Covenant Presbyterian Church – Athens, GA

“Choosing to Be Family” (Acts 4:31-37 & Isaiah 58:6-9a) 4-8-18

It’s a sign of hospitality, the welcome mat at the door, like saying, “Peace to all who enter here.”  Do you have a welcome mat at your house?  I grew up with one.  Not sure when I switched over to the plain, brown mats, just to wipe your feet.  Maybe the welcome mats cost too much.  Maybe it’s our culture of fear, our obsession with security, and so we answer the door now from an app on our phone & don’t even answer the phone at all when we see the one calling is a stranger.  No more welcome mats.  We gotta be careful these days.

That’s how the disciples were feeling that first Easter Sunday night, huddled behind locked doors, afraid they’d end up like Jesus, arrested, tortured, and killed.  Didn’t matter how much good news they’d heard that day – from the women at the empty tomb, from Peter & John who had run to see for themselves, from Mary who spoke to Jesus in the garden, from the travelers back from Emmaus saying they’d eaten a meal with him.  Even if it were true, it didn’t matter that Jesus was risen, for nothing had changed.  They were still afraid.  Maybe one of them might be another Judas?  Maybe they should scatter & leave town the next day?

And then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.  For there was Jesus himself, standing in their midst, speaking a word of peace, showing them his wounds, living & breathing & filling them with his Spirit.  They didn’t have to wait till Pentecost for that gift.  It really was Jesus, and the disciples were filled with joy!  All except one.  Thomas missed out.

Have you ever had to settle for a story, even from your closest friends, rather than getting to share the experience itself?  Then you know how it feels.  Did you make it to the auditorium on time for your child’s performance?  Have you been to Crater Lake or the Redwood Forest and really felt how massive they are?  Were you on the goal line, or just on the bench, when that pile of players made the winning touchdown?  There’s nothing like being there.  And if you aren’t, it’s so hard to believe all they tell you about it.  Surely Thomas felt – left out!  The miracle of resurrection, and he missed it.  No wonder he was so put off by their story.

It’s gotta be one of the best healings Jesus ever did – one week later on his second Sunday night, coming just for Thomas, bringing him back into the fold like the one lost sheep he had promised to seek out, again speaking peace & filling them with his Spirit, as Thomas got to see & hear & touch his Lord and to reconnect with his friends in indescribable ways – what joy & thrill & mystery they now shared!  For truly that sense of communal experience would be vital for each disciple to carry, on the journeys ahead of them, out beyond the locked doors, and it would make them even more a family after Jesus was gone, sharing those nods & looks & unspoken words that families can, no longer alone & fearful, but together in Spirit forever, the true miracle of the resurrection, a new community in Christ.

What is family?  Surely it’s meant to be more than a group with shared DNA & many look-alikes, but rather a haven of nurture & love, a safe place for growing up, at any age.  Family members usually live together & so know each other pretty well, the needs & cares, the celebrations & talents, but also those buttons to push, to wound & enrage.  We can do far more & become better persons given family support, yet too often we abuse that privilege.  We say “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family” – though really you can, at some point, choosing whether to stay or go.  Sometimes family is defined simply by saying, “We’re in this together,” sharing experiences good & bad, yet especially as the years pile up, what a joy to have someone on this planet who can remember your childhood with you.  We try & we fail at loving equally or including each one.  No favorites, right?  Well, that’s impossible.

We have immediate families, extended families, step-families, adopted families, church families, and so many other groups who can be as close as families – at work, in a classroom, a sports team, a choir, or any circles of shared interest & support.  Yet being a family is really hard work.  We can’t always agree.  We aren’t always kind.  We may not always be at peace, but we can seek to reconcile, to forgive & be forgiven, to function as a team in a healthy way that allows for mistakes & changes & new life together.  No wonder the Psalmist says how amazing & wondrous it is for kindred to live together in harmony (133) – a rare treat, something to be celebrated, like luxurious oils or lush mountain rains, when falling on any dry & desert relationship.  But if you do have that harmony, that mutual support, then you have the greatest of blessings, for it is there, in that community that you will come to know God’s gift of eternal life, in the very loving & caring we do for one another.

The images of caring heard in our Bible readings today seem like miracles.  The gifts of Spirit breathed into the disciples by the risen Christ – those of peace, encouragement, joy, and embrace – resulted in such a bond that their visible love for God & love for one another would draw 1000’s to their side.  The gospels tell us Jesus said, “Anyone who does God’s will is mother & brother & sister to me” (Mk.3:31+).  And both Old & New Testaments include in that will = no longer sharing fear & domination & oppression of each other, but instead being transformed by love to share justice & freedom, to share all that we have (our food, our homes, our belongings, even ourselves), so that everyone has what we need for good life together.  For in this kind of community, joined in one heart & soul, the Lord has promised such surprising grace – a life that never ends, shared generation to generation.

And that is what we receive as the family circle gathered around this table, as we commune with Christ and seek to become more like him, more inclusive & welcoming to God’s beloved, more appreciative & grateful for the gift of life, more engaging of how we can share who we are & what we have for the good of all.  For after the events of Holy Week, surely the table language stings our ears a bit.  Surely today’s sacrament becomes more than ritual, as we remember the body which was broken, the blood which was poured out on the cross, and as we remember through it all how Christ remained faithful to his love for God, his love for us – forever believing in our capacity for right relationships, as the Holy Spirit unites us and we choose to be family for one another.

Surely this loving concern for all creation we are so graciously shown & may graciously offer others becomes our salvation, our redemption, the quality of our eternal life, as we are bound together in the body of Christ, fleshing out the gifts of God for the people of God – as we are broken & shared & freely poured out for the world, so that we too may rise by lifting others.

Thanks be to God for rescuing us from fear and for leading us together into such a life & love that will never die.  Amen.                Beecher Mathes