“Promising to be Family” on Matthew 6:1 by Joe Ellis — Epiphany Jan. 15, 2023
Let’s take a moment to notice something that happened earlier in the service. We made a promise to a baby. It doesn’t happen often that strangers make promises to a baby. Really, to Cornelia most of us are strangers to her. Not many of us have probably held Cornelia, but together we still made a promise to her. This could be considered odd, that strangers would make a promise to a baby. It might be more common for parents to make promises to their children (whether they’re spoken or unspoken). Promises like, I’ll always be there for you, I’ll always provide, or I promise I won’t be anything like my parents — there’s a ton of possible promises parents make to their kiddos, but it's not super common for strangers to verbally make a promise to a baby. But just now we made a deep, solemn promise to this infant. This happened when I asked, “Do you promise to love, encourage, and support this child by teaching the gospel of God’s love, by being an example of Christian faith and character, and by giving the strong support of God’s family in fellowship, prayer, and service?” Together we said, “We do, God helping us.” So we made a promise before God and to God, we made a promise before each other and to each other, we made this promise before Chris and Stephanie and to Chris and Stephanie, and we made this promise before Cornelia and to little Cornelia.
Maybe this feels like old hat if you’ve been in church a long while, and you’re used to making promises to other people’s babies. But if you’re new to church, this might make you sit up in wonder. Especially for someone who doesn’t have especially warm thoughts about the home they came from. Imagine someone who’s not hung around churches much, but happened to wander in to this service. Imagine someone who’s felt alienated and disconnected from their own family, maybe for decades. Imagine someone who’s never felt supported, never felt cared for, never felt loved, never felt known. Imagine someone who can’t remember being caressed by her mom or hugged by their dad. And imagine them sitting down here in the service, seeing a whole group of people biologically unrelated to each other, voluntarily promise to nurture and love this little baby, Cornelia. You’d be right to assume that this odd group of people has also promised to care for all the other little ones in the community, whether they’ve been baptized here or not.
As you’re watching this strange and beautiful promise taking place, you might begin to wonder if the people around you would possibly make a similar promise to you. Promising to love you, promising to encourage you, promising to support you. Promising to teach you the Gospel of God’s love. Promising to be an example to you of Christian faith and character. Promising to give you strong support as brothers and sisters in God’s family. This is what home should feel like — a home where our relationships transform from being perfect strangers to becoming a part of a very special family.
Can you feel how special this is? — Especially for our friends who walked through these doors having felt the coldness of always looking at their family life from the outside looking in — wanting to be let in and have it feel like home, like a warm home. Look around you. We are family to each other, we are home for each other — and our Dad is God the Father, and your brothers and sisters are sitting alongside you this morning.
So, in the baptismal liturgy, we promise to be a family in a certain way. We promised to love, to encourage, and to support each other. We promise to show each other God’s love. We promise to develop in ourselves the character that we see in Jesus, who is so much like God our Father. We promise to show each other something of the Gospel of God’s love.
If you’re wondering how in the world we do this, that’s what Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is all about. It's not exhaustive, to be sure — but it's an incredibly strong start. So, when Jesus said, “When you are practicing your piety,” he’s letting us know that he’s going to teach us about how to live into this new family God has welcomed us into. The Greek word we translated as piety is dikaiosune, — it's sometimes translated as ‘righteousness’, sometimes as ‘covenant behaviour.’ It's one of the most important words in the New Testament, and it has a huge range of meanings — but here, Jesus is using it to get at what it means to be a part of God’s family. You could just as easily translate Matthew 6:1 as saying, “When you are practicing being a part of God’s family, don’t have an eye on your audience, otherwise you won’t have any reward with your Father in Heaven.”
Throughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will be teaching us how to live as a part of God’s family. That’s who we are. We have been welcomed into God’s family, even our littlest of little ones have been welcomed into God’s family! Remember for you, Jesus came into the world; and for you, he died and conquered death; all this he did for you, little one, though you know nothing of it as yet. We love because God first loved us. God has welcomed you and me into His family. And we live differently in this family. Exactly how to live this different sort of life will become clear as we keep learning from Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus has a lot to say on how we practice being a part of His family, but I believe the most significant thing we need to know is something about who is the head of our family, the one Jesus calls “Father”. Jesus wants us to know God as our Dad. That will shape everything about how we practice being a part of this family. We each, no doubt, have different associations with that word “Dad”. All of our Dads are mixed bags at best, that’s certainly true for my own kids. When Jesus talks about God as our Father, Jesus wants us to see the nurturing, forgiving, gentle, loving goodness that can sometimes be found in our fathers and mothers. When goodness is present in our parents, and it isn’t always present, it's like a sign pointing towards the all-surpassing goodness of our loving Father, our forgiving Father, our dependable Father, our Holy Father, our compassionate Father, our providing Father, our gentle Father. As we practice with each other being a part of God’s family, it's so important that we keep front and centre the good tenderness of God our Father. So, as we consider how to practice being a family together, we remember that the way we live together is not shaped by some tyrannical slave master, or a belligerent drunk, or someone who has impossibly high expectations — rather, our life together is shaped by God, our tender Father. Jesus gives us a taste of this when he says in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We need to be so mindful of the gentleness of our Father and His Son as we consider how God is inviting us to practice being members of His family. He’s not inviting us into a practice that will break us, or overwhelm us, or humiliate us — instead He invites us into practices that are life giving. As we practice being a part of God’s family, we will find life in Him, and find life to the full. That’s why we made this promise to Cornelia, we will show her how to be a part of God’s family in hopes that she too will come to discover the fullness of the good life in God’s family.
Now, did you notice Jesus talking about losing our reward from our Father in Heaven if we practice living in His family in order to impress each other? Like if we brag about our practices — like if we brag about how much charity we give, or how fervently we pray, or how much we fast, or how many Christian books we’ve read or whatever — Jesus says if we brag about ourselves, we won’t get our reward from the Father. When Jesus raises the possibility of us losing our reward from our Father, he’s making two points. First, he’s saying, ‘Let’s not have a family where we fall over ourselves trying to impress and outdo each other.’ There are all sorts of ridiculous examples of church people trying to “out-church” each other. Jesus is saying, if you win that contest, then winning the contest is its own reward and you won’t need a reward from the Father. And the prize of winning that contest is… I don’t know… the bizarre satisfaction of having “out-churched” the person next to you? Jesus is saying, "Don’t practice being God’s family by being in competition to “out-religious” each other.” Instead, quietly practice being a part of God’s family. Do it sort of secretly.
So the first point is we don’t try and impress each other with our ‘churchiness,’ and the second point Jesus is making is that as we practice being a part of God’s family, we will receive a reward from our Father in Heaven. This is fun because it's so the opposite of what we’ve been led to believe, which is “Don’t expect any reward for your good practices,” is the implied message we can often hear. Instead Jesus says, “If there is one thing that you need to know about being a part of this family, you need to know that your Father is generous. Your Father will reward you as you keep practicing being a part of His family.” Altruism is so far from what Jesus is talking about here. Altruism is the idea that we are to do good works without any thought of reward. Our culture has the idea that altruism is the best possible way to be. It doesn’t seem like Jesus has much time for it. Throughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will talk again and again about the rewards of being a part of God’s family. You can’t get around it, our Father is generous. He loves to bless His children.
Jesus knows that if we stop turning to God with our desires, if we stuff down our deepest desires, we’ll become warped and twisted. Being a church family that doesn’t know how to desire being with each other or desire being with God, sounds like the definition of misery. Thank you, but no thank you, hard pass. But if we turn to God with our desires, He will shape our desires. As we keep practicing being a part of God’s family, our idea of reward will slowly change over time. You’ll discover that you begin to desire the rewards that God gives — like the gift of being generous, the gift of cultivating a powerful practice of prayer, the gift of developing a deep trust in His provision, the gift of being able to forgive and experience the joy of forgiveness, or the gift of living through this life without judgment towards others. As we quietly, secretly practice being a part of God’s family, he will reward us by transforming us to being more and more like Him. That is the greatest gift. So, as we practice being a part of God’s family, let’s do so with a joyful curiosity — wondering what blessings our heavenly Father might have in store for us as He transforms us into His likeness.
As we keep studying the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is going to teach us some specific practices that will help us more fully experience what it's like to be in His family. These practices must start with the knowledge that this is a good family, and our Father is good, loving, kind and full of blessing. With that foundation of our good Father in heaven, we can then talk about what specific practices look like. But for now, let me invite you once again to give your word to this practice of being a family to each other:
“Do you promise to love, encourage, and support each other?
By teaching the gospel of God’s love,
By being an example of Christian faith and character, and
By giving the strong support of God’s family in fellowship, prayer, and service?
If so, please answer, “We do, God helping us.”