Church as Family

In today's gospel, Jesus seems to be rejecting his natural family, but he is acting metaphorically. This story comes at the end of a series of stories that portray Jesus speaking and acting to show the nature and source of his authority, both of which are divine, and therefore more authoritative than the Pharisees and other authorities of his day. So we have recently heard him say that the Son of Man is Lord over the sabbath, and call his contemporaries an evil and adulterous generation. In the midst of this discourse, he proclaims that a greater than Jonah, a greater than Solomon, has now appeared, that a new thing is happening.

So in today's gospel, he proclaims a new thing, his new family, the Church. This is a new and greater family, the family of those who hear the word of God and respond obediently, a family based not on birth into a specific people, but on response to the one who is God of all. So Jesus replaces exclusion with inclusion, criteria of selectivity with open acceptance of all who would come. In these stories he is replacing the narrowness which he is criticizing.

But what could it mean to say that the Church is a family?

First of all, it would not be primarily a rational choice or option. The family is at heart rooted in our human sexuality, and that is not rational. Sexual selection is not quite random, there is some sense to our attractions, but it is not based on rational management of our life either. We do not join ourselves to others in cool-headed self-interest. Nor do we choose our fellow family members; they are given us by genetic selection, which does not fit our rational standards either.

So it is with the Church. The Church is not an agency or worksite. It is not a staff being hired, there are not criteria of fitness or ability in order to belong. The Church is not shaped by the rationalization of work or life; it is not trimmed and shaped for efficiency, nor is it arranged so as to produce the most product with the least effort. We are in the Church because we are born into it by hearing the call of God which gives us new birth and by following that call. This, like the family, is grossly inefficient. We do not assemble a competent and rational team. We care for and cherish the stupid as well as the bright, we accept the clumsy, the crazy, and handicapped and incompetent, just because they have been given us as a gift from God.

The Church as family does have a rationality, but not the kind of rationality we are used to talking about. We tend to think in terms of instrumental rationality, which is based on our human character of toolmaking. We deal with the production of artifacts, and extensions of artifacts in technical and managerial operations. But the Church is not an artifact of our own, and its rationality is organic rationality, the rationality of living creatures of God. This organic rationality is hard for us to grasp in a culture shaped by instrumental rationality. So it will be easier to say what it is not.

The Church is not an object of management and planning in our usual sense, and our life together is not a process of ever more refined techniques for the development of an objective product, the people of God. There is no product as such, other than ourselves as subjects, as sons and daughters of God. living God's life in the world. This is not a productive activity in the usual commercial or economic sense. The object, so to speak, is always the subject who acts, that is, ourselves, persons who act, whatever our situations, needs and fulfillments, who act out our personal and communal life in our new family, the Church. Product and producer, subject and object are perfectly joined in the life of God, and that life is given us in the Church. And it is more than we can ever comprehend or manage, so that there is always space for newness and creativity, and never a completed product.

Secondly, that the Church is a family would mean that it is organic, that it is a living thing. And so it is. It has birth, new birth by baptism in water and the Holy Spirit. We have a common life in a common food, the meal of the Eucharist. We have the joining in loving relationships. We have means of healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness, that help us keep our lives common. And there is Christian death, in which a life is closed, but we go on in the life of the Church, life after life, a permanent joining of persons through the generations. For the church is a living thing that goes on, and not an ad-hoc arrangement for our present situation.

What does this all add up to?

The Church is a living organism, of which we are living parts. We are given this from God, and it is a wonderful gift. Furthermore, we relate to others as living things, with relations of love and cherishing, and not relations of production, of management and utility. We give others value as fellow creatures of God, not as means of production or useful tools. To do this is to join Jesus in proclaiming the new family. We proclaim love by loving. We who do the will of God are mother and brother and sister to Jesus and to each other.