Perhaps one of the things that would help us to understand the nature of fellowship within the church is to look more closely at how, exactly, the New Testament defines us.
It is most common for churches to think of themselves as the "body of Christ." Certainly, the body metaphor is well-expounded for us. It goes something like this - we are all members of one body, unique in our own way, gifted to serve in a way that complements every other part of our body. So we have come think of ourselves as elbows, as stomachs, as pinky toes, what have you.
This satisfies something in our cultural selves. We live in a world that tells us how special and unique we are, how there is no one else like us, how we're supposed to "find" and "be" our "self" and "let others deal with it." And so, we come together in our churches as parts of a body.
It is only natural, then, that when the elbow of the church decides to leave and find another congregation, we simply start looking around to figure out who else is equipped to serve as an elbow. We are a body, and we need all of our parts to function, and it's less important who fills that role as it is what exact role they are filling. So we spend our church lives performing these replacement surgeries on ourselves, swapping out an elbow here and an ear there, deciding we can live with perhaps one fewer finger for a season or that it's okay if we can't taste anything for awhile.
But what if I told you that even though it's one of the most expounded-on images of the church in the New Testament, the body is not the most common expression of the church?
Well, it's not.
The most common expression of the church in the New Testament - throughout the Bible, really - is the image of the family. We are, as He says over and over again, children of God. We are brothers and sisters. We come together in the house of the Lord.
We're a family.
And being family changes the way we have to think about the church. See, family is family, no matter what. And trust me, I get it - I have spent years as the black sheep of my biological family. I spent years going to Thanksgiving and Christmases in the house of the family where no one seemed to notice I was even there at all, where I spent most of the day in the corner by myself, but where, when I went to leave, a few voices would always pipe up and say, "Are you leaving already? I feel like you just got here." I have argued with family, more than I care to think about, but still come to lean on one another in times of trouble. I have shared great big belly laughs with family. My best - and worst - memories all come from family.
But there's something special about them, and that's this: they aren't optional. It doesn't matter what you believe, who you are, what your status is in life, what you look like, how you speak, you are still part of the family, like it or not. Whether the family likes it or not. You don't choose your family; God puts you into it. And there's nothing you can do to change the blood in your body that eternally connects you to everyone else who has those same strings of DNA.
And that means that when Bill leaves, we didn't lose an elbow. We lost Bill. We can't just go out and get a new Bill. You can't replace a person. There's a real sense of loss, a real grief. We know, forever, that part of us is missing from this gathering. It means that the older generations naturally take the younger under their wings, that the young are eager to learn from the old because there's something about passing the family story down. It means that we naturally come together and lean on one another in hard times. It means that we're here for each other, whether we always like each other or not. We argue, sure. We fight. We also have great big belly laughs with one another. Our best - and our worst - memories all come from this place of togetherness, but even the worst ones don't change who we are.
We're family. Because we all share the same blood - the blood of Christ. And nothing can change that. Once we get that amazing grace down in our souls, we're connected forever to everyone else who carries those same strings of holy DNA. For better or worse. There's nothing we can do about it. God has given us this family, and we're part of it - no matter how much our world tries to tell us that if we don't like it, we can just trade it in for another one. That's not how God's family works. That's not how our biological family works. Family is forever. Our time together, then, is just a matter of us figuring out how to spend our time together.
We think we're a body, but we're not. The body image is what keeps us fracturing. It's what keeps us swapping parts out over and over and over again until the church becomes some weird sort of Frankenstein's monster. No wonder the world looks at us in horror.
The best churches are families. That's who God has called us to be, and it's the living testimony the world needs, too. We're not perfect, but we're here for it - together. Brothers and sisters. In the house of the Lord. Bonded by one blood. Children of God. For better or worse.
And when we're doing it right, I'm telling you - it's overwhelmingly better.