This is a sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas. The Scripture it references is Colossians 3:12-17.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
That’s the opening line to Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina; but the week after Christmas is a time when I find many people reflecting on the many ways in which families may be unhappy. Perhaps it’s not surprising; we expect a lot of our families; our physical and emotional safety, a source of our own identity, values, and a sense of our place in the world; ongoing support through the various phases of our life, and so forth. And when you have many people all with different needs pulling the family in different directions… maybe it’s not surprising that there are many ways for families to be unhappy.
Of course, we talk about church as family too; especially for small (or family-sized) churches like ours. And while the metaphor of church as family has strengths and limitations, it does tend to mean that we bring a lot of our family baggage into church life.
It’s a bit like when a couple get married, but come from very different families; and part of marriage preparation means that you have deep and meaningful discussions about everything from how often you mop the floor to how you handle money, to significant celebrations and how you mark them.
Except when you join a church, you don’t necessarily have the same deep and meaningful conversations, so it’s easy – and very common – to make the mistake of assuming that the patterns you learned in your own family are what should happen at church as well. Whether it’s the person who’s absorbed the lesson that all disagreement is bad and we must avoid arguments at all cost, or the person who’s come from a very authoritarian family and thinks we should all work to a leadership model that says father knows best, or whatever it is… we all bring that stuff with us.
And even more than that, we tend to bring the roles we played in our own families. The person who took on the role of being peacemaker at home will tend to be peacemaker at church; or the decision maker, or the contributor of ideas, or the one who makes sure everyone has fun and laughs.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this, not at all. But the reason I point it out is that sometimes, it helps if we’re conscious of it. I know when I talk things over with my supervisor, he’ll often encourage me to reflect on what has shaped my own expectations and reactions and patterns of behaviour… and sometimes how I feel about something in the parish has nothing to do with this parish at all, but with some other context I’ve been in before; and often, because of the power our families have to shape us, those earlier contexts are familial.
But the reason I’m thinking about this now – apart from it having just been Christmas – is because of the reading we had today from Colossians. In it, Paul describes the loving dynamics which should characterise a Christian community – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on – and which we so often learn (or fail to learn) in our families.
Paul often describes the church in familial terms, and in effect, he’s saying that the church should be for us what a family should be; a place of safety; a source of our identity, values, and orientation to the world; a place for mutual support. But where church perhaps goes beyond family is that church also has a mission, a purpose, beyond meeting the needs of its members. The church should be always reaching out beyond itself, proclaiming the good news, responding to the needs of others, and so on.
And here’s the thing; an unhappy church, a church which doesn’t have its internal relationships in a healthy and functional state, is not going to be effective in mission. Part of the deal with family is, as the saying goes, that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family; the same is true of church. By our common baptism we’re bound together whether we want to be or not, and we have to learn to get along and work together even with people we never would have chosen.
And this is also part of why Paul starts this section of his letter by reminding the Colossians that they are God’s chosen people; it’s God’s initiative which has brought each of them into the church family, and it’s not up to any human being to try to countermand God’s choice. God chose each of us, and therefore nobody has the right to decide that any of us don’t belong or have a place, or don’t need bearing with when we hit a rough patch in life.
And not only are we chosen by God, but that choice sets us apart from the world (that’s really what the word “holy” is about; about being set apart), in order to accomplish God’s purposes. That’s the importance of mission again. So we are chosen, we’re set apart for a mission, and in order to be able to carry out that mission we must have our internal affairs in order; hence the need for compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on. Each of those virtues could have a sermon of its own; but for now perhaps it’s enough to note that they are mostly other-centred. Compassion is about our ability to recognise and respond to the sufferings of others. Kindness is about our benevolence to others. Meekness is about how we respond when we find others difficult. Patience about our emotional steadiness when frustrated with others. And so on. We are to clothe ourselves with an all-encompassing loving attitude to others, one which in every situation seeks the good of others in ways which enable the church to function well.
Now this doesn’t mean tolerating bad behaviour. Paul isn’t here telling you to tolerate – or forgive – ongoing mistreatment, and neither am I. But it’s about how we choose to respond, so that we can put proper boundaries in place, end bad behaviour… and then forgive and move on, not letting old conflicts hamper us indefinitely.
It’s probably true – with apologies to Tolstoy – that all happy churches are alike, but each unhappy church is unhappy in its own way. What Paul has given us this morning is a prescription for a happy church, and if we follow it, we may also find ourselves able to give thanks in whatever we do.