While being “the most wonderful time of the year” for some, the holidays tend to be a lonely, alienating, and isolating time for others.
These feelings often come from struggles related to the nuclear family. Many of us have at least one “Cousin Eddie” situation that confronts us during the holidays that tempts us to look at the nuclear and extended family with cynicism, anger, and even despair.
This holiday season, I want to reflect on the solution Jesus provides for fractured relationships. Not only is his solution good for us; but it also provides an empowering resource, one that enables us to move toward “Cousin Eddie” in ways that heal instead of perpetuating the wounds.
So then, what is Jesus’ solution to our holiday woes? I believe it’s this…
Jesus gives us himself.
He also gives us a family in the Church.
To disciples who had left everything to follow him, he responded with these words:
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29-30).
Did you hear that? Who is your mother and father and sisters and brothers?
Even if your nuclear family is a train wreck, if you are with Jesus then you have another anchor family—mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers who, like you, are united to Jesus by faith. The Church is God’s redeemed society, a family of surrogates united together by one LORD, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father (Ephesians 4:4-6).
In the Church is a solidarity that transcends all other loyalties while also demolishing divisions.
Peter, a loud and intense man with low emotional intelligence, and John, a gentle and contemplative man, become inseparable brothers through their shared union with Jesus. Simon, an anti-government zealot, and Matthew, a government-employed tax collector, are transformed from enemies to friends by that same union. David and Jonathan, the son of a shepherd and the son of a king, become the dearest of friends through a shared faith. These are merely a sampling of what theologian Donald Carson has said about the family of God in his book, Love in Hard Places:
The Church itself is not made up of natural “friends…” What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything of the sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance, in light of the fact that they have all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to do what he says—and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.
This solidarity around the experience of loving Jesus—or, rather, of being deeply loved by Jesus—has also made the Church the most inclusive community in the history of the world.
This was felt deeply, especially in first-century Jerusalem, where Rabbis openly and often prayed, “Thank you, God, that I am not a woman, a slave, or a gentile.”
In a culture of social pecking orders where Jewish men ran things and everybody else’s role was to support them in their privilege, Jesus came in to level the playing field, and to reaffirm that all people are equal in dignity and value. The Holy Spirit then punched the Rabbi’s prayer in the gut, ensuring that the first three Christian converts were a woman, Lydia, who hosted a congregation in her house, a slave in Philippi, and a gentile prison guard (Acts 16:11-40). Inspired by God’s stance of showing no partiality, the Apostle Paul would write these words about God’s family, the Church:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
In the Church, God has given us a family, a first and anchor family, where healing from the dysfunctions and sorrows, and losses experienced outside the Church can occur. What many have been denied in the nuclear family—a loving spouse, supportive parents, honoring children—were there for Jesus and are there for us inside the family of God.
But like the nuclear family, the Church will live with dysfunction until Jesus returns. And yet, because we know that Jesus will complete the work he has begun in us because we are his workmanship because resurrection and new life are in our future, we can treat ourselves and each other with hope instead of cynicism. We can live in confidence that we are not yet what we will be. We can look at the caterpillar in front of us—whether in the mirror or face to face with another—and envision the butterfly. Jesus will soon present his family, the Church, to himself as a radiant bride without spot, wrinkle, or blemish. It’s already settled (Philippians 1:6; Ephesians 2:10; John 11:25; Ephesians 5:27).
So then, what if the Church became the first place, instead of the last place, where people went looking for family?
What if the Church was filled with unmarried people but had no “single” people because unmarried people were as a family to each other, and surrogate brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters to the rest of the Church?
What if the Church was the place where no parent felt the burden of having to raise children alone, and where every child had hundreds of mothers and fathers and grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles and big sisters and brothers? What if it were true that God sets the lonely in families? (Psalm 68:6) What if the Church was the place where anyone in the world could find refuge and solace from the age-old malediction that it is not good to be alone? This is exactly what God intended for the Church to be.
And do you know what else? When we “leave” our nuclear families for the anchor family that God provides in the Church, we actually end up “cleaving” better to our earthly families. Why is this so?
Because in the Church, we are taught first to know God as a Father who protects, defends, and provides, and as a Mother Hen who gathers us under his wings to shelter us. In the Church, we are taught to know Jesus as a Brother who is not ashamed of us, and as a Husband who repeatedly forgives us, empowers us, holds us and lays down his life for us. In the Church, we are taught to know the Holy Spirit as a Comforter, Counselor, and Guide.
The more we come to know Father, Son, and Spirit in these ways, the more equipped, empowered and energized we will be to protect, defend, provide, shelter, bless, forgive, empower, hold, lay down our lives, comfort, counsel and guide in our nuclear families.
In short, through the formation we experience inside the Church, we are better equipped to love and bless our nuclear family members who may be outside the Church. Rather than a pain in the neck, Cousin Eddie becomes a target of our love. Because of the influence of the anchor family, the family of Jesus, we will start thinking creatively about how we can love Cousin Eddie well in spite of his offensiveness and awkwardness.
Don’t let your family be your Jesus. Instead, let Jesus and his Family be your anchor family.
When you do, your nuclear family will thank you for it.
This article initially appeared in Scott Saul’s personal blog on December 12, 2015, and has been reposted with his permission.