For the first few months that I lived in my site as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic, I was tasked with doing a diagnostic report in order to get to know the community. One of the main things that this involved was a lot of going door to door to meet people, to interview them about their lives and about the town. And to my surprise, at almost every single house I visited, I got asked the same strange question, which was: Are you here to talk to me about Jesus?
Now, the Peace Corps is pretty explicitly a secular, government organization, so I was very confused as to why people kept asking me this. But I found out why when, one day, someone else knocked on my door – and I learned that there was a large group of Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the community. It was a fairly new congregation, so there were lots of missionaries there from the US and Canada and Europe who were trying to get it going – and so, naturally, many people in the community assumed that I was also one of these missionaries.
I had never met a Jehovah’s Witness before, and I quickly became friends with these missionaries. It was just nice to be able to talk with people who spoke English and who came from a similar cultural background (speaking a second language all the time is exhausting!). But even more than this, I was interested in talking about Jesus, even though it wasn’t the reason I was there. I had been studying the bible on my own and I was hungry to grow in my faith, and so when they offered to study with me, I eagerly accepted.
The two young women who came to visit me became really dear friends – and through them, I learned a lot about what the life of a Jehovah’s Witness missionary was like, what they had sacrificed to be there. Almost none of them got paid for being missionaries (so, slightly less than a Peace Corps Volunteer, haha). They would go home for a couple months out of the year, get a few jobs, and work their butts off as many hours as they possibly could so that they could save money to live on the rest of the year. And they had all left behind their families back in the places they had come from, in order to do this mission work.
But instead of being homesick and lonely and longing to go home, these missionaries had found this profound sense of kinship with one another. They were bound together by their shared love for the gospel and by their sincere devotion to spreading the good news. And that shared sense of mission gave them strength and purpose and a deep sense of belonging.
I ended up studying with them for almost two years – kind of an odd little chapter in my call story. And even though I strongly disagree with a lot of their theology, and I’m definitely not encouraging anyone to become a Jehovah’s Witness, I still very much respect and admire their commitment to the mission of the gospel. I wish all Christians took the gospel so seriously! And I will always remember what it felt like to be part of that close-knit, God-centered community.
I kind of imagine that the way it felt to be part of that community of missionaries was something like the way it must have felt to be one of the first disciples, or even to be part of the crowds who followed Jesus around Galilee. Many of them had also left behind their families in order to become followers of Jesus, in order to become part of this God-centered movement. Jesus himself had left his own family behind in Nazareth in order to devote himself to his mission of preaching and teaching and healing all over the country.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus’ family has come looking for him. Jesus is hanging out, preaching to his followers, when someone tells him that his mother and his siblings have turned up and are looking for him. But instead of welcoming them, Jesus responds to this news in a way that sounds downright dismissive, saying, “Who are my mother and my brothers and sisters? Here are my true family members gathered around me here – all those who do the will of God.” It sounds kind of harsh, doesn’t it? Especially to our 21st century, American ears. We live in a culture that places an extremely high value on family, where family relationships take priority over almost everything else. We live in a culture where blood is thicker than water, as the saying goes.
But Jesus is challenging that priority a little bit here – or at least, he’s challenging us to think about family in a different way. Blood may be thicker than water, he seems to say – but the Spirit is much thicker than blood.
The Spirit binds us together in a bond that is stronger than blood. Blood matters, of course – family matters (after all, one of Jesus’ dying acts was to make sure his own mother would be taken care of). But the bonds of the Spirit are stronger than the bonds of blood – even stronger than death. The Spirit binds us together as siblings, as children of God. And the Spirit unites us with the death and resurrection of Christ.
This unity in the Spirit is what gives us our strength; it’s what has kept us together and helped us make it through the last 15 months. We are people brought together by many different things – by where we live and work, by relationships of friends and family, by a shared love of coffee – but the Spirit is what holds us together. The Spirit is what pulls in each and every one of us and makes us belong. And even in this year-and-change that we have been physically apart, the Spirit’s bond between us has remained so strong that it’s even pulled in people from outside our congregation to be part of this family in Christ. Blood may be thicker than water, but the Spirit is thicker than blood. (For that matter, it’s thicker than coffee too!)
Our unity in the Spirit is what has kept us together. And it will be what keeps us together, what gives us the strength to move forward from here. This was a major theme of our synod assembly yesterday – in fact, it was the overarching theme of the assembly: We Are One. We heard about some of the incredible things that our unity in the Spirit as a synod has made possible: disaster relief and feeding ministries around the globe that our mission share supports, mission partners like camp and campus ministry, prison ministry, a new mission start in Lincoln, justice and advocacy work that lifts up the most marginalized among us and celebrates our diversity. All of that, born of our unity in the Spirit.
And Bishop Brian shared a message of hope about how the Spirit will call us and empower us to move forward from here (well worth listening to, if you click on the link above!). Even as we begin to regather and regroup after this time of separation, new opportunities are springing up to help discern the way forward. One I’m most excited about is something called the Vitality Initiative for Congregations. This is a new initiative in which congregations are coached through a process to help them discern their vocation – not just as individuals, but as a people united by the Spirit, to listen for where God is calling them to go together.
Bishop also noted that being one people united by the Spirit doesn’t mean that we are all the same. Like the parts of the body, or the members of a family, we are all different; we all bring different gifts and interests and perspectives to the table. But together, we are one whole – because what unites us is stronger than what divides us. We are one people, bound by the Spirit with all our many and varied gifts, united in our desire to follow where God is leading us, and empowered in Christ to walk together on the path of discipleship.
And so, as Paul writes in our second reading, we do not lose heart. Even though, over the last 15 months, it has felt at times like we’ve been watching our “outer nature” as a congregation waste away, the truth is that our “inner nature” has been renewed day by day, by the Spirit that binds us together and gives us life. Like the earliest disciples, we are bound to each other and to Christ by ties that are far stronger than blood. Even in the midst of death and loss, we are eternally bound to the life of Christ, and that gives us every reason to hope, every possibility to be transformed and raised again and again to new life.
We are one in the Spirit – because Spirit is thicker than blood. And thanks be to God for that!