Under the Cross: The (a)Typical Family
By Harrison Goodman
Somewhere down the line Christians began to believe there is a typical family in church. We imagine a happily married couple with some, but not too many, kids. Nobody has to deal with divorce and its aftermath. Nobody’s single and old enough that people ask why, or worse, try to guess. Nobody’s in the closet. Nobody’s struggling with anxiety or depression. Everyone believes the same things.
I’m not saying those families don’t exist. I’m saying they’re far from typical. Still, it’s hard to be different when everyone expects you to be the same. So when we look around the congregation and everyone else looks normal, we pretend. The irony is that since we pretend to be normal, everyone else pretends, too. It creates an image of the typical church family that flies in the face of what many of our families actually look like behind closed doors. Never mind all the Bible stories about families that don’t fit this “typical” mold. Ignore Cain and Abel. Ignore Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau. Ignore Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. That awful little lie of the typical church family leaves us in the uncomfortable position of finding it easier to talk about our family’s sins in the world, where of course everyone’s family is messed up, rather than in the church--the one place God built to forgive sinners and comfort those suffering its wages.
The world has no shortage of sympathy for your family issues. They can relate. Commiserate. Share their own stories. Make memes. They can understand what you’re going through and make you feel like it isn’t your fault. It’s hard to be different when everyone expects you to be the same, and in the world we don’t feel so different. But even though it’s more comfortable talking about sin in a world that agrees we have that in common, something terrible has happened. We have forgotten that we were set apart. We Christians come from messed up families just like the rest of the world, but we aren’t known by our sin, as common as it may be. We’re known by our Lord. His mercy. His Cross. His resurrection. We’re known by Baptism. God wants us to find comfort in something more than just knowing that everyone else is messed up, too.
I understand not wanting to feel so different, but there isn’t as much comfort in being a part of the majority as you would imagine. The question isn’t whether or not you’d jump off a bridge if all your friends did it. The question is what’s at the bottom when you land. Sin breaks stuff. That’s why our Lord calls it sin. It hurts. Our messed-up families, our secrets, our guilt, and our shame only testify to the fact that His diagnosis is correct. Just knowing everything else is falling apart, too, doesn’t actually fix the problem. It just leaves us all trying to cope with the damage sin has created and justify ourselves in the middle of it. Memes don’t fix as much as we wish they did. In wanting just to not be so different, we’ve only really chosen to identify ourselves by our sins and not by Christ’s forgiveness of them. Even knowing Bible characters have their own weird stories doesn’t help. Comfort isn’t found in knowing that everyone’s family is falling apart. Comfort isn’t found in realizing that sin is common. Comfort is found in knowing that Christ joins us in it.
Our Lord took on flesh and was born into an atypical family. His Father was way older than His mom, in an “In the beginning” kind of way. His stepdad was probably enough older than His mother to turn heads, too. Jesus was mocked for His mother’s story about how He was born. His lineage gets even more uncomfortable. Read the stories of the names listed in the genealogies sometime (e.g., Rahab was a prostitute). But Jesus didn’t choose this family and this lineage just to commiserate with our family drama. He came to save sinners, including you, and even your family. Jesus was born in order to bear the Cross, atoning for all the sin that leaves us feeling so uncomfortable with what our families look like. He did more than join a messed-up family. He made you a part of His own: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16-17).
Romans 8 is true, because through Baptism, God has made you a part of His family. You are the Church, as atypical a family as you’ll ever find. God’s family only has redeemed sinners in it. Like Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Like Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Esau. Like you and yours, and like me and mine. He doesn’t just unite us in having the same sins. He unites us in the same mercy. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are the typical church family, sinners washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. We are children of the promise. We are not known by what divides us, but by what unites us and holds us through this life and unto life everlasting.
When this mercy becomes the definition of a church family, you can deal with your own family in the same light. Since your family happens to be filled with actual sinners, first recognize God’s will to see them forgiven and loved. Right and wrong don’t stop being right and wrong. Sin still breaks stuff. But what sin would do to separate us from the love of God, Christ Jesus conquers by the Cross. When your family struggles with real problems--divorce, sexual identity, and secret sin--start with Jesus’ Cross. He is the Good Shepherd. He has already redeemed your family, even your sinful one. He is even now at work to seek you out and to carry you home. In the Cross, see mercy. See the difference between helping and winning. Being right is easy. You can win the argument. God’s Word speaks clearly. Helping takes mercy. Winning is about your being right. Helping is about your neighbor receiving a gift from God. Right and wrong won’t change, but that perspective alone can shape your approach quite a bit.
The typical family in church is made of sinners knit together in the forgiveness of sins, tied together in vocation, building one other up in love into Him who is the Head, even Christ Jesus. It looks messy because rather than worry about how it looks, we cling to the Cross, where Christ bled to cover sin.
Rev. Harrison Goodman is the pastor of Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas.
This article was originally published in the spring issue of Higher Things Magazine.
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