Sunday, April 1, 2012

Jesus Challenged the Traditional Definition of Family

Jesus’ True Family

The Andersons

Gospel Reading: Mark 3: 31-35

A minister never knows what will come to the minds of a congregation today when he says the word family. What is a family? Narrowly defined a family is traditionally a man and woman who are husband and wife and the children born to their union. Often this is called the nuclear family. More broadly defined, yet in traditional terms, the family includes the parents and siblings and nieces and nephews of the married couple, and the future spouses and children of their children. We call this the extended family.

Yet the definition of family is up for debate today. All the craziness going on in Massachusetts and San Francisco, as well as in scattered other places of our country, forces upon us the reality that the definitions of both marriage and family are now in play. Even apart from the debates about civil unions and homosexual marriage, the definition of family is fluid, and, for many, family is pretty much any arrangement people say it is.

Jesus, in a sense, challenged the definition of family in His day. When He was told that His family was waiting to see Him, He responded with the question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” This morning I want us to consider Jesus’ definition of family.

I. The Family

Jesus’ ministry was continuing in the Capernaum area. Peter and Andrew had opened their home to Him, and He had made their home His home base. Apparently it was common that, when He was in town and at home, people would gather at the home, and Jesus would teach them.

The occasion we have read seems to be one of those when He was in the house teaching. While He was teaching, His mother and brothers arrived.  The mention of His mother and brothers has been the occasion of a good bit of discussion throughout the history of the Church. His mother of course was the Virgin Mary. But where is her husband Joseph? Apparently he had died by now. There is no mention of him in the Gospels after the occasion of the family’s visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve. And who are these brothers? The answer depends on whether or not you think Mary remained perpetually a virgin. Those who do think she remained perpetually a virgin, take the view that these brothers are either his stepbrothers, the children of Joseph from a previous marriage, or cousins. On the other hand, if you believe that Mary and Joseph had a normal married life after the birth of Jesus, then you will have no problem saying these are his half-brothers, the sons of Mary and Joseph with whom He shares a common mother. Indeed this is the natural way to understand who they were. Matthew says of Joseph and Mary that “he knew her not until she had given birth to a son” (1:25), which surely implies that he did after the birth of Jesus. And the word for brothers usually means brother not cousin.

There are a couple of things worth noting here. The first is that Jesus grew up in the family structure that goes back to the creation. God made Adam and Eve, and He joined them in marriage, and He gave them the direction to be fruitful and to multiply. Marriage between one man and one woman, procreation, family – these originated in God’s mind and were from the beginning His plan for the primary social structure of human life. There have always been departures from and challenges to this – people who engage in sexual life apart from marriage, children born outside of marriage, marriages that end in divorce. But people have always sensed that the pattern that originated with God and is described in the Bible is the norm. The Bible is pro-family, and, when we see the whole of Jesus’ teaching, we will find that He was, too.

Another thing to note is that Jesus grew up in a fallen family. There was only one sinless person in that family, the Lord Jesus, and He is the only sinless member of any family since the fall. Our families are messy things. Husbands and wives do not love and honor one another, as they should. Children do no honor and obey their parents, as they should. Parents and children do not communicate, as they should. Siblings do not get along, as they should. But these things are no reason for us to give up on marriage and family. They are reasons for us to seek the forgiveness and renewal that can come to us because the redeeming work of Christ extends not just to us as individuals but also to our families.

Then note that Jesus grew up in a family that had been touched by death. Mary had lost her husband. Jesus had lost his stepfather. When Joseph died we do not know. There is a span of about eighteen years between the last mention of Joseph and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. But we know that grief and sorrow had entered this home. Perhaps other hardships, like the financial ones had also been experienced. You may be widow or widower or a young person in a home that lacks a father or mother. Jesus and His mother understand what that is like. There had been a time when they had embraced and the sobs had come as they felt the acute pain of grief. And there had been those times when a chair, or a shoe, or a smell, or a holiday had brought it all back. Jesus not only understands. He cares, and He will help for He is touched with all the feelings of our infirmities.

In the case of Jesus’ family, on this occasion they had traveled from there home in Nazareth to Capernaum in order to see Him. You can imagine the scene as Jesus was inside the house teaching. The number of people present was so large that His mother and brothers could not get inside. So they sent word in that they had arrived, were outside the house, and wanted to see Him and speak to Him. There must have been taps on shoulders and whispers to the effect, “Jesus’ mother and brothers are here. Tell Him they want to talk to Him.” Some of you teenagers may feel the awkwardness of the situation. Is there anything more embarrassing than to have your mother standing outside a room where you are with your friends, and passing a whispered note along a line of your friends that she wants you to come out and talk to her?

I wonder if you noticed that two times attention is called to the fact that Jesus’ mother and brothers are on the outside? That is literally true. They are outside the house. But it is metaphorically true, for at this point His mother and His brothers are on the outside of understanding Him and what He is doing. Why have they come? It is not just for a visit. If you go back to verse twenty-one of Mark chapter three, you will find the real beginning of this story. Jesus’ family had received word about His ministry in the region of Capernaum. He had been preaching, teaching, healing, casting out demons, and had become very popular. People wanted to see Him, touch Him, hear Him, get healed by Him. His popularity was so high that He did not even have time to take His proper meals. He was also having, and even provoking, confrontations with the Pharisees. It had got so bad that the Pharisees, a religious party, had begun meeting with the Herodians, a political party, to talk about how to destroy Him. Now Jesus’ family heard about these things, and they concluded that He had lost His bearings. All the physical, emotional, and spiritual stress had been too much. He had lost it. The family concluded, “He is out of his mind.”

Now if you take the conclusion of the investigative commission from the Temple authorities in Jerusalem and the conclusion of Jesus own family, it makes for a striking and disturbing conclusion. The authorities from Jerusalem concluded, “He has an unclean spirit.” His family concluded, “He is out of His mind.” Anytime you feel misunderstood you might pause to consider Jesus – the religious authorities think He is demon possessed and His own mother and siblings think He is crazy! What is striking and disturbing is that His own family shares with the antagonistic authorities a fundamental misunderstanding of Him – of Who He is and what He is doing. The authorities go so far as to attribute His ministry to the work of the devil, which is surely why Jesus warns them that they are in danger of committing the one sin for which there is no forgiveness. His family does not go so far, but they look at His ministry and decide He has become mentally unhinged. It makes us wonder what we would have thought had we been there. And it requires us to ask ourselves now what we think of Him. Is it possible that the real Jesus is one we would think is little mad? Do we get it when it comes to Jesus, or are we still on the outside, unbelieving and confused, not knowing what we think of Him?

If the conclusions of Jesus’ own family concerning Him are disturbing so, too, we may find is the response of Jesus. In response to the notification that His family has arrived and wanted to speak with Him, Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” His mother and brothers are after all his family. They have traveled across Galilee to see Him. They have come because they are concerned about Him. And rather then inviting them to come in, or going out to greet them, Jesus remained inside and asked what seems to be rather cold question.

Was Jesus indifferent to His family responsibilities? No. We will find Him later in Mark rebuking the Pharisees for ignoring their responsibilities under the fifth commandment to care for their aged parents. And, when He was dying, one of the seven statements He is recorded to have made from the cross had to do with the care of His mother, Mary. He said to Mary, “Woman, behold your son!” and to John, “Behold, your mother!” One of His last acts was to commit His mother into the care of His beloved disciple.

But, Jesus does put something of a distance between Himself and His family. Even when He was twelve He made it clear to Mary and Joseph that He was the Son of the heavenly Father and that His priority was His true Father’s business. Earlier in His public ministry, when he attended a wedding and was told by His mother that the wine had run out, He said to her, “Woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” He preserved His freedom and His independence of action. Not even His mother could intervene in these things. He loved His mother and was respectful to her, but He put a distance that said, “I must act in accord with my Father in heaven’s plan and according to the liberty He has given to me in fulfilling the mission He gave me.”

For Jesus family did not trump all else. It is hard to overstate the importance of the family, but the family must not become an idol, and we must not make a cult of the family. Jesus knew what it meant to leave mother and brother, to put the heavenly Father first, to forsake all and follow. When He calls us to follow Him and to make Him our first love and loyalty, He calls us to follow Him in discipleship He knows. For the Christian it is always Jesus we love first and best and Him we follow no matter what that costs us, even in family relationships. Jesus was not kidding, and He knew of what He spoke when He said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

II. The Faithful

Jesus turned His attention from His mothers and brothers to those gathered around Him in the house and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” The group He looked on included the twelve disciples who had left behind their connections to this world to follow Him. It included others who were listening to His Word, understanding, believing, and following. At this point His family are the outsiders and those who are gathered around Him listening to His teaching are the insiders.

You may have had the experience of coming into a group and wondering if there is any way you could ever belong. Maybe it was when, as a young person, you moved to a new school. Or, it may have been when you got a new assignment to work with different people at work. Or, it may have been when you came to this church. You look at the group and you know that there are those who the “insiders” who really belong and those who are the “outsiders” who may be there but don’t belong. It’s very much the feeling a child gets when he wonders if he will ever be invited by the other kids into play circle. It’s the feeling Rudolph had as he watched but never was invited to join in tiny reindeer games. Now when we look at Jesus and wonder who might get into circle He considers His family. And Jesus puts out His hand and points to people like you and like me and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers.”

Who are we who are included in the family? “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” That at first might seem discouraging. Who of us would claim that we do the will of God? If doing God’s will is what it takes to be in Jesus’ true family, there is no possibility you are I are going ever to be included in that holy family.  But here, John Calvin, who so often is caricatured as a cold, logical, hard man comes to our rescue. Calvin explains. “Moreover, by ‘doing the will of the Father’ He does not intend a precise fulfilling of all the righteousness of the Law (for if this were so the name of brothers which He gives to His disciples would belong to no-one). But in particular He commends faith, the well-spring and origin of holy obedience, and also covers up the defects and faults of the flesh so that they may not be imputed. Christ’s saying is well known: ‘This is the will of my Father, that whosoever beholds the Son, and believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 6:40).” (Calvin, Harmony of the Gospels, v. II, p. 56) The basic thing is faith in Christ as our Savior and Lord. When we have such faith all the shortcomings of our obedience will not be counted against us. And that same faith will prove to be the living well from which will flow both the desire for and the doing of the will of God.

Good news, brothers and sisters! We’re in – we’re the brothers and sisters of Jesus Himself. We have put our faith in Him for our salvation and we have trusted Him to be the Lord of our lives. Now by His grace we seek to do what He did – to do the will of the Father in heaven. And, as we seek to do that will, whatever failings there are will be forgiven and covered by the perfection of His performance of the will of God.

Now, if we are “in” we must not refuse to welcome all others he includes in His family. The circle must not be so tight as to exclude any He accepts. Some of us of who grew up the conservative Christian churches may remember a children’s song we sang: “One door and only one and yet it’s sides are two. I’m on the inside, on which side are you?” Well, as I think about the way we used to sing that, I wonder if we might have really meant to sing, “I’m on the inside, and you’re not! Nananananah!” We were rather smug I think. Did we want anyone else on the inside with us? Were we ready to show them the way to become members of Jesus’ family and ready to scoot over in the circle and welcome them to the family? That’s the way it should be and the way it must be in Jesus family.

Blood, they say, is thicker than water. In our usage, it means that the bonds of family will prove stronger than the bonds of friendship. While its meaning in our usage is not in doubt, the origin of the saying is obscure. I once heard it suggested that it originally meant that the blood of kinship is thicker than the water of baptism – that for most people the family of our flesh is more important than the family of our faith – a sad but often true reality. But recently I have read a suggestion that this saying may actually be rooted in the Old Testament and may mean the opposite of the way we now use it. The suggestion is that it means that the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water (amniotic fluid) of the womb. In that case faith as a bond trumps genetics. And that it is the way it should be. Christ said He considered His true family to be those who did the will of God whether blood relatives or no. And, for us, in this family we should always affirm and practice that we are closer and more committed to those who through faith are with us the members of Jesus’ family than to those with whom we share only the kinship of the flesh.

Who are the family of our Lord? Brothers and sisters, we are!


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