Scripture: 1 Peter 1:17-23
For the past few years this weekend, the last weekend of April has been when the summer blockbuster movie season kicked off. For instance last year it was this weekend when Avengers: Endgame premiered. Obviously things are different this year, and all of the movies that were slated to be big summer releases have now been rescheduled. One of those movies that has now staked its flag in April of 2021 is Fast and the Furious 9. The Fast and the Furious has turned into a remarkably long standing series. In addition to having nine main entries it also has two spin-off movies and at least three more movies in development. Most Fast and the Furious movies have several things in common. There are fast cars, gratuitous explosions, and quiet moments that stress the importance of family. However, family in the Fast and the Furious movies is a somewhat open concept. In fact one of the taglines for Fast and the Furious 9 is “Not all blood is family.” The concept of family in the Fast and the Furious universe is best summed up in a line from one of the movies where Vin Diesel’s character Dom says “I don’t have friends. I have family.” If the entire Fast and the Furious saga could be said to have an overarching moral it would be the importance of found family.
Over the past fifteen years or so this has been an increasingly common theme. Movies like marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy are also all about the importance of found family. Even the latest Star Wars movie, the Rise of Skywalker, dealt heavily in the importance of found family. Nearly any TV show with a core ensemble cast has this concept. It was pioneered by the Golden Girls where the four women became a family for one another, it was then perfected by Friends, and now it is a commonly recurring theme. The celebration of found family in the media, might be because our culture as a whole seems to value the concept of being able to claim your own family. Based on Google searches the interest in a Friendsgiving over a traditional Thanksgiving had tripled in 2019 when compared to interest in 2015. A poll in 2019 found that among Americans 18-38, 70% of them prefer celebrating a friendsgiving with their found family as opposed to a traditional family thanksgiving.
Family relationships are clearly important, but for a lot of people they are not always the most important relationships. A lot of people it seems would agree with Dom’s conviction “I don’t have friends. I have family.” The thing is, I think the apostle Peter might also agree with this line of thinking. Based on this morning’s scripture I think a very strong case could be made for the idea that church is supposed to be our found family.
This morning’s scripture from 1 Peter was initially addressed to God’s elect scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. That is a lot of different place names which in modern day terms translates to modern day Turkey. This area was a hotbed for early Christianity thanks to the work of Paul and other missionaries. Peter, as one of the apostles and heads of the church, wrote this letter with the intentions that it would travel around to the various churches in the area. This morning’s scripture comes from one of the first major points he sought to make in the letter and it starts off with a bit of a bombshell. In verse 17 Peter wrote, “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.” From my modern perspective the first things that pop from that verse are the strong language of God judging work impartially and having reverent fear. However, I think for the first century audience the emphasis here is on the idea of “live out your time as foreigners here.” I think we underestimate just how big of an ask that would have been.
In this part of the world during the first century, a large part of a person’s identity was related to where they were from. We can even see evidence of this in the Bible. For instance, when Paul went to preach in Ephesus he was seen as a threat to the worship of Artemis and this led to a riot breaking out where the people were shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” Where a person was from, the tribe they were born into, was a huge part of how people understood themselves, how they defined themselves, and what they valued about themselves. Right off the bat in this morning’s scripture Peter urges people to throw that part of their identity right out the window and live as a foreigner. He was urging them to live as an outsider in a place where they had always been one of the insiders.
To be a foreigner though is more than just being an outsider. Being a foreigner is going a step further. The area that Peter wrote this letter to in the ancient world is one that was born out of Greek culture. In ancient Greek, one of the ways they described foreigners was to call them barbarians. The word then has all of the connotations of being uncultured that it has today. Humanity has a millennia long bad track record of treating foreigners well. We tend to look down on people who are foreigners. We tend to be quick to assume their ignorance, be impatient that they are not like us, and humanity has long treated the foreigners as scapegoats. To this day it is still disturbingly easy to find xenophobic attitudes towards people deemed foreigners. This is what Peter was asking the first century Christians to do. So again, it is a fairly big ask.
The reason for making this request though is simple. Peter was urging them to consider a new way of living, a way where the identity did come from the circumstances of their birth but from God. Again for the people of the first century, a large part of their self-image was where they were from. Peter was asking them to replace that understanding of themselves with an understanding based in Christ. He was asking them to have their primary identity stop being as an Ephesian, or Colossian, or Jew, or Roman. He was asking for them to consider their primary identity, the way they understand themselves and present to the world as a Christian. The reason for this is simple, following Jesus should change everything. As Peter wrote Jesus redeems us from “the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors.” It is through the precious blood of Christ that we can have hope, that we can faith, and that we can have confidence that we are reconciled with our Creator. That grace, that hope, that faith should be the defining aspect of who we are, what we value, and how we live. Peter’s argument is simple. If we truly live that way, then we will be living as foreigners to the world around us. We will be out of sync with the culture because what we value is not what they value and find their self-image in.
This message is just as relevant today as it was in the first century. We may not define ourselves by our city or origin anymore, but there are all kinds of labels that we use to divide ourselves today Boomers vs. Millennials; red vs. blue; nations vs. nations; and perhaps most explosive I.U. fans vs. Purdue fans. We find so many ways to divide ourselves. We find so many ways to find our identity and self-image in a way that naturally pits us against others. We find so many ways to label ourselves that we easily create people who would be foreigners to us. The message of this morning’s scripture is that we are to stop that. Who we are in Christ, and Christ alone should be the defining characteristic of who we are. Being a follower of Christ should be more important to us than our political ideology or our nationality. That was true in the first century when Peter wrote it, and it is just as true today.
Our bond to Christ should be just as strong as any family bond. Because, after all, Jesus is found family. The difference is we did not find Jesus. He found us. As the old song says, “I once was lost, but now I am found.” We are part of the found family of God. This is why Peter wrote in verse 22 that we should “have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply from the heart.” The image that Peter paints in this morning’s scripture is a beautiful one. We are to live in a way that follows Jesus above all else, even if that puts us at odds with the world around us, even if it puts us out of step with our culture so that we are living as a foreigner. However, that is not a problem because not only do we have a faith and hope that is in God but we have a found family of brothers and sisters in Christ who we can allow ourselves to love from the depth of our hearts. What connects us, the blood of Christ and reconciliation with God, should be greater than anything that divides us.
There is a great desire for the love and acceptance that comes from having a found family that accepts you as you are in our world today. This is why we find the theme of found family so prevalent in our modern day stories. The church should be a shining example of what it looks like to have a meaningful found family. I know for some of you, that has been your experience. The church has provided you a found family where you have found people who have a sincere love that has made all of the difference, but I also know that this has not been the case for many people. Unfortunately many people have had a negative experience with being accepted into the church.
Sadly, too many people have stories where they responded to the grace and forgiveness of Christ only to find people of a church to be the one who treated them like foreigners. Too many people have had the experience of feeling like they did not belong in a church because they did not wear the right clothes, they did not fit the right demographic, or they did not support the right political candidate. Too many people have had the experience of coming to church hoping to find unity only to have an expectation of uniformity thrust on them.
This is not how it should be. We should not expect people to fit a certain mold to be part of a church family or come to the table of Christ. When someone who does not quite fit what we think of as “one of us” we should not seek to change them, we should seek to make space for them by loving them sincerely without question with a love that is deep from the heart. When someone does not quite what we expect we do not exclude them, we expand our table to make room. I like the analogy that John Pavalovitz uses in his book A Bigger Table. He wrote about when there were large family gatherings the solution to fitting everyone was to go the garage and get the leaf which was added to literally make the table bigger. Pavalovitz wrote, “We made room we didn’t have before. This was a regular incarnation of the love of God right in the center of our home. . .This is the heart of the gospel: the ever-expanding hospitality of God. Jesus, after all, was a carpenter. Building bigger tables was right in his wheel house.”
Our culture expects people to polarize and demonize those who are not part of the same side of the spectrum that we are on. May we live as foreigners to this polarized culture and may we instead build bigger tables. May we claim that the blood of Christ, the lamb who was without blemish or defect, is greater than anything that can divide us. Brothers and sisters in Christ, it is my prayer that we be just that. To modify the Fast and Furious quote, “I don’t have people I go to church with, I have family.” I challenge all of you to reach out to someone part of your found Christian family that you have not yet talked to since our social distancing started. May we live as the found family of God. As Peter wrote, may you “have a sincere love for each other, love one another deeply from the heart.”