The Families of God

Some of us may have memories of Bible Camp or a weekend retreat where you got all fired up for Jesus! Basically, you were on a spiritual high – a mountaintop experience. How could it not be? You’re by a lake in the woods or up in the mountains somewhere, doing all these fun group activities – games and sports and such. There’s such a sense of togetherness! Then there’s singing songs by the campfire, rousing messages about Jesus’ sacrifices for you, the cute girls, of course – or cute guys – and one in particular that you kinda had your eye on.

But eventually you had to leave the mountaintop and go back to the valley where you live your everyday life, wake up in your own bed and the thrill is gone. The girl you liked at camp lives in some town named Wanamingo, and you’ll never see her again. Now you are faced with the glare of mundane, daily life. And all the good feelings and the God feelings are gone. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. Now it’s time to take out the garbage. How are you supposed to be Christian now??

The early Christians had to take up this question, too. The book of Acts describes what believers did after Jesus’ resurrection, ascension into heaven (literally a mountaintop experience), and of course, the most recent event, God’s Holy Spirit was given to them. Our text today picks up right after the day of Pentecost. Think of what a high that day must have been! A mysterious wind blew, they were filled with an inexplicable ecstasy, and after Peter’s sermon, thousands of people joined the cause.

But eventually, those folks had to wake up the next morning in their own bed, ask, “What happened yesterday?” But then the hard part. They had to get up in the morning and earn a living, ply their trade, try to keep their children in line. And most of the people in Jerusalem were not sympathetic to them, didn’t share their beliefs about Jesus. What do you do after the thrill is gone?

Well, they were now part of a story that had just blown wide open! Until now, people believed God resided in the inner sanctum of the sacred Temple. But now, something very different has happened in Jesus. The giving of the Holy Spirit has confirmed it: God is loose in the world: God is no longer confined to the temple. God is now present in the private spaces of their homes and in public spaces like the city center where Peter and John healed a man.

And the first thing God has done is to form a new family. In our gospel text it says:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

And because God has totally invested in the everyday world we live in, Jesus said to his followers, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” This is the family of God and their fellowship – their gathering – meant everything as they met daily in the temple to worship and learn, break bread and pray – the template for Christian community!

But this sense of family wasn’t reserved for the temple only: they shared their lives with each other, including their possessions. No one privately owned anything. Following Jesus’ cue, they believed that everyone should have enough, but not too much. They were a family that took care of one another.

And in this family, this community, there were matriarchal figures who were mothers to many – like Mary, for instance. So, kids growing up in this family could have more than one mother! At Mt Carmel, there is one member who affectionately refers to another as her “church mom.”

Dwight Moody, the great turn of the century preacher from Chicago, tells a story of why a faith family is so important. One winter night he hosted a visitor at his house. The visitor was skeptical of why someone needed to go to church if they already believed in God. What’s the point?

In response, Moody simply walked over to the fireplace where there was a pile of red-hot embers. Using tongs, he grabbed one ember from the pile and set it down by itself on the hearth.

And then the two men just watched for a few minutes as the ember gradually lost its heat and turned from red to black. Meanwhile, each ember in the pile of red-hot embers remained red-hot, sharing in the heat from one another.

Could it be that when we think faith is just a private matter, not a family matter, that the embers of our faith grow cold?

And what do we do now, during the pandemic, when we’re unable to gather with each other at church? Of course, we can still gather, even if doesn’t mean being physically present. Zoom, anyone? Watch Party? Facebook Live? Yes, we’re learning all about the contours of community in a new time.

But still, there is something lost when we can’t be together physically. For many people, their experience of God and faith are centered on the church building and the church family.

Well, the church building is closed, so what now?

Living through the pandemic has been compared to the movie, “Groundhog Day,” where every day is the same. If you listen carefully, you can hear Sonny and Cher singing “I got you, babe” in the background as you brush your teeth. After breakfast, everyone in the family finds their own control room and goes online for school, work or social interaction. For many, their hours have been cut at work. For others, they’ve been laid off. Many are juggling work issues while supervising their kids who are trying to be in school at home. I’ve heard from many of you that you’re in survival mode. Your family is tired. Every day is a grind.

So, where is God in your daily struggle?

I want to go back to our text today. It not only talks about the big family of God that meets in the temple. Did you notice the other family that is referenced?

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people…”

So, they broke bread together daily at home. At this time in Christian history, daily meals were often referred to as breaking bread. So, too, was the Lord’s Supper. Often, these two meals both occurred in the same sitting. These families did church right there in their homes!

So, when you break bread at home and share communion, you are in kinship with our early Christian families that did the same. God is there with you and always has been. Their homes and yours are a place where faith is lived out, a place where the family of God becomes your family.

We’re all used to going to the church building to experience God and faith. But, could it be, now that the church building is closed, that new doors are being opened? That we discover new ways that the God who is loose in the world is present with us now?

When you break bread, do so with glad and generous hearts, as the early Christians did. My own late mother was such an example of this, despite the chaos of raising five sons, my mom was noteworthy for embodying a glad and generous heart. She and dad knew in the midst of all the stresses of the Strommen home that we were blessed, so we gave thanks a lot.

So, remember how God has blessed you – even in the midst of yet another Groundhog Day. Don’t forget to count your blessings. Invite your kids to help you do that!

And, finally, there’s the daily struggle – already there before the pandemic and now heightened much of the time. You feel overwhelmed and not at all spiritual. The good news is in the midst of the struggle, God is right there with you as you are up to your eyeballs and at your wit’s end. In fact, as you are trying to hold it together in trying circumstances, you are doing God’s work in the world. That work is to join God in co-creating a more trustworthy, loving and hopeful world for your kids and your spouse. And that’s hard work!

It may not be a mountaintop experience, but it is a God experience. You are the family of God, you mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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