesus’ culture, where there were no governmentally sanctioned support systems to ensure the ethical treatment of strangers, hospitality (“loving one’s neighbor”) was not just a courtesy, it was a vital part of the social fabric. I have a Christian Palestinian friend who lives in Beth Jala, a small village near Bethlehem. Every time I visit in his home, he embraces me, kisses me on both cheeks, and says, “My home is your home; my possessions are your possessions; they are yours; do with them as you will, for you are not a stranger in my house.” Of course, he doesn’t mean that literally (Don’t try to make off with his television set!), but he does mean that seriously. It is a part of his faith in God that He turns us from “strangers” into “neighbors.”

And so it is in the church of Jesus Christ. I note that one of the most frequently cited adjectives in church literature is “family.” “Come join our church family,” we’re told. “We’re like a family here,” they say. “Where you’re a member of our family,” some claim. When a congregation these days is referred to in collective fashion, it is most usually with the phrase “church family.” We mean by that, I presume, that our relationships have been formed and forged by a common history that binds us together in ways not easily accessible to those who have not shared our history and story. Two observations: (1) I find it ironic that the contemporary church should prefer this familial language for self-description in light of the fact that one of the most frequently cited critiques of the early Church by the Roman Empire was that it was anti­-family. That’s because the Christian claim upon the people of God was so complete, so radical, so absolute that it often set father against son, mother against daughter, brother against brother. In the early Church, family was not a “drop-in affair;” (2) there is no place so lonely as a family reunion when you’re not “family.” Is that why the concept of “neighbor” is so important in the Scriptures? Perhaps so.

I know this: As Christians we are commanded to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” What does that mean for the church, for you and me? I don’t know for sure. But I think it means moving out of our familiar and familial comfort zone looking for new “neighbors” to know and love, rather than huddling with our own all the time. I think it means that. I think it means inviting the stranger inside the “inner ring,” as C. S. Lewis called it. I think it means that. I think it means a warm smile, a firm handshake, a welcome pew, a place at the Table, and the kind of “inclusive love” that turns stranger into neighbor. I think it means that.

Edwin Markham’s (1852-1940), Outwitted, puts it this way:

He drew a circle that shut me out/Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout./But Love and I had the wit to win:/We drew a circle that took him in!

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