May 31 Welcome to the Family
Scripture: John 3:1-17 and 1 Peter 1:22-25
Title: Welcome to the Family
My nephew, Danny’s first child, Daniel Rhys, was born in March of 2014. I should precede this story by telling you that my dad, also named Daniel, is already deceased. His uncle, my great Uncle Dan, died before I was even born. My brother, Dan, suffered a sudden heart attack and died at 47, when my nephew was only 19. When the fifth generation Daniel, who actually goes by Rhys, was born, my nephew texted his picture. But then, I didn’t receive any pics at all for a couple of months. I texted back, asked what was up with that and received about four more, more recent pictures, accompanied by this text from my nephew: “I think he looks like Pap, don’t you think?” (Pap being my dad and his grandfather). I texted back, “Maybe; it’s hard to tell.” There was a lot of expectation riding on that little baby boy.
When people ask me if their newborn looks like a family member, I am always reminded of the Bill Cosby skit about his wife giving birth to their first child. As the baby emerged and the doctor lifted him up, Bill took his first look, cringed, and said, “It’s not done; put it back!” A new born infant, especially one delivered via the birth canal, is not so charming. They can look a little like something out of a Sci-Fi film. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for them to evolve into a beautiful baby. But even then, if you ask me, in those first few months, they bear about as much resemblance to their family of origin as I do to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I mean, here’s what I think, a certain amount of time, growth and maturity is necessary before a child begins to look like their family. I have another great nephew. I went to visit him when he was just a couple of months old. He was cute. But then, just a couple months back, my sister sent me a picture of him and Jace, now two, is the spitting image of his daddy. A lot happened in that intervening time between two months and two years. He filled out that baggy baby skin and he grew into, well, our family. Let’s face it; time, growth and maturity are what cause us to begin to look like our families.
But here’s what’s really interesting… Some of you may know that my husband, Britt, is adopted. At the first church where Britt and I pastored, when Britt’s dad came to visit, I can’t tell you how many people remarked to me how much alike they looked. And it continued to happen wherever we went. I don’t think people were blind or making things up. Britt did look like his dad not because they shared genetic material. He looked like his dad because they shared life. Britt grew up in his father’s presence: gestures, facial expressions, posture, all that stuff and that is why they resembled one another.
So, who do you look like? Do you look like your family? Look around the sanctuary this morning. Do we resemble one another? Do you look like your church family?
You may already be aware that, of all the metaphors or images used for the early Church, none was so prevalent, none so vitally important, as that of family. The Church is family, first and foremost. We’ve all heard the expression “blood is thicker than water.” But, here’s the thing; scripture makes pretty clear that blood (or any genetic material) is never as thick, as binding, as the waters of baptism. Nothing means more than the identity we share in Christ Jesus.
The Church, my friends, is family and the only way into this family is to be born into it. But not in the way you might think. We’re not born into the church family because our parents or grandparents had their names on the church membership rolls. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t. Either way, it doesn’t make any difference. To be a member of the Church family, you have to be born into it for yourself; you have to experience birth from above… the kind of birth that Jesus described to Nicodemus. It was hard for Nicodemus to figure it out. I mean, Cosby’s comment to the obstetrician was funny; but really, once babies are born, you can’t put them back.
But Jesus wasn’t talking about physical birth. Jesus was talking about spiritual birth; the birth that happens when we place our trust in Jesus as
God’s Son; the one God gave on our behalf so that we might receive the gift of life eternal, a share in God’s life. At birth, a newborn is immediately assessed for their ability to breathe air on their own. It’s critical to life and, if any problems, are detected, medical actions are promptly taken to get air flowing into the baby’s lungs. But Jesus teaches that our life in God is sustained through the Holy Spirit’s wind or breath. There’s a Michael W. Smith chorus: “This is the air I breathe; your Holy presence living in me.”
1st Peter puts it like this: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” (1 Pet 1.3)
And with God as our heavenly parent, this new birth places us smack dab in the middle of a new family, our church family. But we have to remember that, just like physical birth, it will take a while for us to grow into the family and it will mean we’ll need to spend a lot of time together. Remember what I said about Britt. He grew to look like his adopted dad because his dad raised him and they spent a lot of time together. We need a certain amount of time, growth and maturity before we begin to look like the rest of the family, especially our heavenly Father. For some of us, the growing process takes longer than others. We all grow and mature at different rates. But we’re family, so we hang in there together; teaching, encouraging, correcting; and celebrating moments of growth, rites of passage. Most definitely, we don’t – or at least we shouldn’t – mind our own business. After all, we don’t want to be outdone by the proverbial “pack of wolves.” We take good care of our young, raising them up in the faith, attending to their needs, making sure they understand what it means to be a part of this family. We help them discover them own unique place in the family. And most of all, we love one another because that’s what healthy, functional families do, right? We love one another. And that mutual love, that deep love from the heart, becomes the most distinguishing trait of our family identity.
Today is a wonderful day of celebration here at Trinity. Today we’ll confirm six young people. They have grown up in this church; we are their family. As time has passed, they have grown and matured. Many of you, no doubt, remember some of them being baptized right here at this font. If you did, I hope you remember the promise you made that day; a promise that you would be like a spiritual parent to them; a promise that you would accept shared responsibility for their growth and maturity. And today, when they join the Church, promising their faithfulness not only to Jesus but to all of you, their family, you’ll have the opportunity once again, to renew your commitment to them. And I hope you won’t take it lightly because it’s a big deal; a really big deal.
Retired Methodist Bishop, Will Willimon, relates the story of a young man in a church he’d pastored. It was summer and the young man had returned home from his first year of college. He appeared one day at Willimon’s office to inform him that he would not be attending church that summer. The young man related his reason: “Well, you see,” he said, “I have been doing a lot of thinking about religion while I was at college, and I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t much to this religion thing. I have found out that I don’t need the church to get by.”
Willimon responded to the young man by telling him that he found all of that quite interesting.
“Aren’t you worried?” said the young man. “I thought you would go through the roof when I told you.”
Now, Willimon had known the young man for about five years. He had baptized him a couple of years previously and had watched him grow throughout his high school years. The youth had come from a difficult home situation. The church had been very interested in him and had had a hand in making it possible for him to go to college.
Willimon responded. “No. I’m interested, but not overly concerned. I’ll be watching to see if you can pull it off.”
“What do you mean ‘pull it off’?” said the young man. “I’m 19. I can decide to do anything I want to, can’t I?”
Willimon: “When I was 19 I thought I was ‘on my own,’ too. I’m saying that I’m not so sure you will be able to get away with this.”
The young man’s confusion increased. “Why not?” he asked.
“Well, for one thing, you’re baptized,” said Willimon.
“So, what does that have to do with anything?” the young man queried.
Willimon: “Well, you try forsaking it, rejecting it, forgetting about it, and maybe you’ll find out.”
“I can’t figure out what being baptized has to do with it,” the young man stated.
Willimon responded: “For one thing, there are people here who care about you. They made promises to God when you were baptized. You try not showing up around here this summer, and they will be nosing around, asking what you are doing with your life, what kind of grades you made last semester, what you’re doing with yourself. Then there’s also God. No telling what God might try with you. From what I’ve seen of God, once he has claimed you, you don’t get off the hook so easily. God is relentless in claiming what is his. And, in baptism, God says you belong to him.”
The boy shook his head in wonder at Willimon’s strange brand of reasoning and left his office. Willimon reports that in a couple of weeks the young man was back in his usual place on the second pew. The baptizers had done their work. And, God’s possessiveness had remained firm.
Friends, we all know that being a healthy, functional family requires commitment. It means we love each other, no matter what. It means we “show up” for one another. You know, for most of us, when we get up in the morning, think about what we need to do for our family that day – whether it involves babysitting the grandchildren, ordering flowers online for a sister who lives out of state and is going through a divorce, taking some time in the evening to help our child with homework for a class that is challenging them or discouraging them, leaving work early to go to a doctor’s appointment with our spouse, arranging to spend a week out of town with that favorite uncle who needs help recovering from surgery. When you’re family, you show up, because you love each other.
So this morning I want us to think about how often we apply that same principle to our church family. Look around. This is your family. When you get up in the morning, do you think about them? When we see these six young people up front this morning, we need to all remember, we’re all their parents in the faith and in the years ahead, we’re all responsible to God for their growth and maturity. We’re promising to show up for them and for each other. We’ve all heard that hypocritical, sarcastic cliché, “do as I say, not as I do.” But we don’t want to be that guy, right? None of us really respect or take seriously people who live out that cliché. So, if we really want to see our young people thrive and remain committed to Christ and the Church then we need to lead the way in that so they’ll be inspired to do as we do and not just what we tell them to do. We need to show up for them and for each other – in worship and study and prayer and service and fellowship because we’re the Church, we’re their family.
You know, one way that you can grow this summer in your relationship with Christ and your church family and lead by example for our young people is through the summer small groups we’re offering. It’s a great way to grow in our love for Christ and for each other. If you’re not connected to a group right now, then I would encourage you this morning to mark the back of your Connection Card so that, as the family of God, we can grow and mature together.
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