Steve DeNeff | January 2021
“In physics, we used to think that all the energy was in the particles of the atom; now it seems that energy is, in fact, in the space between the particles. The same is true of our relationships: It’s not either person, it’s something that happens when we are together, like a structure we’re building by the way we interact.” (Robt. Hall, This Land of Strangers, p. 116).
Each of us was conceived in communion and was made for it. We flourish in long term, healthy relationships. But changes in the culture have made these relationships rare and more difficult to maintain.
Technology has turned us inward while pretending to make us more social. Social media has divided us into ideological tribes, each with its own information and voice. A global pandemic, at least the fear of it, has turned our closest friends into health threats and moved us apart through social distancing. Then, in a series of social issues stemming from racial injustice, we’ve discovered that our biases and our convictions are not the same. So powerful are these forces that even the most intimate friendships have been strained. We still need each other, but we’re tired of each other.
Two primal communities we would normally turn to – the family and the Church – are themselves affected by the chaos. In the very places we once learned the attitudes and norms that carry us into our adult years, we are learning instead of selfish ambition and strife. It has never been harder to practice the shift from Me to We, but it has never been more urgent. What if we could connect these two communities, the family and the church, to make the family an ecclesia domestica (a church in miniature) and the Church an extended family? What if we offered an alternative family to those without one?
The Christian response begins with the incarnation of God to a family at Christmas and continues with the revelation of Christ thru Epiphany. But Epiphany is not just the revelation of Jesus, but Jesus’ revelation of God. According to Jesus, God is different than we thought. He is like Jesus. This mean, “there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see Jesus is to see the very face of God,” (Torrance, Preaching Christ Today, p.55). In fact, according to Jesus, God is a Community of different Persons who are not only with each other, but in each other. And the qualities of this Community are found, not only in each Person, but in the Space between them. That is, the attributes of God are not static qualities that each member of the Trinity possesses, but dynamic qualities that describe the way they interact. Power, love and glory are not only in these members of the Trinity, but betweenthem. To understand the God that Jesus knew, we must understand the Community that sent him. When he speaks for acts in ways that seem curious, we must ask not only, “Why did he do that?” but “Where did he learn that?” Read like this, the gospels reveal the inbreaking of one Community (His) in the midst of another (ours). Epiphany, then, is not only the revelation of Jesus, but Jesus’ revelation of the Holy Community he embodied.
The metaphor most commonly used by Jesus to describe this Community is the family. According to Jesus, God is a Father, and the people of God are brothers and sisters who relate to Him as Father: “Be mature as your Father is mature . . . When your Father sees what is done in secret, He will reward you openly . . . This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven’ . . . (for) your Father knows what you need even before you ask.” Jesus is calling for a revolutionary change in the way we see each other and in the way we live together. According to Jesus, we belong to God’s Family more than to our own. Our brothers and sisters are not siblings born to the same mother, but friends – or even strangers – born again to the same Father. They are “those who do the will of (his) Father in heaven,” (Matt. 12:50). And the way that they interact – the space between them – is an expression of these deeper ties. They settle their differences, keep their vows, open their homes and give to those who cannot pay them back, not because these things are right, but because by doing them they “become sons and daughters of their Father in heaven,” (Matt. 5:45). From the beginning, Jesus calls for what one has called “a deep and shocking disloyalty to the human, nation-defining, family that his hearers knew,” (in Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 430).
With the dissolution of the family in our society, many people are asking, “Is there another family I can belong to, a place where I can be genuine and loved?” The more isolated our society becomes, the more urgent are these questions, whether we articulate them or not, and the more urgent our response. This year, during Epiphany, we’ll read the gospels again, this time with a different eye. Instead of asking what they reveal about Jesus, we’ll search for what they reveal about the Father and the Son (and the Spirit). What is the chemistry between them? How do we imitate those qualities in our own communities? What are the house rules for building the household of God, whether in our homes or in our church? And how do we practice these, no matter what our own families look like? In other words, how can we make our own family a church in miniature, and our Church an extended family?
There are many possible answers but there’s time for only a few. I will mention five, each with its portrait of a time in Jesus’ life when that quality was most evident. These sermons are not instructions for building the perfect community, but they are prompts that will get us started. Each week, I’ll provide the “why” and the “what,” but the listeners will need to gather in communities of their own to provide the “how.”