The following is a sermon I preached at all three worship services at First Rowlett UMC on July 8, 2012.
This is the second sermon in our series, “Jesus, Interrupted” – stories of Jesus on the way, brought to a sudden halt by an unexpected, and perhaps unwelcome, interruption.
The interruption this week comes in the form of his family.
Jesus’ mother and brothers have come to see him, and are treated … well, oddly. Listen to this story from Matthew 12:
46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ 48But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
In this version of this story, we’re not told exactly why Mary and her sons have come to see Jesus. The text only says that they want to “speak to him.” But we know from the Gospel of Mark that they have been concerned that Jesus has gone “out of his mind.” At one point, they try to forcibly take him home.
We don’t know why they are here for Jesus this time.
But we can probably guess!
They are here to pull on the family ties.
Every family has these kinds of ties on one another. They are a part of human nature. These blood-ties are hard-wired into us. These ties are reflected in our customs, our mores, our expectations, and they are VERY, VERY strong.
They were also important in Jesus’ time. And the Jewish law strengthened these ties. They were integral to community life.
I have always imagined that Mary wants to ask, “When are you finally gonna find a good Jewish woman and settle down?”
Moms are good at asking questions like that. They are concerned about how the family is GROWING, about the family’s well-being.
The Old Testament law was written to foster the growth of Israelite families. The goal was clear – grow the family large, so that Israel could have a secure nation, and be a clear, stable, and permanent presence in the world. There are plenty of laws about who to marry, who not to marry, about childbearing, and what to do after a child is born. There are laws about how the parents are to relate to the child, and how the child is to relate to the parents.
Childbearing itself is seen as an important virtue. Psalm 127:3-5 reads, “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.”
It’s possible that one of his brothers wants to ask Jesus, “When are you gonna come home and help out at the family business? We’re swamped with orders! If you’re not coming back, then at least send some money home from time to time!”
Siblings are good at asking questions like that. They are concerned that everyone CONTRIBUTES equally to the family. Everybody needs to play a part; everyone must contribute.
The law also lays out carefully defined roles for each member of the family, so that they may contribute to the society. The roles are actually quite clearly defined in Israelite culture. Men were the head of the family unit, and had clear authority over everyone else. Women and children were subordinate to the men. Male children were more valuable than female children. Slaves had the least value, but they also had a role to play, and the law defined their place in the society.
Another one of Jesus’ siblings might very well have wanted to say, “Please come home! People all over the country are talking about you … You’re bringing shame to the family name.”
This is a question about family honor and heritage. He wants to know how Jesus REFLECTS the family unit to the wider community.
We read throughout the Old Testament that there is great value placed on family honor, on having a “good name.” For example in Proverbs 22.1, we read, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold.”
The growth and wellbeing of the family … the contribution of every member to the family … the family honor. These are important functions of the family ties.
The reason that family was important in Jesus’ day is because … they all have to do with one’s fundamental IDENTITY as a Jew.
It’s the way one knew who he or she was. Your family defined you. Your family came from one of the twelve tribes of Israel; and that tribe defined you. You were expected to defend and protect your tribe. You were expected to grow the family, to contribute to the family, and to preserve the reputation of the family.
That’s why Mary and the boys showed up to talk to Jesus. They were there to pull Jesus back into the family circle, to remind him who he was, to reinforce all of society’s expectations on what Jesus should and shouldn’t be doing.
How’d that work out?
Not too well.
Because Jesus didn’t show any interest in talking with them! This story doesn’t tell us whether Jesus did or not. We don’t know if he came out to talk with them, or whether he sent them away.
Because Jesus’ mission on earth was to challenge our family ties. Jesus came to change our fundamental IDENTITY. Something dramatic happened in Jesus Christ. Something new has begun. Jesus came to announce that the Kingdom of God was here. What has happened in Jesus Christ has fundamentally changed all of our relations.
From now on, because of Jesus Christ, we are no longer defined merely by our family … our clan … our language … our tribe … our color … our ethnicity … our nation … our demographic group. All those ways of defining ourselves have become IRRELEVANT … Because we now live in the kingdom of God, in the extended family of God, which stretches around the world, to include all of creation.
I am no longer primarily identified as a “Magruder” … or a “McClenathan” (my mother’s family name). I am no longer primarily identified as a white man, or as a Methodist, or as a Texan, or as an American. I am a part of the body of Christ, a part of the kingdom of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit. Those are the things that define who I am, first and foremost.
Now our identity is found in relation to God.
That’s why Jesus said that his family members were those who did the will of God in their lives. We are defined by our relationship to God.
Over and over again, in the New Testament, this point is made. In Matthew 3, John the Baptist says, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
It suddenly doesn’t matter where you were born or whose family you come from! Being raised in a good family isn’t enough to put you in a right relationship with God; and being raised in a bad family won’t stop you from being in a right relationship with God. The important thing is to be in a right relationship with God!
When we are in good relationship with God, then we are also in good relationship with others who are in good relationship with God. And more than that, but we feel as brother and sister to them. This is why we run across so much family language in the New Testament when it comes to the church; the church is often called “the family of God.”
This also means that, if our family is not a protective, comforting, respectful place, then we can rest in our identity as part of God’s family. I have known and seen many people who come from broken families, from homes of abuse and heartache and despair, find a new home, an alternative community, in the church. They may have a broken relationship with a father or mother, but find in the church, new fathers and new mothers, a community that surrounds and supports them.
Furthermore, we discover that now our roles are defined, not by what benefits our family, but by God’s kingdom. This is where Jesus’ message was so countercultural and revolutionary; Jesus broke open the possibilities for people, especially women and children. Suddenly, women were elevated to a position of value and dignity. Jesus corresponded to women in a number of public settings; some women followed Jesus as disciples. And the early Christian movement was full of women in leadership positions. All of these things went against the grain of the accepted “roles” of women in Jesus’ day.
The New Testament also speaks of spiritual gifts and leadership positions, all of which were now open to men and women, old persons and young. One was no longer merely a mother and wife, or slave or servant. One could be a prophet, a teacher, an apostle!
One of my favorite stories of early Christianity had to do with a woman named Thecla. The story goes that Thecla was a young woman engaged to be married who heard the apostle Paul preaching in the street from her bedroom window. She decided to become a Christian and to follow Christ, and she heard Paul’s words as liberating her from her traditional place in the family. She announced to her family that she would not be married. Her fiancé was furious and had Paul arrested. He spent a couple of nights in the jail, during which Thecla came to visit him and listen to his words about Jesus.
This enraged the family so much that they decided to make a lesson out of her. And they had her tied to a stake to be burned. Legend has it that, after the fire had been lit, a sudden downpour caused the fire to be put out and she was set free. Legend also has it that she eventually became a legendary evangelist, that she went around the region, traveling with Paul and preaching the gospel.
Thecla is an example of someone who found that there are new roles, new places of service in the kingdom of God, and that the old roles, the old traditional family customs, sometimes get in the way of following Christ.
But here’s the catch – the family can be the toughest, most resistance, most stubborn piece of our identity – those are strong ties, remember? The strongest resistance to doing the will of God can come from your family. Often, the people who will give you the hardest time about the Kingdom of God, about stepping into new roles, about finding your freedom in Christ – are members of your family. This is why, in another part of the Gospel, Jesus says that his presence will create divisions within families – Matt 10:35-36 says, “I will set father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law …” Many times I have witnessed this – a family split over someone’s decision to go into the ministry, or to become involved in a particular church, or … to go into mission service.
It should come as no surprise that the most resistance that Leah and I received about going to Africa as missionaries came from her parents. In fact, we lived with them for two and a half months before we left, because we had to move out of our parsonage, and it was a tense and difficult time. For most of those two and a half months, they gave us a very hard time. They told us we were being irresponsible, they accused us of trying to hurt them, they tried to convince us that we couldn’t afford to go …
Why did they resist?
Because they had their eyes on the old markers of identity. All they could see was how it would affect them, as grandparents. They couldn’t see the larger picture of the Kingdom of God.
I can report that they did eventually change their minds. They will tell you that God changed their minds.
But they are hardly the first or the last parents to resist what their children are called to do by God.
The man we know today as St. Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy merchant in thirteenth century Italy. He grew up in an affluent home, and loved the life of luxury and leisure. He began to notice the poor, and would give away some of his father’s goods, which made his father very angry. Eventually, Francis had a dramatic conversion and had a vision of Jesus Christ, and decided to become a priest. This made his father so angry, that he tried to stop him by legal means. Finally, Francis had to renounce his father and his family name. Before a bishop, he took off his father’s clothes and his share of the family fortune, and became a simple monk.
How was Francis able to take that step?
Francis know who he was. He was secure in his identity.
The question that Jesus asks each one of us this morning is simple:
Who are you?
Are you simply the son or daughter of your parents?
Are you simply the parent of your child?
Who are you really?
The words of Jesus point us to the profound truth that, fundamentally, at the core of our identity, we are the children of God. That is the most profound truth about who you are, and who I am. We are extremely beloved children.
We live in a world where Jesus Christ is Lord, and where God is in the process of making all things news, establishing peace where there is no peace, healing what is broken, reconciling what is separated, and making right what is wrong.
Thanks be to God.