In early March about 20 of us journeyed to the Double JJ resort for a winter retreat. Our theme was “We Are Family” and we surveyed our congregation about matters related to family reunions. The answers painted a colorful image of what these gatherings are like for our people. The age of people present ranges from newborn to 98. 40 is the number given most frequently for those in attendance. (A great number, biblically!) When asked, “What do you talk about the most?”, the top three answers were kids, memories and life. Most reunions have three generations sharing news but quite a few have four generations and some are even blessed with five! The favorite food to eat is cheesy potatoes and the least appreciated food on the buffet table is jello with fruit! (Jello salads are past their prime apparently.) When asked, “Who/what would you prefer NOT to see at your next reunion” there was an interesting mix of answers: weird uncle, sassy old aunt, step mom, cousin’s boyfriend and Uncle Rick. In fact, Uncle Rick showed up in quite a few of the answers so we had fun learning about the role he played in one couple’s family! Another undesirable part of the reunion was a flaunting of grandma’s scars! Did they follow that reunion up with a group therapy session? The source of tension at some reunions were talk about tattoos, drunkenness, politics, drama and lies. Yikes! But when asked what emotion accompanies their reunions, the most popular answers were love, joy, happiness and excitement. Every family has their history, which they pack up and bring with them to the clan shindig. Sharing blood ties is not easy but it is the most shaping of all our relationships, for better or worse!
Three of my siblings and I traveled through Europe this past summer tracing our roots. One sister brought along a familiar photograph of our great grandfather, James MacDougall. You can see him in full Scottish regalia, wearing a kilt made from the MacDougall plaid and playing his bagpipe. He raised a very musical family, which has been passed down to all of us. (However the bagpipes didn’t make it past his generation.) I looked at the man in the photograph and reflected on the miracle that this man, who looked so frozen in history and foreign to me—was one of the reasons why I’m alive today! I will never fully know how the way he raised my grandmother influences me today but I am certain that some elements to who I am can be traced back to him.
John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, writes to a congregation as a loving pastor. He is advanced in age and has experienced trials of faith and life. He has been imprisoned because of his conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. Nonetheless he continues to tell anyone who will listen about the saving grace of God that he experienced in such a personal way in Christ. John was one of twelve men who became family to Jesus. Their commitment to Him cost them ties with their natural families. In this letter John tells these young believers that they have entered a new family by being part of Christ’s Church.
We take our name from the head of household, don’t we? Adopted children are given the name of their adoptive parents to show that they belong in a new clan. John reminds his audience of their changed status: “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” He said this to a very diverse congregation who might have struggled to accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. John challenges them to live peaceably since they are all attend the same reunion now. He acknowledged that it doesn’t immediately feel comfortable or natural to identify with new kindred: “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” God may initially appear as alien to us as a Scottish bagpiper in a plaid kilt. But, as we live in faithful relationship to our Creator, we will not only grow to know God personally but to recognize that Divine image looking back at us in the mirror. Cherished family ties take time and devotion.
Families have rules. I love hearing about trips church families have taken (survived?) with children. I’ve heard tale of long car trips: 29 hours straight through to Florida with three young children was one story that made an impression on me!! Parents of young children have rules for car etiquette, right?! To avoid putting the “Survival of the fittest” theory to the test during our vacations, we set up standards for behavior that ensure safe travels for all—but also, hopefully, increased love for each other!
John doesn’t mince words about the realities of a faith community. He names a particular trait, practically engraves it on the family crest: “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” The Message translation states it in more contemporary language: “All who indulge in a sinful life are dangerously lawless, for sin is a major disruption of God’s order.” John urges good behavior in the back seat! Share your rice krispy treats. Wipe your runny nose. Don’t hit your brother on the head! There’s an expectation in a family to follow rules that guard the best health for all but that also offer the greatest chance at happiness. If we travel well with our families they will have the same emotions as our retreat members did in anticipating a family gathering: Joy, love, happiness and excitement! In our churches, these should be the emotions folks feel when they anticipate gathering for worship, a Bible Study, a mission trip, even a board meeting.
When we allow God to serve as the head of household in our new family, there are amazing gifts that await us. We are given a glimpse of that in the Lukan passage that shows Jesus reappearing after the crucifixion to His disciples. “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost…” Jesus had to show them proof that He was who they thought He was. It wasn’t easy for them to accept that He was back and alive. Verse 41 states, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” This reunion brought joy amidst doubt. As if to allay their understandable shock, Jesus asks for some doritos and a pepsi! He tries to bring them back to some sense of normalcy. Then he preaches His first post-resurrection sermon in which He tells this family of men that His crucifixion and resurrection brought repentance and forgiveness of sins for all people.
John is right. Even though sin goes against God’s order, we all sin. Jesus assures us that there is sufficient forgiveness available for all and that we, who call ourselves children of God, need to spread that good news.
Forgiveness is an easier message to preach than to live. On June 17, 2015, a self-avowed white supremacist opened fire on a group of folks engaged in a Bible study. The believers met in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southern city of Charleston, South Carolina. The killer hoped to further provoke racial tensions at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement was being defined. What he couldn’t have understood is how their faith would unleash not just a flow of tears but a torrent of forgiveness from a grieving people. Journalist David Von Drehle wrote, “…the forgiveness expressed by some surviving family members left as many questions as it answered. Can murder be forgiven, and if so, who has that power? Must it be earned or given freely? Who benefits from forgiveness—the sinner or the survivor? And why do we forgive at all? Is it a way of remembering, or of forgetting?”
Judge James Gosnell presided over the bond hearing by televised monitor. Family members of the nine murdered church members and their attorneys were present. Judge Gosnell invited them to make their statement as representatives of their grieving families. Nadine Collier, who lost her mother in the shooting, went forward to speak. She told the gunman, whose eyes were downcast, that she was angry because her mother “had more living to do”. But as she spoke Nadine remembered the lessons she had learned from being a part of her church: “You have to forgive people and move on. When you keep that hatred, it hurts only you.” She began to think of how this young man had destroyed his own life in addition to the lives of so many victims and families. He would never go to college, marry, have a family. And so, choking back tears, she found herself saying, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again—but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul…You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
The gifts Jesus offers at the family reunion are unbelievable. Forgiveness in the face of tremendous loss? Release from a tremendous debt? Joy in spite of a swirl of confusion? Grace instead of revenge? Really? When Christians show up for a reunion where God is the Head of Household, there are sure to be surprises. Even when we share stories of unfathomable loss or lapses in judgment for which we’ve paid a price, Christ’s family always finds a way to extend love and forgiveness.
Children model this merciful living best. John, the imprisoned old pastor, knew this and used this language in his letter. In verse 7 he refers to his readers in the voice of a tender parent: “Little children, let no one deceive you…” In a letter that takes sin so seriously, we are reminded that we have met the God of Jesus Christ in very personal moments. This Head of Household gives us a chance at new life through the unlikely gifts handed out to a very diverse family. If we can live together and receive these gifts with the enthusiasm of children, our lives will be rich.
Claudia Highbaugh writes, “Think, then, of your children or of you own childhood. Remember group play. Try to imagine yourself working very hard at being understood. Try to think of the importance of being heard clearly. Remember the power of discovery as children participate in a world they create. Think of how important it was to include everyone, to make a place for those standing outside of the circle. Think of the hard work of children. This text is about beginnings. We are called to start fresh, with one another and under the guardianship of the most powerful Caretaker.”
The faded photos of ancestors we never knew give a hint of who we are. But the greater definition of our character will be shaped by those we choose as our clan, our tribe, our kin. Pastor John, with fading eyesight but vivid memories, reminds us of our family name: CHRISTIAN. At our family reunions we can expect amazing gifts, souvenirs much greater than a T-Shirt or leftover jello salad. Unbelievably we are offered repentance, forgiveness, joy and the very presence of Jesus our brother! Wow! Unbelievable. Amen.