If what we believe is true—one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven of earth, of all that is, seen and unseen—then creation is one big family.
Humanity is one family unit within that.
Humanity is one family, which is dysfunctional.
Murray Bowen pioneered a way of understanding human dynamics known now as family
systems theory, which Rabbi Edwin Friedman studied, then brilliantly applied to congregations and leadership.
Family systems theory points out that systems always seek equilibrium.
If a system is unhealthy, its members remain in unhealthy roles and patterns to preserve balance and order.
Rescuers continue to overfunction; bullies continue to coerce; doormats continue to stay silent; clowns continue to crack jokes to diffuse tension; screw-ups continue to live down to
diminished expectations, and so on, all in order to maintain the equilibrium the system has achieved.
So what happens when an enormous change is introduced?
The system fights back, scrambling to return quickly to its familiar status quo.
When someone dies, or gets and stays married or sober, or remains committed to appropriate personal boundaries, the system flies into chaos and finds ways to punish whoever it deems responsible for endangering it even with positive change.
Guilt, shame, belittling, fear, victimhood, violence—other members apply whatever pressure it takes to get the system back to equilibrium, “back to normal.”
So changing an unhealthy system requires the strength to suffer.
Humanity is one dysfunctional family.
When God so loved the system that God sent his only son … not to condemn the system but in the order that the system might be healed through him, the system punished him.
(The Greek word kosmos, usually translated world, also means ordered system.)
The kosmos challenged, then framed, then tortured, then crucified and disposed of this
Problem solved, equilibrium defended and restored, at least for half a weekend.
Easter shattered that short lived victory, of course, and at Pentecost, that cycle-breaking healing we often call salvation begins to go viral.
The Spirit of life and resurrection gets poured out on everyone, the whole family, which is very exciting for a few minutes before stuff gets real.
Soon the critics dismiss it as cheap wine drunkenness, the first of countless attempts in Acts to discredit, deter, and detain the Spirit of the only Son that keeps threatening the system’s
equilibrium with painful, expensive health and wholeness for everyone.
The Christians in Rome, like the Christians in America, like the Christians of pretty much every time and place, are caught in the push-pull of our dysfunctional system’s resistance to
God’s powerful, patient, persistent, tender and terrifying love.
The Romans live simultaneously in two vastly different systems: the capital city of the empire
and the family of the risen Christ it crucified.
Paul knows that sticking with Christ means massive change, which means suffering, because in Jesus’ words, This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive.
Paul encourages the Romans to stick with it:
You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear…
God did not bless your status quo.
God is not Pharaoh, or Caesar, or the invisible hand of the almighty market.
God did not give you to the system to prop it up and keep it comfortable.
You are not property; you are not a cog or a commodity or a consumer or a failure or a success or any other limiting label or suffocating role anyone wants to stick on you.
You are a beloved child.
You have received a spirit of adoption: we are children of God, and if children, then
heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we
may also be glorified with him.
Stay with it, stick it out.
Dare to be different; dare to be divine.
Dare to remain healthy.
Dare to continue being saved rather than safely enslaved.
Let the Spirit of God lead you rather than the loud, familiar voices that don’t care about you.
The Spirit of Truth admits up front that it will be hard because the world, the system, is so terribly and tragically and defiantly broken.
It will punish you for pursuing a better reality for others and for yourself.
Peter, the denying coward turned bold, inspired preacher of Acts chapter two and three is already in prison by the start of chapter four.
The world cannot receive and will continue to resist the Spirit of truth.
The system will always rather feel safe than risk being saved.
Perhaps that’s why most of the western church is so hesitant to celebrate the Spirit—it feels too dangerous, too close, too real.
The Spirit means we can’t use history to maintain safe social distance from Jesus: we might get exposed to whatever he had; we might catch a deadly case of the Father’s love.
But we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.
We are children of God…our identity and value and purpose come from a different
Yesterday we prayed a lovely prayer over our three newest confirmed members, but it was
different than the prayer said over me forty years ago this month.
Maybe the old prayer was replaced because it’s not woke enough.
It mentions suffering.
Helicopter parents won’t like it, the system will eventually hate it, but I’m going to pray it
anyway—not just for Kiera and Cooper and Delaney, but for all of us called together by God to be a new family system named church.
Let us pray:
Father in heaven, for Jesus’ sake, stir up in us the gift of your Holy Spirit; confirm our faith; guide our life, empower us in our serving, give us patience in suffering; and bring us to everlasting life.