By Justin Webb
It feels a little bit alien to not have any family in the Church, never having grown up in it (I wasn’t raised religious, I’d never attended a church service in my life until a little under a year ago). I feel like I’m missing out on a universal experience that everyone else knows about. On Easter morning, I remember seeing all the pews filled up for the first time, and seeing that everyone was there with someone, all these families and extended families. And I just felt like that’s how it was supposed to be. Like what you’re supposed to do on Easter is go to church with your family to celebrate the Resurrection, and then afterwards you go to your grandparents’ house and spend the afternoon with all your cousins and eat a turkey dinner.
It feels like there’s this blueprint for how we experience family, and mine has a hole in it where the Church is supposed to go. And then when I go to church, at least some of the time I’m supposed to go with my family. So there’s a hole in my Church blueprint where family is supposed to be.
If it were anything other than the Church, I think it would be okay. And if it were anything other than my family, I think it would be okay. But when the Creator of the universe dies for me on the cross and raises Himself from the dead, I want my family to participate in the life that brings. These are the people I’ve known all my life and I love them more than anyone on this earth, and their reactions to the most important and life-giving truth of all time range from indifference to hatred.
I remember I was talking to a friend of mine who’s in a similar situation, about how frustrating it is and how much it hurts to have family that isn’t in the Church. And he brought me to Matthew 10:34-36:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”
That this was supposed to happen. That from the start the Gospel wasn’t always going to be pretty, that it was going to be controversial. And I remember thinking that this verse doesn’t feel like it was supposed to be applicable to me. I always read it as the thing that happened in the first century but got cleared up once the world turned Christian. And so it’s really weird to realize it, but it feels like Jesus is looking directly at me as He speaks these words. Like He’s telling me that He knows the pain of my family not being in the Church, but that it’s supposed to be that way, and to look to Him to figure out how to make sense of it.
But as members of the Church, we’re grafted into Israel, and at the end of the day, Israel is fundamentally the nation of Jacob’s descendants. In a very real way, the core of our identity as the Church is inherently familial. And it’s really profound to see how the familial nature of the Church through Jacob isn’t just some technicality out of some set of circumstances that Israel happened to fall out of, but there’s really something substantive to that statement. Because to participate fully in the nation of Israel is to keep God’s commandments – to love the Lord with all your soul and all your heart and all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And the substance of these two greatest commandments is perfect communion with another human being, participating in God’s love by allowing it to become manifest in our love for others. “The Church is my family” isn’t some happy sounding half-truth, I believe it’s at the core of what it is to be in the Church.
And I don’t want to make it sound like some reflection on God’s covenant with Abraham gives me some nice theology as a magical fix to my grief with my family. Certainly when I start to live out this truth in service of others and stepping into relationship with others in the Church, my Church experience feels less broken. It becomes difficult to feel alone in the Church. But in some sense it makes the problem better and in some sense it makes it worse, because the more fully I feel God at work in my participation in the Church, the more fullness my family isn’t experiencing. Having this deeper understanding and experience with what the Church is doesn’t make my relationships in my family feel less bitter, but it turns that truth into something bittersweet. It’s definitely a struggle, but I know that it’s a struggle God is with me in. I know that my family members are His lost sheep and He’s dying to have them reconciled to Him into this beautiful greater family that He’s adopted me into. God willing, He will make me into an instrument of His grace to bring them to Him. Because it really hurts to see my family broken in two pieces, but I know my God is a God that puts the pieces together again. I’ve seen it happen enough times, and I’m praying it happens here sooner rather than later. I can’t wait to see Him work His grace in this. Because I really believe He will.