"The Household of God"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
July 15, 2018
Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 3:20-35
In our upper elementary years, just about the time our circle of our awareness begins to expand beyond the household of our birth, we take a first step in expanding our understanding of what “family” means. My brother and I benefitted early from our parents’ deliberate efforts to introduce a broader awareness of the world and culture with subscriptions to Ebony magazine and National Geographic on the coffee table in our living room depicting without judgment families that looked and functioned differently than ours. During those years we lived next door to the Bechtold family. The Bechtold household was both alluring and mystifying. They were Catholic…, and had seven children spanning 14 years, five girls and two boys. My brother and I fit neatly into gaps in their birth order. Theirs was the only house on the block that had no fence, front or back. Their doors were never locked, front or back. And from the beginning, we were free to come and go in their household. At the time, it seemed they could not be more different from our family. They were loud and chaotic. We were quiet and reserved. Multiple conversations competed at their dinner table. At our home, we waited our turn to speak. They made their own bread, and, in the summer, they bottled their own root beer. Aromas of yeast wafted. If we were hungry and it was dinner time, they set places for us. Our concept of “family” expanded exponentially.
Churches teach family as well. Children who grow up in churches understand that there is a form of family that includes multiple generations, that is marked by affection and generosity – and if they are lucky, it includes a diversity of origin, opinion, and orientation alongside a shared world view in which God is good and so are we. Sadly, our churches rarely teach by example about the diversity of forms of family that are blessed by God. All too often, a very narrow view of family is taught, to the degree that many Christians confuse our faith with a system of indoctrination into a form of family that reinforces inequity and exclusion. Churches teach – sometimes intentionally – that we need not be related by descent from common ancestors to be family. But churches also teach – sometimes intentionally – that we pretty much need to look alike and even share a narrow range of political viewpoints to earn God’s grace. Recent studies have indicated that we are more likely to choose our faith communities according to our preconceived political opinions than we choose our political convictions because of our faith commitments.
Regardless of our politics, most people seem to agree that family is important. Or at least we give it lip service. But in the second or third breath we may reach an impasse over just what family means, and who is included in ours. The family, we can agree, is the basic unit of any culture. We can even agree that family might legitimately mean something a little different from one culture to another, or from one time to another. We can agree that “family” is normative, but we don’t seem to be able to agree what “normal” is. Narrow understanding of legitimate “family” exacerbates the dysfunctional distribution of anxiety, compounding other challenges such as misogyny, addiction, and the rapid transfer of assets into fewer and fewer families. In turn these challenges contribute to the disintegration and dysfunction of families. It’s a vicious cycle.
Ephesians explores the blessings and anxieties surrounding “family.” The early Christians of western Asia Minor – the likely recipients of this letter – were anxious. Their gatherings were the marriage of the Jews of the diaspora – scattered around the Mediterranean since the exile in Babylon – and of newcomers – non-Jews who had come to accept the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Hebrew and Gentile norms of family life were quite different in the first century. If that wasn’t enough cause for anxiety, this new and growing family of the Jesus movement found itself under the scrutiny of the Roman Empire. They were skittish about upsetting the delicate balance of state and religion.
Families were divided and broken over their allegiance. You can imagine parents distraught over their children’s decision to claim allegiance to Jesus as the eternal Son of God rather than to Caesar as the eternal son of the gods. You can imagine the child whose family had claimed Jesus as Lord, confused by losing a playmate whose family had concerns about the upstart Jesus movement. Even more painfully, commitment to the values and practices of Jesus – radical forgiveness, radical generosity, radical hospitality, radical inclusion, and radical justice – might interfere with making a living and threaten a family’s future. The very real consequences of taking a countercultural stand could very well lead one to feel fated, abandoned, ashamed, a failure.
The letter called “Ephesians” is good news for us, and we may find ourselves to be in similar situations to the original audience – with a radically alternative trust in God whose unconditional love and expectation of justice is suspect, or even rejected, in a sometimes-hostile world. Today’s reading from Ephesians is, in its original form, one long 162-word sentence. This long sentence greets the audience and defines it. These are words of assurance, and thus we know that the intended recipients were a people needing encouragement – it was a “stay in the game, don’t quit now, you have what it takes” kind of pep talk. According to this passage, God has an intention for humanity. God has created all-that-is with the intention that all creation will be united with the Source of Being. God has provided all-that-is to facilitate our love for God and one another and has given us the means to glorify God. God takes all the initiative here. It is God who chooses us, before the beginning of creation, to be adopted heirs. And God takes pleasure in having chosen us – chosen “us” to be family.
It’s important to understand what is meant when we say “us” or “we.” Our word
“economy” comes from the Greek word οἰκεῖος, meaning “household.” The “economy” is the way a household works – it’s the rule of the household. The work of the Gospel – the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice that we have come to know in Jesus Christ – is to expand our understanding of the “us” and the “we” of the household of God. In Ephesians we learn that humanity has been made heir to God’s grace through Jesus Christ. The “us” and the “we” are all-inclusive in the household of God. Author Alice Walker expresses this expansive inclusion in the household of God – as well as the violence of the idea that God’s household is limited in any way. “It is fatal to love a God who does not love you. A god specifically created to comfort, lead, advise, strengthen, and enlarge the tribal borders of someone else. We are born knowing how to worship, just as we are born knowing how to laugh.”[i]
The rule of the household of God is love. All else is commentary. The Bechtold household significantly shaped my understanding and expectation of the ethic of the household of God.
Messy, chaotic love.
Fresh bread in abundance.
Always another place at the table.
A God who loves everyone best.
The ethic – the living out – of the household of God is inherently political. Richard Rohr reminds us that “… Jesus clearly modeled engagement with both faith and the public forum. There is no such thing as being non-political. Everything we say or do either affirms or critiques the status quo. To say nothing is to say something. If we think we can say our private prayers and still genuflect before the self-perpetuating, unjust systems of this world, our conversion will not go very deep or aid in the unfolding of history. For Jesus, prayer seems to be a matter of waiting in love, returning to love, trusting that love is the unceasing stream of reality.”[ii]
I don’t always live up to that ideal, and I can’t do it alone. I need you to do it.
Beloved, let us assume for a moment that this is true and relevant to our human condition. God loves us collectively with an irreversible, universal, merciful love. The “us” is inclusive and generous. The inclusive and generous “we” has been given all that is needed to fulfill God’s intention that we are drawn together – that every tear in the very fabric of creation is sown back together with the thread of love. What are we to do? Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Love the intimate and infinite Source of Being with our entire being, and our neighbor as our self. Who is our neighbor? Everyone who lives in the household of God. Who live in the household of God? The widow, the orphan, and the alien, immigrant stranger are the first citizens in the household of God. The racist and the misogynist and the capitalist live there too. We are called to an impossible task – at least impossible on our own. We are called to love the difficult stranger as well as the familiar pest. This challenging example and ethic of love plays out in innumerable ways in our mundane relationships as well as our life-changing crossroads. Whatever our level of engagement, Ephesians conveys this message to us today: “Stay in the game. Don’t quit now. We have what it takes. We are not just any family – we are the household of God.”