May 10, 2020

1 Peter 2:2-10
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
John 14:1-14

“Domestic Church”

You may know the Second Sunday in May as “Mothers’ Day” and you may be doing something special for your mother if she is near, reaching out to her by phone or video call if she is far away, or remembering her with thanksgiving if she has died.

Usually at First Church, we share carnations with all the women on Mothers’ Day. Along with the various things I emailed out to everyone on Friday, there was a carnation colouring sheet. You might consider colouring that flower and sharing it along with a note of thanks and encouragement for someone in your life who nurtures and cares for you with a mother’s love.

But in the church, this Sunday is called “Christian Family Sunday” or I like the title “Festival of the Christian Home” because it sounds like a wonderful celebration of families, relationships, and the households to which we belong. During the pandemic, we don’t get to see our church family in person, but we are spending a lot more time with our nuclear families within our homes.

Thinking about this reality reminded me of the concept of “domestic churches” that I came across when I was studying theologies of marriage in connection with my doctoral work on interchurch families. Also sometimes called the “church of the home,” the idea will be most familiar in contemporary Roman Catholic circles because of its recovery by the Second Vatican Council. However, it is deeply rooted in Christian tradition, both biblical and historical.

In an article titled, “Marriage as Worship: A Theological Analogy,” German Martinez suggests that the idea “goes back to the very dawn of the Christian community and its worship” when churches met in family homes, and households gave birth to communities. Giving the examples of the households of Lydia and Cornelius, he argues that Christian worshipping communities “originated in the bosom of the family, around the table, and under the couple’s hospitality.”

Florence Caffrey Bourg wrote a book on the topic titled, Where Two or Three Are Gathered: Christian Families as Domestic Churches. She notes that the idea has been used in various fashion, from the Pauline ‘house church’ texts in the Bible through numerous theologians throughout Christian history.

She points out that in a commentary of 1 Corinthians 16, John Calvin remarks enthusiastically, “What a wonderful thing to put on record, that the name ‘church’ is applied to a single family, and yet it is fitting that all the families of believers should be organized in such a way as to be so many little churches.”

Pope John Paul II embraced the concept of domestic church because, he said, families are called to participate in the mission and ministry of the whole church: “the Christian family, in fact, is the first community called to announce the Gospel to the human person during growth and to bring him or her, through a progressive education and catechesis, to full human and Christian maturity.”

He described the Christian family in terms that sound like a small church: a believing and evangelizing community, a community of dialogue with God, and a community at the service of humanity, and he suggests that the ministry is not only carried out by the parents, but includes the full participation of children:

“All members of the family have the responsibility of building, day by day, the community of persons, making the family ‘a school of deeper humanity’: this happens where there is care and love for little ones, the sick, the aged; where there is mutual service every day; where there is sharing of goods, of joys and of sorrows.”

The Pope also recognized that family life can be difficult, and that “There is no family that does not know how selfishness, discord, tension, and conflict violently attack and at times mortally wound its own communion.” He advised that unity in the domestic church requires sacrifice, a generous openness to understanding, forbearance, pardon, and reconciliation, as well as the equal dignity and responsibility of women with men.

It seems to me that this is an ideal time to notice and give attention to our households as “domestic churches.” When we cannot gather together with our larger church communities, we have both a need and an opportunity to intentionally BE the church at home.

If the Christian family is the smallest unit of the whole Christian church, then it should be doing and being all the things that the church is supposed to do and be. If you clicked on the link in Friday’s email, you will have found the household discussion that I included for you to consider doing as a family.

No matter the size or configuration of your family, I encourage you to go through the exercise, whether you’re a big household with multiple generations, a family of just two like me and Nick, or if you live alone and want to reflect on your home life too, perhaps adding in some others beyond your household who are “like family” to you.

You’re invited to think about and make plans together for how your “domestic church” will engage in prayer and worship, fun and fellowship, serving one another, and reaching out beyond your family to love others outside your household.

I wonder… can you hear the words and wisdom of the Apostle Peter from our Epistle reading today and apply them to the Christian community that is your family? “Come to [Christ], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

The church is not just downtown on Albert Street, and the worship and service and mission we have is not reserved for those congregational gatherings. But YOU are the church, right where you are, with a mission for the world. As Peter wrote, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

I should mention today’s Gospel reading as well. For most of us, it’s a very familiar and often deeply comforting and encouraging passage. I’ve preached on it many times, though rarely on a Sunday morning. It’s a popular text to be chosen for funerals and memorial services – one of the few biblical texts that seems to explicitly promise the followers of Jesus that life will indeed continue after our physical death. Jesus is going ahead to prepare a place for each one of us in heaven.

The context of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples is a time of extreme danger and uncertainty. It’s part of Jesus’ farewell speech in John’s Gospel, when he’s explaining to his friends that, yes, he’s going to be arrested, tortured, and killed, but that things ARE going to be okay.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells them. “Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places (or “many rooms”). If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

When we hear these words, we do imagine heaven, even though Jesus doesn’t say explicitly that that’s what he’s talking about. We think of a mansion in the sky with a room ready for us – a place of rest, of safety, of refuge after the challenges and difficulties of life in this world.

But when Jesus talks about the “Reign of God” or the “Kingdom of heaven” in the Gospels, the reality he is describing is not something reserved for after we die. The presence and power and love of God, and the embodiment of joy, justice, and peace in human community were blessings that began to grow when Jesus showed up in our world. He announced, “The Kingdom of God is here!” and it’s growing up and surprising us in all kinds of wonderful ways! Just look for it!

And so, I feel confident in reading his assurance in John 14 as not ONLY a promise for after we die. He wasn’t telling his disciples not to be worried or troubled because even if they too got arrested, tortured, and killed that they were going to heaven after that.

I think he was telling them that God was with them, even in the midst of their troubles. As the psalmist described God as “a rock and refuge for [him], a strong fortress to save [him],” God was providing a refuge for his people once again – a spiritual house with many dwelling places.

When we gather in our usual church buildings, we call our places of worship “sanctuaries” where we come in and find refuge, safety, protection, and encouragement in Word and Sacrament and the community gathered. For now, our homes are serving as our primary places of sanctuary, of refuge from the storms of life, of safety from the dangers of this world.

So, let’s give thanks for our Christian families, our churches of the home, our domestic churches. Let’s nurture and strengthen them by doing the things that churches do – worshipping, serving, sharing fellowship, and reaching out in love to those who do not yet know that there is a safe place for them too.