Something Jesus said puzzled me. From the cross, he gave John to take care of his widowed mother, Mary. "Woman, behold, your son . . . behold, your mother" (John 19:26-27). Here's the mystery: Why didn’t Jesus call on his biological siblings to take care of Mom? This was the conventional custom. As the oldest son, Jesus bore the responsibility to care for his mother. Upon his death, his siblings ought to have taken that role. He did have other siblings. We know of his brother James who became a leader in the early church. Why couldn’t James take care of Mary?
Dr. Craig Koester (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel) makes the point that the language Jesus used was similar to rites of adoption in the ancient world. In saying this, Jesus was creating a new family. In this new community, relationship to him would mean a radical reconfiguration of all other relationships. By his own blood, Jesus formed a community whose bond ranks above biological family and runs deeper than DNA.
This has implications for a church on the verge of a "new normal." The heart of Christian community has been tested in the past 12 months. As we emerge, now is the time to lean into a radical conception of Christian community.
I think the pandemic has hastened the decline of Christendom by at least a decade. By Christendom I mean the church as institution and American cultural phenomenon, not the "one, holy, Christian and apostolic church." The church will emerge as a refined community, shedding unnecessary aspects and flexing core components. Here are two aspects I believe we must "flex."
Interdependence over Independence
John took Mary “into his own home" (John 19:27). In Christ, our lives are mutual and interdependent. Christian community is family. We share our homes, even our very lives. St. Paul related the church to a body - truly connected in a way that the individual parts cannot function without one another (I Cor. 12). The books of Acts describes a church that was communal in ways that would terrify most Americans (Acts 4:32-37).
This is a challenge for Christians in the United States because we insert our American value of independence into the church. By "independence" I mean the value that “I'm strong enough to function on my own. I don't need to rely on anyone else.” There is no evidence in Scripture that independence is a Christian value. The church is more about interdependence than independence. Our lives are to be intertwined in radical care.
Covenant over Contract
In our society, membership is a contract. I pay my subscription fee and in return I get goods and services. That’s fine for Amazon Prime. But the church isn’t Door Dash or Disney+. Christian community is like family, not Netflix, reduced to a business transaction. In the coming year, our churches will need to redefine what "membership" means.
The Christian community is defined by covenant, not contract. Covenants are about promises, commitment, and trust. They are personal ways in which communities bind themselves together with solemn vows. We rejoice and suffer together. We forgive each other and bear with one another.
My teenage daughter comes to mind. We live 8-10 hours from either of her biological grandparents, aunt and uncles, and cousins. But God has given us new family. A year ago, she became a godmother to a young girl named Hinley. At age 15 she is committed to Hinley like a sister. They will grow up in the church together, sharing life in all its joy an sorrow, with Christ's binding blood as their kinship.
Social, racial, and medical crises have refined the Christian church. I'm eager to move past "playing church," and enter an era of American Christianity that lives out its vocation in radical care for one another, interdependent and covenantal.