"What It Means to Be a Family"#88-32
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on April 11, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Gerard Bolling, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Acts 4:32-35
A reading from Acts 4:32-35 - All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God's grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, and they brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
A six-year-old-not-yet-Rev. Dr. Gerard-Bolling who went by "Roddy" spent what seemed like the millionth summer evening at his grandmother's house with eight other kids running around the place. Different day, but the same games that we would play as brothers, sisters, cousins, and other kids on the block crowded into what we affectionately called "Mema's House" —named for my grandmother who has since then gone to be with our Lord Jesus.
The ever-watching and seemingly all-knowing Mema would supervise what she would call "her children," as she observed them bouncing from room to room. And on that summer's evening with the fan beating down from above, I—6-year-old Roddy—found myself in a world full of trouble and a room full of cousins. Somehow the toilet paper had caught fire in the bathroom, and it nearly took the whole New York City brick-style house down in flames. Coming in hot with a cold cup of water both literally and figuratively—my grandmother mitigated what could have been a disaster. The room that seemed to hum with childhood play and laughter fell quieter than snow hitting the ground. We hung our heads and looked to our grandmother as she uttered "This is not what we do in our family" Her disappointment blanketed the room, but her admonishment pointed us back to our apology. Collectively, we stated "Sorry, Mema," as if we understood exactly what she meant, and exactly what we should do.
A family—our family—that's what the Scriptures speak of today: not of flesh and blood like little Roddy and his band of cousins at Mema's house, but a family bonded in Christ's blood, in His sacrifice that we call the "community of faith." A family that moved together in the Gospels as they watched this Jesus perform miracles, that followed Him to hear His teachings, that watched Him face death—even death on a cross—and eventually watched Him rise again three days later as our resurrected King. And then the glorious ascension as He went up seemed to propel them out to do His work in the book of Acts. This family that moved together as one and called themselves the church. This is our family.
And there are certain things that we do in our family. Verse 32 said, "they shared everything they had." The first thing being we share in our family. You have heard it said, "Sharing is caring!" and this is true! Even my own children understand this concept as I will hand them a bag of candy or chips, and the ultimate test of their love for me is the way in which they share it. If daddy asks for one and they willing to give it, then this is a testimony of how much they love their father. And if they share it with each other (remember now, brother and sister—it can get kind of dicey, right?), and that's a testament of how much their love for their father who gave the snack to begin with. And it just fills them so much that they're compelled to love their neighbor. This is what Christ calls us to do: to love one another so much as a family, that this love has an outpouring to those around us. This love compels us to not think of anything for ourselves or have any possessions, but instead think of the love of God that He gives to us! We only have what we have, the cars, electronic devices, everything, because Christ gave it first! Without His provision, we would be nothing; we would own nothing, and we own nothing. We merely borrow. It belongs to God.
And how do we know this? We know this because of the testimony of Jesus. In verse 33, it says that apostles testify about the resurrection of Jesus. This powerful word "testify" —what does this mean? Well, it means something like this. If you have ever been to a court room and seen a case play out, there will be a few things that happen. There will be lawyers, there will be judges, there will be case notes, evidence, and those things. But do you know what there will be most if not all of the time? Witnesses.
See a witness can make or break any given case. No matter what perspective is looked at, the greatest perspective is going to be the eyewitness perspective. "I saw it happen." "I heard it said." "I was there when ..." because, you see, you can say you know something. You can claim that something is so. But until you have experienced it as a witness—there is no credibility!
In our family, we are witnesses! We have seen God work in our family! He provides for our daily needs. He gives us His Word to guide us. He comforts us when we are in distress. He fills for us a cross-shaped hole in our hearts with His death and resurrection so that those sins that we deserved to be cut off from the family for committing would shackle us no more. And while Satan tries to hold us as prisoners of the reality of sin, Jesus frees us with the reality of the Gospel! Because in our family, we are a Romans 8:38-39 family. "Neither death nor life, angles nor principalities, present nor future, or any powers, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!" That's the way our family works as we proclaim this Jesus; we know by how He demonstrated Himself to us. The family of God that knows.
You, a child of God, spend what seems like the millionth day leaning on your everlasting Father. With lots of other siblings—brothers and sisters in Christ, you spend another day in the presence of the Lord. The ever-watching and all-knowing Lord Jesus supervises those whom He proclaims to be His own children—watching them bounce from life situation to life situation. Watching the world have its way with them. And as they start their own "sin fires," and destroy their own lives by choosing the flames of sin—God comes in hot with a cold cup of water—with the sacrifice of a sinless Lamb, who mitigates the disaster of sin with the sacrifice of His Son. And with His blood run red—He shows us what we do in our family of the church. We lean on His promises, knowing Christ has done it all already on the cross. And we walk in His fatherly grace, trusting in the mark of our family in Baptism, guided to love others because He first loved us. Thank goodness for this family. Amen.
Reflections for April 11, 2021
Title: What It Means to Be a Family
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. We're joined now by Lutheran Hour Speaker Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I'm getting to visit with Rev. Dr. Gerard Bolling, the preacher you just heard today. Thanks for being with us, Gerard.
Gerard Bolling: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Mike Zeigler: Rev. Dr. Gerard Bolling is pastor for Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Louis, Missouri. He also serves as professor of leadership at Concordia University in Austin, Texas. Gerard, how have those two callings become mutually enriching for you as pastor and professor?
Gerard Bolling: I'm the crazy guy with two full-time jobs, I know. But I think that it is a God-ordained thing, a calling. And I think that it's something to be understood over time, as God has me serve in these two different arenas, and they've worked together marvelously.
I always knew that my heart was with the people. And so I knew that I belonged in the parish and I knew that that connection was something that I'd wanted, but I also knew that I had this inkling to teach. That I wanted to be able to teach in our Lutheran university system and be able to meet students and be able to help them step into themselves vocationally. No matter what they're doing, if they're going to be a nurse or they want to be a doctor or they want to be a lawyer or if they want to be a pastor or a director of Christian education or a teacher.
Everybody has a vocation. And I think that our unique identity as Lutherans, when it comes to vocation is something that sets us apart. And it's something that I've always wanted to teach to our students. Those two things kind of worked in tandem in the calls that I'm in right now.
Mike Zeigler: Let's talk about your sermon. You spoke today to us about God's people, how God's people, the community of Christ, is a family, and that image comes directly out of Scripture. But in my experience not everybody sees things quite like that. For example, I think people sometimes treat the church like a free membership. For example, you have a museum that offers free memberships and all you have to do is register, maybe you give them your email so that they can clutter your inbox with newsletters and special offers. And that's really all it means to be a member in that case. How do you see the church as different than that?
Gerard Bolling: One thing we have to remember about the church when we're trying to compare it to a membership-based institution is that the church at its core is the bride of Christ. And Christ is treating His bride with a certain level of respect and He's giving her unconditional love. And so when we kind of toss the church to the side and say, "Well, we have to pay into this marriage." Some people believe sending tithes and offerings is what makes them a member. Well, that's not what Christ said about His bride. He said that this is a free relationship. When we try to toss it to the side and say, "Well, it's just showing up." We all know, especially the married people know, that marriage is more than just showing up.
There's something about that relationship that's intricate and lived over time. And there's something about that relationship that's a connection of one carrying the other and that's what Christ does for the church. We can't think of this relationship as simply something that we can kind of push into a corner or compartmentalize. Instead, this is supposed to be a transformational relationship between you and Christ, and He is doing the transforming in your life as that would be done in a marriage. I think thinking of it in that way as much healthier and helps you mentally go down a track that makes you think about the love that Christ has for us and how deep and wide it is.
Mike Zeigler: Sometimes people think of being in with God, like being on a cut sport where you could get cut from God's team, so to speak. I've been cut from a basketball team, and it's hard. Have you've ever been cut from a cut sport?
Gerard Bolling: I have, yes.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah, that's painful. And so, I think sometimes people think of the church in those terms that it's dependent on our present and future performance. How would you speak to that? How is the church different from that?
Gerard Bolling: Yeah. Christ's relationship with His bride is not based off of her performance at all, whatsoever. We see this all over the Scriptures, especially in the book of Hosea. God's persistence to Hosea to treat his wife with a certain level of love and respect, even though she is not doing the same to him. And so that's where the "grace piece" comes in, I like to call it, where God does all the work, and we do no work. We don't have to perform. We're not called to run the ball down the court or else we'll get cut. There's nothing that we have to do in this relationship in order to keep us in it. It's the work that's already been done for us that keeps us in the relationship. Now, as an outpouring of what's been done for us, we do things because we've been loved so well. But it's not because I have to do it. It's because I'm compelled to do it. It's something that I want to do out of response to what's done to me.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah, and you mentioned the prophet Hosea, the Lord says that that's exactly how His relationship is with Israel, that He has chosen Israel. Sometimes, as in Hosea, He speaks of Israel as His bride; other times He calls Israel His son, his firstborn son. But it's clear that the Lord is committed to this relationship no matter what, but has certain expectations, wants a response, wants a two-way relationship with them, even though that the foundation of it is like you said, one way. God does all the work.
Gerard Bolling: Yeah. And it's even in our failures, in the biggest failures of the different characters in the Bible that you just see God show up exponentially for them when they didn't deserve it. And so that happens even until today, even in our biggest failures, the things that we are the most ashamed of God is showing up and He's showing out every time He shows up for us. And there's something beautiful about that. And that's a part of being in the family. Of being in this marriage. Yeah, we've got to value those things rather than thinking of the church as something we can compartmentalize or we can join or can even be like my gym membership, I paid for it, but I don't always use it. It's something beyond that. It's something deeper.
Mike Zeigler: On the part of failures, I've been studying the book of Jonah. We've just concluded a study on the Gospel according to Mark. We've had you talk to us about the book of Acts and now we're going to transition to the prophet Jonah. And there is an example of a child of God who is failing, who is running away, who's in rebellion, who is ungrateful, who exemplifies all the worst characteristics of a human being, all in this short little book. But the thing that stands out is that God stays committed to him. He's not going to let him run away. He treats him like a dearly loved son, even though this son is in rebellion and is doing the things that we don't do, as Mema would say in this family. But God's not going to cut him.
Gerard Bolling: Jonah tries to outrun God or outlast God, which is impossible. But God doesn't make the decision to say, "Well, you know what—I'm done with Jonah. I'm going to end his life right now." Which God could've. God is powerful enough to do that.
Mike Zeigler: And Jonah asks for that.
Gerard Bolling: And he asked for it. Yeah, he asked for it, and God's like, "No, this is not a part of what I want." And God is relentless to His will. And I think there's something comforting in the fact that God is relentless to His will, even when we don't know what His will is. Which is kind of the spot that Jonah was in. Jonah knew the short term but he didn't know the long term. He wasn't sure about how the long term would work out. It was a trust issue, more than anything else. But when we place our trust fully and completely in this relationship, in Christ, that amazing things happen that are beyond us, which is great.
Mike Zeigler: I also appreciate how he keeps talking to God, even though he's mad. And so again, it exemplifies this relationship that's between a parent and a child, between a husband and a wife. They're still talking, even if they don't agree, even if they're mad at each other, Jonah's still talking to God, and God's still talking to him.
Gerard Bolling: I also am thinking of seminary days and Dr. Reed Lessing, I had him for Jonah, and him talking about the image of Jonah wanting to go deeper and deeper down. Or further and further away. And there was no place that Jonah could go that God wasn't present. And when you think of that, there's so much comfort in that. There is no corner of the earth I could reclude to that God does not see or does not hear. And so even in that speaking with God, when Jonah is going back and forth, it's kind of almost like checking the mic. Are you still listening? Even though I'm here, you're still here. And I think that there's something really beautiful in that, in the way that God treats us to today. There's no place that we could go that could outrun or outlast Him. He wants us right in front of Him, and we always are.
Mike Zeigler: And he's not going to cut us. He's committed to us. And again, this brings us back to the church as that lifelong committed relationship, a family. And that's really what we are called to be. There's obviously a lot in the book of Jonah and come back next week and hear some more about this amazing account of God's love that won't leave us alone. He's going to come for us. So, Gerard as a pastor, how have you seen the family of God loving each other well, loving others well, as God has first loved us?
Gerard Bolling: I've seen it so many times. We had a young man in our church, 30 years old that passed away from sepsis. This was just a few weeks ago, and a member of our church, him and his wife and their extended families, at that funeral, I remember seeing him lay in that casket, and his wife and his family grieving over him. But then there being this sure promise of the resurrection that was preached and taught, and also this outpouring of love for the family from our congregation of cards and meals and "Are the girls okay? Do they need help? Can I pick them up? Can I drop them off from school?" just to be able to fit in where that loss happened.
And what it really was for me, what I got to see as an image in my head in that moment was when something traumatic happens, the family of God shows up because they know they're called to do that. They are called to be the difference that they proclaim they want to see in the world. And it's not from themselves, but it's from Jesus Christ that compels them to do that. I was proud of our church in that moment, people gathering around that family, and they still continue to do that, to take care of those little girls and take care of his wife and to make sure that they're okay, and that they go through grief, not alone, but they go through it together with us as a family.
Mike Zeigler: I've seen that as well as a pastor. It's often when we are at our deepest and lowest, that where we see God show up through His people to care for each other through those crisis moments and those disasters. Now, in your other hat, your other role as a professor of leadership, what's one thing that you would like to see the church do better or more of to help raise up future leaders for the family of Christ?
Gerard Bolling: The thing that I think the church needs to do most in order to raise up future leaders is to see people. I think that sometimes we fail at that as a church. We have our end goals: the things we want for our individual churches, or on a scale of what we want for our region. And we see people that have certain hope to get us to that goal. But then we miss some of the people that need more walking with or more growing to get to that point. And there's exponential potential in some of those people, but they just have some things and some issues that need to be worked through in order to help them get to that point. And that's all about that transformational relationship that I described before: of walking alongside somebody else. When you look out at a room full of young minds, you have no idea which one is going to be the one that changes the face of whatever you're doing.
And so you have to walk with each and every mind. Sometimes the church tries to compartmentalize and just go for the one that they think is the best. If we saw people, if we really walked with people, I think we'd see some amazing things happen in ministry, especially in our university system with some of our students who are stepping into themselves at the time that they go to college. They're becoming doctors and lawyers, like I said before and all those other kinds of things. But if we give them a correct understanding of vocation, they know what it means to be a child of God first and foremost and to infuse that into their careers. And they will do some amazing things for the Kingdom. Not because God needs them to do those amazing things. But because it's their outpouring of love for other people, because they've been loved by Him. It really goes back to the doctrine of what is it—active and passive ...
Mike Zeigler: Righteousness.
Gerard Bolling: Yeah, righteousness. God doesn't need our good works. He's good all on His own, but we do those good things because our neighbor needs them. I think we could see more of that if we were able to walk alongside each and every mind and to grow them.
Mike Zeigler: Inviting them into this transformational relationship, which every one of us as individuals has with the Lord. I like how you say that, seeing people because it does two things. On the one hand, it lets me remember that all of our leaders are just that, they're people. They're fallible. They have their shortcomings and quirks just like the rest of us, and we shouldn't put too much hope or trust in any single leader. But on the other hand, to see them as people, to not give up on anyone, not to overlook anyone because everyone is created to be baptized to be a child of the living God, of the King.
Gerard Bolling: Yeah. That's that family promise. My grandmother, Mema, used to always say, "Blood is thicker than water." That's her common term that she would say. And what she meant was, a blood relationship between people, a family relationship is thicker than a water relationship of friendship or of camaraderie amongst people. And over time, I began to flip that and I began to say, "Blood is thicker than water. Yes, but baptismal water is thicker than blood." Because we're bonded together in the same waters of Holy Baptism with the same Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And that level of family goes beyond biology. That level of family is so intricately connected to history from before all time that our parents had us as a twinkle in their minds. That promise is connected to the Genesis promise of someone's going to crush the head of this thing called sin, and it's going to be Jesus. And that promise is what brings us home. Yes, blood is thicker than water. But baptismal water, that's thicker than blood. And Christ's blood of course runs deep for each and every one of us.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you for all that you do for the bride of Christ, for His world. I know that you make your mom and your dad and your Mema proud.
Gerard Bolling: Thank you. I hope so.
Mike Zeigler: You do.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"O Sons and Daughters of the King" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)