Becoming More Christlike Than American: Part 6

Part 6: Spiritual family

“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock…You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Acts 20:28,35 NLT

If you’ve never read Acts 20, or haven’t in a while, first go read it – especially the very end.

This chapter is the story of Paul’s last couple “stops” on his lifelong missionary journey before he heads to Rome, where he expects to be convicted, imprisoned and likely killed for his faith.

It’s in this context that he shares some final words in person with the elders in the church in Ephesus.

It’s good to note that “the church in Ephesus” was not a singular organization of people with a building and a pastor (how we conceptualize church most times today). It was an extended family of spiritual families. They were groups of people who became the church and met in homes. They remained connected across the city and were led by those referred to as “elders” (or spiritual parents). This is important in the dynamic of what he shares. These elders are receiving his message as encouragement to persevere as spiritual parents. Not thru the lens of the power dynamics of an organization that we too many times read things.

So it’s in these final words that Paul says “guard yourselves and God’s people.” He goes on to use the analogy of shepherding, and how shepherds must defend a flock of sheep from predators. It’s not as much an analogy about how people are like sheep, but that the caring for our own souls and souls of others is very much like the work of shepherding. And how those who seek to harm the family of God are like predators.

It’s also likely related that shepherding was a family business in their day. A shepherd’s sheep were a part of the lifestyle of their family. The whole family was involved in caring for the sheep. They knew the sheep by name. They cared for their sheep as a family cares for the things their responsible for.

Caring for a spiritual family’s individual and communal relationship with God is much like the work of shepherding.

In this part of Acts 20, Paul teaches from his own example of giving himself completely to those in need – both physically and spiritually. And you can tell the seriousness and weightiness with which Paul is talking.

There are several points that can be implied about Paul addressing the elders in this way and about these things:

First is that there had likely already been examples of wolves in sheep’s clothing that had come into the community of faith and attempted to gain a following. Paul had undoubtedly addressed this issue many times directly himself. And the elders of the church had probably relied on Paul to help them handle such occurrences. But now he is passing on that responsibility completely to them. So it’s not a new problem. However, it is likely the first time this responsibility is now uniquely theirs to fulfill. Paul will not be around to help shepherd any longer.

Second is the emotion evidenced both in Paul’s words and in their reaction to him. There are tears – both in Paul referring to his own handling of shepherding them and in their reaction to Paul handing off that responsibility. This is more important than maybe some would want to admit. This unashamed acknowledgment and display of emotions communicates a reality about the work of shepherding that is too often overlooked – the deeply emotional connection with those you shepherd.

There’s a deep level of connection that goes into becoming the spiritual family of God.

In Acts, these spiritual families go thru a lot together, much of it caused by external pressures – persecution, being disowned by their earthly family, the general hardships of life, etc. And we read in the New Testament letters a constant encouragement to persevere together thru those things.

But alongside that, there is also a constant challenge for them to correctly handle the internal pressures that cause hardship. There’s no sense of “rose colored lenses” in Acts (or the New Testament letters) about the difficulties within the church.

The external and internal hardships are expected. It’s how the people are being called to handle those things that the Spirit cares about and the Scriptures address.

Too many times we are formed by the world and culture around us in how to handle hardship. But the Spirit seeks to re-form those of us who follow Jesus into new ways of handling those things as God’s family.

God desires us to become a display for the world of what a true family is like. Many of us grow up in earthly families where not all of these things are displayed well. And so the Spirit is forming the church into a people who are willing to persevere the external hardships (resilient relationships and advocates for justice/righteousness) and also a people who seek to form healthy relationships in the midst of internal hardships as well (communities of character and spiritual intimacy).

This work of becoming a spiritual family is not easy. It means dealing with conflict directly. It means being patient with people’s personal growth. It means giving ourselves away to others, knowing that potentially we may receive from the Spirit alone.

That last part is important. And it is what Paul ends his address to the elders with: “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

This mentality is in direct competition with the consumer mentality of our world (a mentality that is unfortunately perpetuated in many ways in how the church today attempts to do ministry). And some times, even those of us who recognize this reality (and even say we are not consumers) have been so shaped by consuming that we struggle to truly embrace this generosity mentality. We run our Christianity thru the framework of a hedonistic consuming, and end up missing the importance of the shared life we read about in Acts.

Let’s also not over-spiritualize this calling to shared life.

Becoming spiritual family requires a wholistic approach. There are certainly elements that are expressly spiritual – eternal things that deal with the soul. But there are definitely elements that are related to our humanity – that are simply a part of the reality of life on earth.

In Acts we see people selling things they own and giving away all of that money to share with those who have need among God’s people. This should be a part of our normalized reality in the church (whether it rubs against our American sensibilities or not).

This is not about politics. This is about family.

This us not about economics. This is about generosity.

This is not about people’s ideological beliefs. This is about their souls.

For the sake of your soul and the souls of the family of God you are a part of (and maybe even help shepherd), you must truly believe it is more blessed to give (sacrificially, without expecting anything in return) than to receive (even potentially receiving attention for your giving).

Shepherding is tiring work. Forming a spiritual family can bring the same difficulties as an earthly family. Both deal with real life circumstances. Real hurts. Real needs.

It will mean giving things up for others. It will mean sharing your money, your stuff, your time, and your life to a higher degree than you might have thought you ever would have.

It’s the work of Jesus. And it’s the work of Jesus’ disciples.

It’s what we see the church in Acts living out. It’s what the church in America usually struggles with the most.

We must become the spiritual family the Spirit longs to form, not just an organization we are strategic enough to create.

We must encourage our leaders to be elders (spiritual parents/grandparents), not merely those who can run programs or speak in public.

And we must do the hard work of shepherding those who come behind us – and allow ourselves to be shepherded by those who go before us – not try to constantly chart our own pathway “in the faith.”

The church is not a startup company to be launched. It is a family to be formed in the midst of the joys and the hardships of life.

As we are seeking to become more Christlike than American, we will have to deal with conflict that arises among God’s people. There will be those who want to promote all kinds of things that are not the true Gospel. And we cannot ignore our responsibility to deal with those attacks accordingly – all the while caring of the souls of those who are hurt in the process.

May we guard our souls and the souls of those in our spiritual family with vigilance and courage.

May we care for our souls and the souls of those in our spiritual family with virtue and compassion.

May we become more like Jesus and less American in how we handle conflict and how we handle with care the souls of those in our spiritual family.

May we become more like Jesus and less American in how we hold open handedly our money, stuff, and time to be used by God to care for the lives of those in our spiritual family.

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Son. Brother. Husband. Father. Friend. Mentor. Spiritual Director. Consultant. Student. Communicator. Organizer.

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