The Extraordinary Family of God

Commissioner Phil Needham explains that no matter what home means to each of us, we will all feel at home when we join a family unlike any other. by Phil Needham

In one way or another most of us are searching for a home. Those we call “the homeless,” who wander the streets looking for a handout, are on a deeper level looking for a welcoming place to call home. One of the saddest comments that can be made about a deceased person is that he died homeless.

The ranks of the homeless, however, are not confined to those lacking a place to live. Many who do have a residence never seem satisfied with it. Enabled by modern mobility, they keep looking somewhere else for the perfect place to call home. Sadly, they discover that no house, no matter how perfect, is a home in itself.

I wonder if we ought to broaden our understanding of homelessness to include many who live in comfortable houses but are homeless within themselves. Their alienation is not physical; it is of the heart. I think we can extend the claim even further and say that all of us feel homeless or adrift at times. When we say how sad it is when a person dies homeless, we are saying it about a much larger number than we know, or perhaps we are projecting our own feeling of homelessness.

What is your vision of home? Some people have a visual image of a certain kind of house in a beautiful setting or a prized location, possibly a modest home in the country, maybe a high-end mansion in a protected neighborhood. Home, however, has little to do with a particular setting, personal comfort and security. It is about relationships. It has to do with family. Home is family.

Some of us were raised in a family that gave us guidance, encouragement and love. We were happy at home. Others of us may not have been so fortunate. We may even have suffered physical or emotional abuse. The word “family” may understandably unleash a torrent of painful memories and deep resentments. How can those with such memories possibly get beyond the wounding, the damage that the family we know or knew has done to us?

The Old Testament abounds in stories of families, none of them without flaws. In fact, some of them are downright dysfunctional. The family of Isaac and Rebecca was in trouble almost from the start. The father favored one and the mother the other, and the divided favoritism created an enmity between Jacob and Esau that reached its peak when Jacob stole both the family inheritance and the blessing from Esau, the firstborn. It forced a period of homelessness for Jacob to protect him from Esau’s wrath. Later, Esau himself was forced into homelessness, as an outcast from his family of Hebrews.

While the New Testament makes references to some family settings and gives advice here and there about good parenting and child rearing, extended narratives of a family’s life are few. The family into which Jesus was born is the main exception, although even here records of the family interactions, while insightful about the life and development of Jesus, are few. We do sense that Jesus received good parenting, and we know that He followed in the footsteps of his father Joseph as a carpenter. Contrary to the traditional pattern of that day, at around age thirty he left this occupation and became a traveling rabbi—yes, a homeless man calling people home. How strange.

What was this new home? Jesus called it the kingdom of God. It was not a kingdom in the sense in which we usually think of a kingdom. To be sure, it was a Kingdom with a ruler, but that ruler was not an oppressive demagogue, he was a Father— and not just any father with his usual favorites, rather a Father who favored all His children. A new kind of family. Let’s call it the family of God.

Our one God is Himself a Family of Three: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, perfectly united in all things—the ideal family! In a similar way, while the human race consists of individuals, we are fulfilled only in families. The psalmist says God made us that way: “God sets the lonely in families…” (Psalm 68:6, NIV). The apostle Paul speaks of us as one family of our heavenly Father from whom we draw our identity, our self-understanding, our name (Ephesians 3:15).

Jesus calls us to this kingdom family. First, He becomes one of us, fully human. Then He teaches us and demonstrates for us how to live in this kingdom family He’s inaugurating. Then, through His death and Resurrection and the empowering gift of His Spirit, He makes it possible for us to live in this family. And then He calls us to live in the world in the freedom of this family, to risk the love of Christ and to encourage others to enter the family.

Whatever our family of origin, or our current family, or even if we are homeless, Jesus invites us to join the family of God. We call this family the church. The apostle Paul calls her Christ’s Bride whom Christ makes holy by giving His life for her (Ephesians 5:25b-27). This family lives in obedience to its Lord Jesus. It is a freeing obedience because it is the obedience of love, not slavery. Jesus does not call us to an oppressive obedience; He calls us to obey love—love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). All good families have their rules, and the cardinal rule of the Family of God is to love everyone—even those we think are our enemies (Luke 6:27)!

In a day when so many of us feel threatened by minority groups and do not weep or protest when these groups are violently attacked, when more and more of us locate ourselves in isolated communities populated with people just like us, when churches in general are still among the most racially unmixed meeting places in our country, when so many think they are threatened by “hordes of immigrants” at our borders, and when politicians so successfully stoke public fear to achieve an agenda often hidden— the true family of God is carving out a place to call home. It is a home for everyone. It is not a house or a worship center. It is those who gather themselves around a homeless Messiah called Jesus, gather at any place on this planet, because Jesus really is all-present. He is homeless because He is everywhere, calling us to join His family. It is a family unlike any other, and if you join it, you carry the whole family with you wherever you are. What an extraordinary way to live your life—and in the process be a part of God’s mission to change the world!

Writer and speaker Commissioner Phil Needham of Decatur, GA, a retired Salvation Army officer, works along with his wife (Keitha) to see the church realize its calling as the missional people of God who cross boundaries of exclusion to embody the compassion of Christ. His books include “Christ at the Door” (2018), “When God Becomes Small” (Abingdon Press, 2014) and “Christmas Breakthrough.”

This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of The War Cry.

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