A little over ten years ago, my father, his significant other, and I went to Mission San Juan Capistrano. It was the week that my sister was getting married. And while the bride and the mother of the bride were running around doing their thing, the three of us went to look at a little piece of history in Southern Orange County California. Besides, it is about 15 minutes from the area my sister lives in, so we could have run back to help with anything if we were needed. (We were not).
Visiting Mission San Juan Capistrano was an interesting visit for us because it combined my father’s personal and professional interests with my own personal and professional interests.
My father had several starts and stops in his career before he retired. He served in military doing intelligence work on college campuses in the late 60s. He then moved into being an investigator for the State of Oregon. A few months before I was born my mother inherited a house in her hometown, and my father did not want to be an office worker. So they moved to Roseburg, Oregon where he worked as a carpenter when my sister and I were young.
A while after my parents divorced my father became a rafting and fishing guide on the Rogue River in Oregon. He did this for a number of years. During the off-season, he found a niche as a golf-course groundskeeper. Eventually, he found a way to make grounds keeping and landscaping into a career. Dad had always been interested in plants and flowers and growing things, so when he fell into the grounds keeping career for the last 20 years of his working years it was a perfect fit.
And Mission San Juan Capistrano is a wonder of plants, flowers, and gardens to walk through. So he loved it there. He was able to admire the different kinds of flowers and plants, including many plants and flowers that do not grow in Oregon’s cooler and more moist climate. It was fun for me because he was able to explain a lot about flowers and growing things and I was able to learn more about him.
It was nice for me because it was, for most of its history, a ministry center for the Catholic Church as well. And the history and development of ministry in a specific place is something that fascinates me. The Mission is full of history. It was a Franciscan Mission, and my one of my all time faith heroes is St. Francis. It had the oldest building still in use in California, which was an old chapel. My dad is interested in history, but not as schooled in religious history and the development of the church. So as things peeked my interest, he got to learn a little from me and about me in that moment too.
I think we all long to connect and reconnect with family. Especially those most closely related to us. We long to have their attention, their approval, their acceptance, and their heart. It is not always easy to find ways to stay close to family. Often family hurts us. They irritate us. They break our heart. Or we get along with family fairly well, but we don’t have family nearby. Maybe we have moved here from somewhere, or our children and grandchildren have moved far away.
Some of us don’t have the challenge of geography or drama to keep us from being connected to family. That is because some of us are related to half of the Arkansas Valley and are surrounded by family and love it. A couple of weeks ago I was talking with Lacy and Brandon McCuistion of how they are related to different people in the community. There were so many relations I lost track. I have also visited with Annette and Clair Lundy. Clair described a story about where she was dating a boy in high school, and the young man’s cousin walked in. He introduced this new young man as his cousin. Turned out It was Clair’s cousin too. Due to the marrying of different people to other folks, they were not related. Still, a surreal experience for Clair and a telling story of just how much family Clair had in this community.
Near or far, there is something deep inside us that longs for the comfort that a family kind of connection can bring. And, although this may be controversial, I think that each of us needs a deeper family connection than any family of marriage and a shared gene pool can provide. But to illustrate this I need to go back to the story I was telling.
Anyway, so I am with my family. One of the last places we visited was the gift shop. It was a Catholic gift shop, so I figured not much would hold my interest. I was wrong. One crucifix captured my attention. The crucifix has Jesus with one hand nailed to the cross, and his feet nailed to the cross, but one hand is free. And in that hand is a dove he is releasing into the world.
It is a powerful little statuette, because it speaks to several truths about what happened when Jesus was on the cross. One of the things that is teaches us about is something that happened when Jesus spoke that third word as he was dying. When Jesus said “Mother, behold your Son.” And “Son, behold your mother.” he was creating a new family. An eternal family that is more important than one’s family of birth. That family has a unique name. It is called the church.
The Theological Focus of the third word from the cross is encapsulated in one small five letter word. That word, again, is CHURCH.
So let us examine and meditate on these short verses just a little bit more. And let us see what we can learn about the church. Specifically the church we see being formed by Jesus as he dies.
I. The birthday of the church is on GOOD FRIDAY not Pentecost.
While the body of Christ is being crucified on the cross, the body of Christ is being created by Christ through his words to the Apostle John and Mary the mother of Jesus on the cross. When Jesus says for Mary and John to become family together, he is calling into a being a reality that has not existed before. He is speaking the church—called the Body of Christ--into existence.
Without these words, it would be easy to assume that God’s work on the cross was all about each person’s individual salvation, and that was it. With the words, “Woman behold your son,” and “Behold Your Mother”, we hear that the cross also is given to form a community. Jesus’ blood was shed to give birth to the church.
Theologian Fleming Rutledge puts it this way, “The saying is not about being nice to your mother. It is about the new community that comes into being through the power of Jesus.” The first two words speak to what God’s work on the cross means to me and you. This word teaches us that the cross is not just about me and you, but us together. When we hear these words from the cross, we realize that Christ did not come only to save and redeem us as individuals. This moment at the cross teaches us that Christ came to save and redeem a church.
Like that crucifix demonstrates, even as Jesus is crying out in agony from the cross, barely able to breathe, in more pain than most of us could bear, even then he reaches out to form a new family. The family of God.
Which brings me to point #2
II. The church is A FAMILY.
It is no accident that Jesus tells John and Mary that they are each other’s mother and brother. Jesus creates the church to be a spiritual family. The church is a family that takes higher precedence than our biological family. This is clear throughout the gospels.
At one point, Jesus comments become controversial, and his family comes to give him a break from his ministry. People come to Jesus and say his family is at the door and wanting to speak to him. Jesus says, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Those who do the will of my father are my mother and brothers and sisters.” And he refuses to go see what his family wants. That is found in Mark 3.
Another time, when someone needs to go home to deal with funeral arrangements of their deceased relative Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead…follow me.” This is found in Matthew 8.
Jesus said, “I have come to turn father against son. Mother against daughter.” He said this in Matthew 10.
The church brings together people of different races, backgrounds, and biological families, and makes them one family through the blood of Christ. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is no male or female, Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.”
Hebrews 2 says Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. Romans 8 says that Jesus is firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
When we pass away, Scripture says that people will not be married or given in marriage. We are not going to have separate families. On the other side of eternity, we are going to be one family with God as Father. Through the church, God is trying to bring this reality into how we live and breathe and practice our faith among one another. We are family brothers and sisters. We are family.
We need a family that is bigger than just our biological family. We need that family to have a culture where we can learn from each other, support each other, love each other, grow with each other. Where we can be even more of a family that our biological family can provide, because our forever family shares everything that we hold most dear.
Furthermore, the family of God unites those that would otherwise fight against one another and exclude one another. One of the things that solidified my commitment to becoming an American Baptist was going to the seminarian’s conference. One of things our denomination does to train and build up our ministers is to have them go to Greek Lake Conference Center in Wisconsin for a long weekend with every other person in the middle of their studies for the ministry. As you are there, you discover not everyone in American Baptist churches look like you. If you are Caucasian, you make up somewhere around 45 percent of American Baptist Churches and ABC seminary students. About 25 percent of the students are African Americans. Another 15-20 percent are Hispanic. The rest are Asian or Native American. You get to fellowship with one another. Worship with one another. About half the students are women. We hear one another’s struggles and joys. Learn one another’s songs. And you hold hands and sing Amazing Grace in four different languages. You support one another in pursuing our calls to ministry. And you have an experience of the family of God that is much bigger than you have experienced before. And you see and hear that the family of God transcends all sorts of barriers that we might assume it has. And you know that you have this deep sense of family within the church that transcends geography, race, language, and gender. This spiritual sense of a global family we call church.
In the early church this sense of family was very important. If one was to trust Jesus as their Lord and Savior, one was often shunned by their families. If you were to accept Christ, your church had to be your family support. Your earthly family was not going to talk to you any more. This shunning thing happens today with strict Mormons, Muslims, and many other religious groups.
In the early church this sense of partnership in the family of God was very important as well. Sometimes a person was a slave, but also a deacon in spiritual authority over his master. Sometimes a person of Roman, African, Greek, and Jewish heritage worshipped in the same church, and called one another brother and sister.
Today, as families spread out geographically, and as families fall apart for a variety of reasons, people are more and more lonely. And they are seeking families. Families that choose to be families of healing instead of abuse. Families that offer us the opportunity to grow and change. Family that loves us when we feel unlovable. Family that helps us find our way home when we feel lost. Family that loves us. Family that leads us to our heavenly Father that created us and loves us more than we could ever know.
Many people who are on the cutting edge of evangelism say that people need to “belong to believe”. This means that even before people can trust Jesus as savior, they need to see the Holy Spirit at work in a healthy church family.
I don’t know when we stopped calling each other brother and sister in the church. We certainly did this when I was growing up. Brother Paul had the bass voice in the back of the church. Brother Kent led the music. Brother Mark was our pastor. Sister Eileen led our Sunday School. I don’t know when we stopped talking like that…but I miss it. Because it reflects the reality that Jesus was creating a FAMILY called the church when he went to the cross. And we need to live in that reality, not just SUNDAY, but EVERYDAY.
The blood that unites us is not the blood that holds the code of our DNA if we are believer, but rather our appropriation of the blood that flows from the cross to form a family of the Spirit.
III. The church family is modeled after the example of love we see on the cross.
The kind of church that Jesus wants to create from the cross is the kind of church that models its love out of the love it sees on the cross. Love like Philippians 2 describes when it says:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a]
God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own
advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[b]
of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a
man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
The kind of example of love we see on the cross is sacrificial love. It puts others in the family above themselves. It thinks about the needs of the people in the pew in front of them and the pew behind them when it comes time to make a difficult decision in the church. It sees a brother and sister in need, and finds a creative way to help them out of their difficult circumstance…even at significant cost to themselves. It is the kind of love that asks “what do we need to do to reach others”, before it asks “what am I comfortable with”. It is the kind of love that finds ways to encourage folks with a little card or a note through the week just to show they care.
The example of love we see on the cross is painful love. It loves to the point where it actually hurts a little. It is vulnerable enough that it often faces rejection. It is sensitive enough that it cries with the hurting instead of judging those in distress. It is the kind of love that has sleepless nights praying for someone in distress. It is the kind of love that leaves many of us needing a week to recover after a Backyard Mission Project. It is a wonderful beautiful, painful, sacrificial kind of love—this love we find Jesus calling the church to live out on the cross.
It is the kind of love, this cross-like love, that people have died for. That others have been so desperate to share that they have followed God’s call to gang-infested urban neighborhoods, and tribal villages across the world.
It is the kind of love that we need to learn to practice right here, in our little place. In this small part of God’s family. With heart. With passion. Remembering that he died, me and you, and for us—and He has given us a call to live for him. Together. In the family he died to create from the cross. Amen.