February 25, 2024

John 19:25b-27
Matthew 12:46-50

“Water is Thicker than Blood”

On this Second Sunday in the Season of Lent, we are continuing to focus on the final things that Jesus said as he was dying on the cross. Although each of Jesus’ statements is quite brief, our Lenten study so far has already begun to reveal that each one is rich with meaning for our lives as disciples today.

On Ash Wednesday, we heard Jesus pray to God the Father “to forgive [those who were crucifying him] for they do not know what they are doing.” We were assured of God’s unconditional love and Jesus’ capacity to forgive us for the worst things we do. We were also encouraged to live into our identity as people made in the image of God, and to forgive one another from our hearts.

Last Sunday, we heard Jesus in conversation with a repentant thief who was dying beside him. This man also was forgiven, and given the promise of Jesus that “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” We gave thanks for that amazing grace, and the glimpses of “heaven on earth” that we experience today, even as we anticipate the final gift of everlasting life.

In this morning’s text from John 19, Jesus speaks to some of the few friends who had not run away, but were standing near his cross. Jesus’ own mother was there, and we can only imagine how difficult it was for her to be watching what was happening to her child. Jesus’ aunt was there too, along with Mary Magdalene and another Mary who is identified as the wife of Clopas.

Along with the women, there was at least one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples and friends. It was John – one of the fishermen disciples, the brother of James and the son of Zebedee, who left his livelihood and family when Jesus called him to follow.

John is the one that the Fourth Evangelist often refers to as “the beloved disciple.” We’re not told exactly why he gets this name, but there is the suggestion that Jesus and John were particularly close friends. Maybe that’s why he seems to be the only one of the men who is still there at the cross.

We read that When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

The Lenten Devotional points out that Jesus is asking his friend John to take on the financial and moral responsibility to take care of Mary as a widow who had lost her eldest son. And that makes sense.

But as we discussed it in our study groups, we noted that the Gospels indicate that Mary had other sons who could have taken her in and cared for her needs. Jesus was the eldest, but she would not be alone after his death.

We also wondered about John’s home. We remembered him leaving home and family to go out on the road with Jesus. Would he have many financial resources to take on the support of a widow?

It made me wonder if Jesus wasn’t just suggesting a practical solution to an immanent problem, but rather indicating a new way forward for his followers that would define family and community in a new way. Was he saying that “water is thicker than blood”?

The Lenten study points out that “Jesus’ own relationship and teaching about family was complex. On the one hand, his mother is said to have been among those who were with him throughout his life. At the same time, we hear very little about his other family bonds. And in places in the New Testament, such as Luke 14:25-27, Jesus places the community of those seeking the reign of God above family bonds.

We read: Many people were traveling with Jesus. He said to them, “If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters – even more than your own life!”

Although this statement from Jesus may seem startling, especially to people like us living in a nuclear-family focused society, folks in our study groups didn’t think that Jesus was “anti-family” but rather that he was expanding its definition beyond a closed group of people related by blood to a wider mission of love that embraces all people in the name of Jesus.

Far from asking us to turn away from each other, Jesus’ words to Mary and John from the cross urge them to turn towards each other, especially as they struggle with the grief and sadness that they will experience when he dies.

In a reflection on this theme from Illustrated Ministry, the author suggests that this is one of the most important things that Jesus did for us – teaching us to turn towards one another:

“It’s what he did when he called disciples, taught and trained them, and sent them out together to teach and to heal. It’s what he did when his relatives came looking for him when he was attracting a lot of attention, drawing a crowd.

“When people said, ‘your mother and brothers are outside looking for you,’ Jesus expanded the notion of family, widened that idea beyond those to whom he was related, to include all of the people he was with, saying, ‘This is my family! All who do the will of God are my family.’

“And from the cross, Jesus sees perhaps the two people who love him most, his mother and his dear friend, both in pain. And with some of his very last words, he gives them to each other.”

The writer of this reflection goes on to relate their own experience of how important this kind of giving was at one of the saddest times in their life:

“After a person from my group of college friends was killed, the rest of us were shocked. We came to her funeral numb. We left in silence. We couldn’t believe it, and we didn’t know what to do.

“A year later, on the anniversary of her death, another friend called and suggested we all meet at a restaurant to remember her. I thought this was a terrible idea. I could only imagine our sadness deepening, our anger intensifying, when we got together. But I went.

“We didn’t say much at first. We picked at our food, swirled our drinks. We shared updates about jobs, apartments, other friends who weren’t there. Finally, someone said, ‘Do you remember when…?’ and began to tell a story about our friend. And we did remember. And that first story sparked another, and then another until we were all laughing and hugging and ordering more food and drinks and staying late into the night. The gathering to remember our friend became a tradition.

“She was not with us, of course. But our shared love for her had brought us together. And because of that, not only would we always remember her, but we would come to love her, and each other, in new ways.

Presbyterians don’t usually do this, but I appreciate the tradition in some Christian Churches in which the members refer to one another as “Sister Emily” or “Brother Tom.” The people in the Christian community are not technically siblings to one another. But their love for Jesus has brought them together, connected them deeply, and inspired them to refer to one another as siblings in Christ.

Ours is not a “me and Jesus” kind of faith. Rather, Jesus has turned us towards one another, saying “Here is your family.” The definition of family is not limited by who lives in your house, or who is related to you by blood or marriage, or even by the particulars of our systems of faith or belief. Family is expanded to include, as Jesus said, “All those who do the will of my Father.”

One of the things that came up in our discussion groups this week was the idea of having a “chosen family.” We acknowledged the sad reality that sometimes individuals are rejected and excluded from their families of origin, and that often that rejection happens because they have come out as members of the 2SLGBTQI+ community, and their relatives won’t accept that.

A chosen family is a gift and often a lifeline for someone who has been shunned by their parents and other family members who were supposed to love them unconditionally. And if we have the opportunity to be part of such a chosen family, that will undoubtedly become a gift for us as well.

But I think that part of the good news of Jesus Christ, and the way that he turned his followers towards one another in love is that the Christian community is not just supposed to be a new family that we can choose. Rather, the Church is the Family of God that chooses us.

We are chosen by God to belong in this community with all our differences and diversities, our gifts and our needs. We are the chosen and beloved ones of Jesus, and he is turning us towards one another, saying, “Here is your family. Be family to one another.”

Siblings in Christ, it is true: “Water is thicker than blood.” By the water of baptism, you have been chosen and adopted into the Family of God.