June 15, 2003
I have a book at home called “Mark Twain and 8100 Goggin Kin.” It’s a book of my genealogy on my Grandma Matthews’ side that dates back to a man by the name of Stephen Goggin, who was born in 1697. For those of you who are doing genealogy research, you know how interesting and fun it can be to see just how far back your descendants go.
However, if you were to come over to my house, and wanted to see a picture of my family, I probably wouldn’t pull out “Mark Twain and 8100 Goggin Kin.” Instead, I would walk you over to my tv cabinet and show you all the family pictures we have sitting on top of it. Then I would invite you to sit down on the couch, and I would give you photo album after photo album of our family pictures for you to look at.
As important as a genealogy book or family tree is, it really is just a bunch of names, that except for few, I have no idea who they are. They are just names on a page. But family pictures are something else. If you really want to know my family, it will be our family pictures that tell you the most about the Matthews’ family.
Family pictures invite us into the lives of people. They tell us much more than just names and facts, they invite us into people’s lives, and into their world, as we hear the stories behind the pictures. With just a few questions, we can learn so much about a family, about their hopes, dreams, and joys, and even about what breaks their heart. Family pictures give us one of the clearest windows into the heart and soul of another. Our text for this morning is just that. It is a window into the heart and soul of the Apostle Paul.
The first 15 chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans isn’t exactly what you would call a family photo album. Of all of Paul’s letters, Romans is my favorite. I call it the manual for Christian faith and Christian living, and it is a letter of enormous theological significance for what we believe and how we are called to live in the Christian faith. It most clearly defines some of our most important theological beliefs about who God is, the importance of the Jesus’ death and resurrection, and what it means to live for God and for others as Christ’s loving servants and faithful witnesses. But the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is different.
For all of the theology that Paul believes, for all of his knowledge about who God is, and the significance of Jesus Christ in salvation history. There is one thing that Paul believes, which I believe is one of the most important of all of Paul’s theology, and that is if anyone is in Christ, he or she is not just in a group; they are in a family. For Paul, all those who claim Jesus is Lord, are no longer slaves or free, male or female, Jews or Gentiles, but brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, family members of the body of Christ, and family members in the household of God. It is this theme of a new relationship we have with each other that we find throughout Paul’s letters, and especially in our reading this morning.
In our reading for this morning, Paul invites us to sit down on the couch and catch a glimpse of his heart and soul. We watch him as he goes over to his bookshelf, and pulls out his photo album of family pictures, and invites us into his world. In his writing, Paul gives us snapshots of twenty-seven people, nine of which are women, but all are his brothers and sisters in Christ. He knows the names of each one, their families, and what they have done for the kingdom of God and for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul pulls out a picture of Phoebe. “This is our sister,” he says. “She’s a deacon in the church.” You can tell he is very proud of what she has done for Christ’s church. Then he pulls out a picture of a wife and husband named Prissca and Aquila. You can almost hear Paul choking back his tears when he tells us, “They risked their lives for me, and I am so thankful, as well as all the Gentile churches.” As he taps his finger on the photo, and remembers back to what they did for him, we cannot help but ask ourselves how important this family is to each other for two people to risk their lives for the sake of another.
As we sit in silence for a few minutes, Paul gathers himself, and finds another picture. A smile comes across his face, a smile like that of a proud parent. “Oh, here’s Epaenetus. You know, he was the first convert in Asia. The very first person in Asia to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s pictures go back a long way, and he even remembers his first convert to the faith.
Then he pulls out a picture of Andronicus and Junias. “Oh yes,” he says looking at the picture. “They were with me while I was in prison. They are family to me, you know. They helped me through some of the hardest times of my life. They are so important to the apostles.” Here were two people, who in the face of the persecution for their faith, were able to stand strong and offer care and support to Paul in his darkest times.
He stops momentarily and lifts up another picture. “Here’s Rufus,” he says. “He is chosen in the Lord. His mom was like a mother to me. Hey, bet you didn’t know that his father was Simon of Cyrene, the same Simon who carried the Lord’s cross through the streets of Jerusalem.” Wow, Paul knows someone famous!
On and on, Paul goes through all the pictures. Each one holds a special place in his heart. In Paul’s family pictures, we see that Christianity is more than about theology, as important as theology is, but it is first and foremost about relationships, about a people who love Jesus and each other enough to risk their lives for the sake of another, about a people who rejoice together and suffer together. In Paul’s pictures, we see a church where women and men work side by side as equals in the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ in a culture that saw women as property.
We see people, like Tryphaena and Tryphosa, whose very names mean dainty and delicate, rise to their calling and become workers in the Lord. We see a people united their shared experience of the saving love of Jesus Christ, united in their common calling to minister to others, to share the gospel, to care for the sick and poor, and to do all they can for the glory of God. In this single chapter, we see a picture of what the church is rather than what the church should be.
Over the course of 2000 years, our Christian family pictures have grown. Of course, there are some pictures that we don’t want everyone to see. The church family has its own problems as any family does. There are the pictures of Christians shouting back and forth at each other, pictures of Christians who do not live up their calling, who refuse to be a part of the family, and who haven’t grown in the faith. There are pictures of Christians turning a deaf hear to the cries of the oppressed and poor not only in this country but around the world. There are even some pictures of Christians who refuse to share the love of Christ with others who are sitting right next to them in the pews because of some trivial, personal reason.
Our family pictures do not always show our good side, but they do show others who we are, even with all of our faults. But I wouldn’t trade this family for anything else in the world, because like Paul, the family pictures of the church is my family too, the family that I’m a part of, the family of my brothers and sisters that I love with Christ-like love.
In just a few moments, we will be taking some more pictures of our newest members in the family of faith. Through their baptisms they will become a member of the Christian family, united with us in Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters in the household of God. And through their membership, they will be joining the family pictures of Finley, of our family here in this congregation. I invite all of you to sit down with the soon to be newest members of the Christian and Finley family, so that they can get to know our family, so that they can become part an integral part of our life and ministry together.
We must never forget that we are the living family pictures of the church of Jesus Christ. People form their picture of Christianity and the church by looking at us. We can never forget that we may be the only picture of Jesus, someone may ever see. What kind of family will you show these confirmands? What kind of family do you want to show the world? Amen.