“Spiritual Family”                         

Hebrews 11:32—12:3

I want to talk this morning about spiritual family. By this, I mean people who are united by deep love and by mutual submission. This is possible only with God because God is a perfect spiritual family until himself. The Bible reveals God as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons are together one God. The Father loves and serves the Son; the Son loves and serves the Spirit; and the Spirit loves and serves the Father. There is one God and yet three distinct persons. This union is not a union of marriage (law) or temporary feelings or even a physical union like sex; it is a different and deeper kind of love, commitment, humility, and service. 

Spiritual family was God’s plan from the beginning! Out of the overflow of love and submission, God created people to serve. God put humanity in the garden to care for it and to serve others (Gen 2:15); he called and blessed Abraham in order to make him a blessing to all nations (Gen 12:1-3). In Western culture, which is to say Individualistic culture, IF we imagine encountering God, we usually imagine the encounter as a profound and moving personal experience. In collectivist culture, we might focus only on loving or serving our group, ignoring others.  Then, all together, with the author of Hebrews, we might look at Biblical stories of God speaking to Noah to build a boat; or an angel of God wrestling with Jacob; Moses, going up the mountain to meet with God; or even Rahab helping God’s people rather than her own. Maybe we resonate with one of the disciples or with the Apostle Paul. We might pick only one person or only one group to focus all of our energy on.

But I’ll join the author of Hebrews and say, “I do not have time to tell” about all the details of these stories: how Noah lived in the boat he built with his three sons and extended family; yet saved many animals and all humanity; how Jacob had many children, even one who served the Egyptians; how Moses came down the mountain and lived among the Israelites, but Moses and the Israelites were punished for their selfishness; how Rahab—a foreigner—was adopted into God’s people. How Jesus called twelve disciples—not just one—to serve all people! And how the Apostle Paul never went on a missionary journey alone. In every story in the Bible, we can see how God invites his people to see higher or further or differently. To look beyond their preferences or expectations and to encounter God as one part of God’s big family from every tribe, nation, people, and language. And how everyone in this big spiritual family is called to God’s mission: to unite God and people by deep love, by mutual submission, and by service to others.

When we read only one small piece of the Bible at a time, we can miss broad trends or big pictures that God wants to show us—we might miss pieces of how all of the stories in the Bible are connected into a much bigger whole. When we look at the whole, we see that God is always inviting his people to encounter him alongside others; because God is always drawing all people together to experience him. But God does not (only) invite us to encounter him as individuals: God draws us to himself so that we might all encounter and experience him as a part of a diverse spiritual family.

We have said before that the glory and love of God is too much to take in all at once; that’s why we pick small parts and pieces. But, just like the author of Hebrews, I want to explore several characters in the Bible story rather than several specific texts. And along with that, I want to show their broader impact, not just focus on one person or one group. So I’ll give a lot of references to big chunks of the Bible that I’m talking about—and I’ll invite (and expect) you to open up the Bible for yourself later and test the truth of my words when I say these things. This morning, let’s consider Jesus and his disciples, but also the Apostle Paul. Just two examples among many more about how God encounters us in community.

Jesus walks along the shore of the sea of Galilee and calls his disciples to follow him. He calls Peter and Andrew, James and John first among them (Mark 1:16-20). Then Jesus returns to Capernaum and goes to Peter and Andrew’s house. (Mark 1:21,29). Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, who is sick, and suddenly the whole town has gathered in and around their home. A few days later, Mark tells us that Peter and Andrew’s home is also now Jesus’ home! And many people are gathering there to see and meet Jesus (Mark 2:1-2).Once Jesus had established a home with these four guys and Peter’s mother-in-law, and a few others, then the gospel-writers tell us that he gathered more people to join him and follow him, designating twelve as disciples or apostles—the original four, plus eight more (Mark 3:13-19). This new family, a spiritual family not (only) a biological family, is so important that, in the very next story (Mark 3:33-35), Jesus asks the crowds, “Who is my family?”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. 
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Of course, Jesus says as well that (only) God is his father. And this is the beginning of the new spiritual family that Jesus is creating: a group of people—a few are biological family—but all have God as their father and Jesus as their brother.

Moreover, when Jesus does his miracles, the disciples are there watching; when Jesus teaches, they are there listening. The gospel writers tell us time and time again that crowds gathered, but that Jesus addressed his disciples! Jesus doesn’t do it all by himself. The crowds who gathered (or sometimes didn’t gather) were always welcome to listen, but Jesus’ attention was first on his disciples. His attention was first on his spiritual family. He travels with them, he rests with them. They have fun together, they has times of serious discussion and prayer together. He is always with them. These people do not experience Jesus alone! 

Take only one small example: At one point (Mark 5:1-20), Jesus sails across the lake and heals a man who has many demons in him—this man lived in the tombs, outside of society. We might mistakenly think that it is only Jesus and this man in the story—but some of his disciples were fishermen; they piloted the boat across the lake. And how can we even know this story today, except that other disciples were there experiencing Jesus’ actions and remembering his words to share them later. At another point during his ministry, Jesus sends out his disciples to do what he has been doing and to say what he has been saying. The Gospel-writers tell us that Jesus sent out his twelve disciples (Luke 9:1-6); then later that he sent out seventy-two others to do exactly the same thing. These 72 are not just a random number—it’s six people (three pairs) for every disciple who went out the previous time. Luke is intentionally trying to show us the multiplying power of Jesus’ love for his disciples and through his disciples! This is reiterated in Jesus’ famous words to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always…” (Mt 28:19-20)

I was sharing with a friend this week how the church is the only organization in the world that is designed to exist for the benefit, blessing, and love of others. Banks, Governments, even schools in so many ways exist for their own sake and for their own growth. Even families may exist to use their kids to make a name for themselves or prioritize their own children in order to succeed above others. This is not to say that any of these are bad things! Instead, we must recognize that apart from God, every good thing turns in on itself. And God’s solution to this problem is not first of all the biological family. God’s solution is a spiritual family: people who are united by deep love and by mutual submission. The union of God and union with God is so much higher and further and deeper than biology. But Jesus’ church—his disciples—are to be gathered from every nation for the purpose not to serve themselves, but to love and serve everyone and anyone around them. We learn this from the perfect love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but also from the perfect, humble, and self-giving love of Jesus to his disciples. 

If you want to encounter God, join his disciples! This is what the apostle Paul did. Before he encountered God, he was working against Jesus’ disciples, but after he met God for the first time, he gave up everything in order to encounter God again and to know him more fully.

The first half of the “Acts of the Apostles” shows us how Jesus’ disciples are already doing what Jesus modeled for them to do: they are gathering together in the power of God, spending days and weeks together, and God is doing powerful things in them and through them. Then Luke tells us in Acts (11:22-26) that the church in Jerusalem “sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” Then what happens? Barnabas realizes he needs to follow Jesus’ example. “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Barnabas does not work in isolation or alone, he finds someone (Paul) to join him, to learn from him, and work alongside of him. Barnabas understood the teaching and example of Jesus: we encounter God with other people who have the same heart. We continue to encounter God alongside a spiritual family: people who are united by deep love, by mutual submission, and by service to others.

Barnabas is so convinced that we must encounter God along with others, that on their next trip, Barnabas wants to take Paul and to take John Mark—John Mark was Barnabas’ cousin. But Paul doesn’t trust John Mark, so they part ways. Barnabas travels with his cousin; Paul travels with Silas. (Acts 15:36-41). But still Paul follows Barnabas’ example: as he travels on his second journey with Silas, they invite Timothy to join them in Lystra, the first Roman city they enter (16:1-3). Then in Troas, Luke joins their little group (16:6-10). In Philippi, they are joined by Lydia. And although Lydia doesn’t travel with them, it’s clear that she becomes a part of their spiritual family! (Acts 16:11-40. She cares for them after they get out of the jail). In Corinth, Paul meets Priscilla and Aquila. (18:1-3) He stays with them for several months and, when Paul leaves to go to Ephesus, they go with him! (18:18-19). Paul says that he intends to return to Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus (18:21) and later he does, spending years more with them. When things in Paul’s third missionary journey go badly in Ephesus, Luke tells us that “He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy also, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia. These men went on ahead and waited for us at Troas.” (20:4-5). Luke writes that they waited for us, which means that Luke was there too! We don’t know the details of who all of these people were, but one thing is clear: Paul was always encountering God with more and more other people. And Paul, like Barnabas and like Jesus, was always challenging those people to love and serve others.

I will make a bold statement and challenge you to test it in your own life: People who encounter God powerfully and continually are always intentionally an active part of a spiritual family: they are part of a group of people who are united by deep love, by mutual submission, and by service to others. Some of us may prioritize only our biological family. Others of us may focus only on our own personal lives and responsibilities.

Yet God is gracious! God may choose to meet any of us in any and every situation—even if we live our faith privately and outside of meaningful connection with other Christians, and even when we focus our energy only on our own biological family. But that is not the model that we have received and it is not the model that we are invited to follow. Jesus picked twelve disciples, including some pairs of brothers. If you list all the people above—People that Paul worked with, traveled with, and lived with over the years—you get thirteen people, including some relatives. (John Mark is Barnabas’ cousin; Priscilla and Aquila are married). I am not going to tell you that twelve or thirteen is a magic number, but I am going to suggest two things before we close:

Encountering God alongside other people with whom you have deep relationship does have a maximum number to it. People are limited! We cannot share ourselves fully and deeply with one hundred people. We cannot share ourselves fully and deeply with even fifty people! You might one day write a book and share the details of your life with many hundreds or even thousands of people. But they will not know you—they will only have a snapshot of your life. And, more importantly, you will not know them. Just as we do not know the apostle Paul personally, even though we know a lot of details about his life—and he does not know us.

We have a maximum number of people we can share ourselves with because we are more than the sum of the details or information about us. We are dynamic and changing. Some days are good, some days are difficult. We grow. And we are influenced by other people around us. To be sure, it is good to gather with hundreds of people and worship God together! But Jesus reminds us to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbour as ourselves. The love that each of us needs is personal and specific. If we want to love others as we want to be loved ourselves, then we will need to focus our energy and focus our love. 

Spiritual family is always biological family PLUS! As I shared in the examples above, both Jesus and Paul gathered a spiritual family that was a mix of biological relations and non-relations. Biological family cannot meet all of our needs. If we look to a spouse or a parent for everything we need, we will be disappointed and we will hurt them. Biological family will be valued in eternity, but Jesus reminds us (again in more ways than I have time for today!) that all people are invited to a family commitment and love that is deeper than even biological family ties. We do not need to exclude our family, but the circle of love is broader and deeper than biology. And it is a love that extends even into eternity! It is a love that truly lasts forever.

Christians belief with faith that we can trust the examples and models in God’s word. Because we want to be more like Christ personally and more like God communally, we will invest in something that lasts. There is a great opportunity in our younger generations, who want to do something big and serve a purpose bigger than themselves! This is the opportunity for the church to stand up and be who God has called us to be: people who are united by deep love, by mutual submission, and by service to others. 

Let’s pray.

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