The New Testament spiritual community is likened to a family. Christians are called to love all people but to exhibit a special loyalty to their brothers and sisters in Christ. "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially those who are of the household of the faith" (Galatians 6:10).
The church as family is the most prominent picture of spiritual community in the New Testament. It is alluded to again and again by the word "adelphos" which is Greek for "brother." Jesus extensively uses this word to speak about his disciples and their relationship to one another: "you are all brothers" (Matthew 23:8). Some form of "adelphos" is found in every New Testament book except Titus and Jude. The New Testament could not be clearer: we are brothers and sisters in the family of God. The truth that we are family is assumed every time "brothers/sisters" is mentioned. The blood of Christ bonds us together as the family of God.
The family of God inhabits the Fathers' household of faith. God's household is "Home Sweet Home" to God's children. It is their resting place, a place to lie down, a place to return to at the end of the day. It provides a sense of belonging and identity. It is a place of provision and of discipline. Love, loyalty, and respect are birthed and nurtured within one's family.
Because we are in God's household, our identity is that of children of God. This special status is so unspeakably great that the Apostle John cannot find adequate words to express his joy:
Behold how great a love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called the children of God; and such we are. For this reason, the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)
Sonship is a privilege beyond words, giving us joy in the present ("now we are children of God") and hope for the future ("we shall be like Him... we shall see Him just as He is"). It is the result of God's eternal intention in Christ to "bring many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10).
As children we share a special relationship with Jesus as brother and, consequently, with God as Father. This bond is patterned after the family but goes much deeper. In the Jewish world, one's primary obligation was to one's family. This would especially be true of Jesus, as the first-born. This obligation would be greater because of Joseph's early death - he disappears from the gospel narratives sometime after Jesus' twelfth birthday - leaving Jesus as the first-born with great responsibility within his family.
One day, while Jesus was teaching his disciples in a crowded house, Mary and his brothers appeared at the doorway. Unable to approach Jesus because of the large crowd, someone near the doorway announced to Jesus, "Behold, your mother and your brothers are standing outside to speak to you." Jesus took the opportunity of using this pronouncement as a "teaching moment" and asked the crowd, "Who is my mothers and who are my brothers?" The answer appeared obvious: The people who are outside the house seeking to speak to Jesus! But Jesus' answer put the emphasis on another group of people - the very group that was sitting at his feet. "And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, 'Behold, my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.'"
Stronger ties than blood are being forged among a new community of disciples. The disciples are the first "family" that Jesus recognizes. This was revolutionary teaching in a Jewish context where the primary obligation of the individual was to his or her family. The teaching remains revolutionary in our present context as well. God has ordained the family. God has placed human beings in families. It is in the context of family that one's identity is shaped. Love, responsibility, loyalty, and respect are birthed and nurtured within one's family. But now "even so deep, precious, and basic a relationship as that of human family is superseded by the fellowship of the new family of God, which will continue into eternity" (Donald English). To be Jesus' disciple - to do the will of the Father - is to participate in an eternal bond with fellow believers.
Because we are family, Jesus acknowledges us as his brothers. This point is powerfully made in Hebrews:
It makes good sense that the God who got everything started and keeps everything going now completes the work by making the Salvation Pioneer perfect through suffering as he leads all these people to glory. Since the One who saves and those who are saved have a common origin, Jesus doesn't hesitate to treat them as family, saying,
"I'll tell my good friends, my brothers and sisters, all I know about you; I'll join them in worship and praise to you."
Again, he puts himself in the same family circle when he says, "Even I live by placing my trust in God."
And yet again, "I'm here with the children God gave me." (Hebrews 2:10-13, The Message)
Through our identification with the unique Son of God we are adopted into the family of God; we are made sons of God. Whereas Jesus is the Son of God by nature, we are sons of God through grace.
As adopted children, we have been given the Spirit of Adoption through which we cry out, "Abba, Father" (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). Just as "God sent forth His Son� in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law" God has also "sent for the Spirit of God into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (Gal. 4:4-6). Indeed, the ultimate purpose of sending the Son is "that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Gal. 4:5b). The supreme work of the Holy Spirit is to enable us to experience and affirm God as "Our Father." It is vitally important that we inhabit this relationship. Without this, we remain in bondage to fear.
Our spiritual attitude, our way of seeking peace and perfection, depends entirely on our concept of God. If we are able to believe he is truly our loving Father, if we can really accept the truth of his infinite and compassionate concern for us, if we believe that he loves us not because we are worthy but because we need his love, then we can advance with confidence. We will not be discouraged by our inevitable weaknesses and failures. We can do anything he asks of us. But if we believe he is a stern, cold lawgiver who has no real interest in us, who is merely a ruler, a lord, a judge and not a father, we will have great difficulty in living the Christian life. We must therefore begin by believing God is our Father: otherwise we cannot face the difficulties of the Christian way of perfection. Without faith, the "narrow way" is utterly impossible. (Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness, 31)
We must find our joy in the parental love of God. St. Therese of Lisieux made this the centerpiece of her spirituality: "To call God my Father and to know myself his child, that is heaven to me."
Our new relationship with God as Father introduces us to another identity, that of fellow family members to other believers. As brothers and sisters to one another, we are to exhibit a special loyalty, respect, and love to one another. We are family! Thus, the family provides a vital picture of what life in the spiritual community of Jesus' disciples is to encompass.
We are family. We have been born again into the family of God. And just like a family, we are not given the option of choosing our relatives. It is vital that we remember this in order to sustain authentic spiritual community. Our tendency will always be to choose to dwell with those who are like us, sharing our ideas, interests, and tastes. "We might have chosen different people... But these are the ones God has given us, the ones he has chosen for us... We choose our own friends; but in our families, we do not choose our brothers and sisters; they are given to us. So it is in community life" (Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p.46).
We choose our friends. God chooses our fellowship. For this reason, we must clearly distinguish friendship from fellowship. Fellowship may involve friendship, but it is something bigger. It involves participating together in a common entity and mission. If one expects every instance of fellowship to involve friendship, one's experience of fellowship will be limited to only those with whom we are similar.
Dan Schaeffer in his book, Faking Church, offers the following ways of distinguishing friendship from fellowship: "Friendships can be very selective; fellowship reaches out to those not like us. Friendship can be temporary; fellowship is permanent. Friendship is optional; fellowship is not." In friendship, we love those we "like" - those with whom we are "comfortable." Fellowship demands far more. Fellowship calls us to love those we do not necessarily "like" because of our common bond in Christ. To love only those whom we like is not supernatural love but simply natural human affection (Matthew 5:46-47).
It is highly likely that most people in the church will not share many common interests. Many times in my preaching I have looked out over my congregation and realized that, apart from a common faith in Christ, I have little or nothing in common with my people. Most of them do not like science fiction movies, comic books, progressive rock, rigorous philosophy, academic theology, the church fathers, the medieval mystics, or surfing the web. This is not bad, it simply demonstrates that our common family bond is in a common faith and common mission - not in the shared interests that make for a good friendship. The church merely becomes a "social club" when the common bond is anything but Christ.
Because we are a family, there will be different levels of maturity and growth within our community. Some will be spiritual babes; others, spiritual redwoods. John the Apostle understood that all levels ("little children," "parents," "young people") would live together, sharing and supporting one another (1 John 2:12-13). Paul encouraged Titus to pastor groups within the church in accordance to their sex, age, and living circumstances (Titus 2:1-8). Likewise, Paul exhorted Timothy to do the same (1 Tim. 5:1-2).
Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.
In all our relationships, we are to treat our spiritual mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children with respect, loyalty, and love. We are to share life together as family. The younger believers should learn to value the insights and wisdom of the older saints. The older believers should strive to remember the playfulness and idealism of youth and the special challenges of young adulthood. We are not to live in a divided house - the senior saints in one room, the teens in another, the children in another, and so on. Our strength lies in our diverse age and circumstances. By valuing all people - young and old, male and female, single and married - we create a counter-cultural community in Christ. Like a good family we all have our place; we all belong.
There is no perfect family. Like all good families, we will occasionally experience family bickering and quarrels. Indeed, some family squabbles can be quite fierce - we generally don't feel the need to hold back when with family! Yet, this is to be expected. All families struggle to share life together. Families grow strong when they are able to work through difficulties together. Love is never more authentic than when it has passed through the purifying fires of hardship and trial.
Love is at the heart of healthy family life. Living in light of our family identity is a key indicator of whether we are true sons and daughters of God. Failing to live out this new reality reveals that our love for God is suspect.
If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
Put simply, it is love one to another that is the mark of a healthy family. It is the greatest evidence of spiritual community. Love is the mark of the church. "By this shall all people know you are my disciples, by your love for one another" (John 13:34-35). Do we see this as the greatest work we have to perform together?
We are all called to do, not extraordinary things, but very ordinary things, with an extraordinary love that lows from the heart of God. St. Paul expresses this very clearly when he says that if we do extraordinary things like speaking with all the tongues of angels and human beings; if we have all knowledge and faith; if we give all our goods to the poor and our bodies to martyrdom, but have no love, then all these things have no value at all. And then he goes on to say what love is: it is to be patient and kind, not jealous nor boastful, not arrogant nor rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it finds its joy in truth. And it bears all things, believes all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all.
Love is communion, communion with God and with our brothers and sisters. Love is manifested in all the little things of life that build community, not in heroic acts. (Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 298)
Our greatness is found in the small acts of love that weave us together - acts of love and acceptance that sustain the family bond. We often look for great acts to demonstrate authentic community. The reality is that it is the small acts of love that are great demonstrations of the Spirit's power in our community of faith.
We must never lose sight of the truth that the most powerful words one will ever say, and that one will ever hear, are the three simple words, "I love you." God says to us in Christ, "I love you. I always have. I always will!" I cannot think of anything greater to hear on my deathbed than to hear the significant people in my life say to me, "I love you." The most profound thing I will ever say in return is not some deep philosophical insight or complex theological truth, but the simple words, "I love you too."
It is the "small" acts and words of love that make a family strong. Families are knit together, not by great events or great deeds, but routine, continual, faithful demonstrations of tender love and warm regard.
There is no greater picture of this than a family around the dinner table. Like a good family, we experience our deepest communion at the dinner table. This common experience, repeated countless times, is a symbol of acceptance, love, provision, peace, and fellowship.
Ultimately, we are a spiritual community because we are "people of the table." It is the Table of the Lord that unites us. Our community centers around a shared participation in Christ leading to shared life together as a family of holy priests. And because our Father is sovereign, we are a "kingdom of priests" serving the world as "the family of God." The greatest act of worship, the greatest act of familial love, is to unite around Christ, sharing his body and blood as our sacrifice and bond of blood. The Eucharist is the sign of community. It is the common place that brings us together and bonds us in holy communion.
In reality, familial love is no small thing. It must be intentionally pursued. It demands long hours of patient forbearance. It demands sacrificial self-giving. It involves having our weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and sins exposed and made public. No one knows us better than family. It is this "discipline" that marks Jesus' disciples.
Love in essence is not a matter of how we feel about people, but how we treat them... It can be said with confidence at the outset, and also at any subsequent stage on the road, that learning to love all the different sorts of people whom God sends across our path, in all the different sorts of situations he shapes up for us and them, is going to prove the hardest discipline we shall ever face. (J. I. Packer, Humanism, p.225)
This disciplined love leads to a unity that is the anointing oil that demonstrates the Spirit's presence and power in our community. Without this love leading to communion, the Spirit's power is not evident.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Coming down upon the beard,
Even Aaron's beard,
Coming down upon the edge of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
Coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord commanded the blessing - life forever. (Psalm 133)
No matter how many spiritual gifts we possess and perform, without love we are nothing. Love is the greatest demonstration of the Spirit's power. Love is the anointing we desperately need in order to be the family of God, a kingdom of priests set apart unto God's work.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2004