Mark 3.20-21, 31-35
Did your parents ever embarrass you? If they didn’t, you must be one of the luckiest people alive. I’ll never forget taking my parents around Westminster Abbey, the famous cathedral in London, where William and Kate married, as well as burial place of kings and queens. At the end of the tour my dad said, ‘It’s just a big indoor graveyard.’ I wanted to hide behind a pillar. I hoped he was just having an off day. But I think now that maybe he was successfully pulling my leg.
This morning we have the flip side of my story: a child being an embarrassment to his parents, and also to his siblings. Jesus was embarrassing them by not acting as he was expected to, as a local lad of their village. He was attracting large crowds, teaching and healing many people, and creating quite an unnecessary scene as far as his family was concerned.
They decided Jesus was out of his mind. They arrived at a house where Jesus was speaking, no doubt expecting to take him home and set him straight about what was right and proper conduct for him. It was definitely a case of embarrassing family, or looked at from their perspective, embarrassing child. Even Mary was mixed up with this tussle.
And then Jesus came out with this incredible statement:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Was Jesus just having an off day? This was not the only thing Jesus said or did that was negative about families. When he met the fishermen by the seaside he called them to follow him. We usually think of that as a wonderful example of people answering God’s call. How great it was that they left everything to follow Jesus. But Jesus was calling them to abandon their ageing father and their family business and go off wandering around with him and his mates, as if their family meant nothing to him.
And there is more. These are some of the things Jesus said on other occasions about family:
"I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother." Mt 10.35
"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, can't be my disciple." Lk 14.26
"I'll follow you," a man said to him, "only first let me go give my recently deceased father a decent burial."
"Let the dead bury the dead!" replied Jesus. "Follow me and let somebody else do the funeral!" Lk 9.59-60
The strange thing is that the whole world of Jesus was centred on families. The family was everything, is everything still, in Jewish life. It was in their families where all the important festivals were celebrated. It is the same for us today. Christmas is still probably the biggest annual Australian festival. And where do we celebrate it? The high point is with our family on Christmas morning and the Christmas dinner. How could Jesus be so down on families?
Why would Jesus even consider being so negative about his own family? The only reasonable answer is that the attitude of Jesus towards families actually reflects something he was deeply concerned about.
The world of Jesus was changing. It was something like what has happened in our lifetimes. The security of family was coming unstuck. The economy was changing. Herod the king was promoting a global market, or at least a Mediterranean market. This meant the rich were getting richer and the poor becoming detached from their land. Families were under stress. Children had to leave homes and go to the towns to find work. People were wondering how their idea of close and supportive family life could survive the changes that had occurred. Does this sound all too familiar?
Jesus was following a path that would bring in a way to survive these changes. He saw that family can be so much more than immediate blood relationships. Family, Jesus said, can be all those who are related through him in the family of God, where mutual support and love is shared amongst everyone united in him. This is fantastic good news in our times of family separation and breakdown, just as it was in Jesus’ day. It means that in disruptive times, which is just about any time, no one is left to fend for themselves.
The second amazingly protective thing about Jesus’ message was for his team. He was asking them to leave family homes and family business and go wandering about with him to spread the good news of his new kingdom. How could his team possibly survive without the loving support of their blood relationships? The answer: by forming a new family related through Jesus, a family characterised by the marks of God’s kingdom: love, joy, peace, forgiveness, kindness - all the gifts of the Spirit. So Jesus was not abolishing family; he was enriching it, as he carried out his mission of saving the world.
There is of course a downside to this good news. As with everything that Jesus taught, he was challenging the way things are, because he knew they could be better. He wanted everything to look like the kingdom of heaven on earth. To do this he had to challenge the not-so-good aspects of Jewish family life. He was challenging the view that being distantly related to Abraham was an automatic ticket into God’s favour. He was challenging the exclusiveness of family, when family becomes something for us only and for no one else, where family is used to keep other people out, rather than bring them in.
The family we are born into is of course a gift to us from God. Our parents were given prime responsibility by God to nurture us and shape us into the kind of persons God wants us to be. But Jesus wants to show us how much more our idea of family can be.
Jesus’ intention was to create a much bigger understanding of family, one that breaks down all barriers in human life. He challenges us to rethink the things we consider sacred, and to do that in the light of God’s love and the priorities of his kingdom.
This impacts us as a church. In Jesus’ day the only place you ate the Passover meal was in the family. Meaning with your blood relations, adults and children. What does Jesus do the night he was betrayed? He eats the Passover meal with his new family, his mates, his brothers, and probably also a few sisters, who are related to him through faith. And he declares this to be the way to eat the Passover meal for all time, until he returns. Which we do this morning in our eucharist. We are brothers and sisters around this table. We are God’s new kind of family. We are inclusive, not exclusive. We are strong because together we have many gifts that have been poured out on us by the Holy Spirit.
Can we have more of this new kind of family here at St Mary Mag’s? How might we do more of this kind of kingdom family in the way we do church? How can we show Jesus to the community in a natural way, arising out of the way we are related through Jesus?
This is not an easy question to answer. It is not going to happen overnight. It will take time and listening and love.
All of us are related to each other through Jesus. With him at the centre, we are coming more and more to look like him and doing the things he does. The world is crying out for genuine community, for peoples working together to solve the great issues of our day. Can family change the world? Not in itself. But it can be a part of God’s kingdom plan for the saving of the world.