June 10, 2012

2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1
Mark 3:31-35

Summarizing today’s Gospel reading, one commentator writes that Mark 3:20-35 tells of Jesus’ homecoming after he called his first disciples, and the reception he received. People had begun to talk about Jesus and were spreading some rumors and tales, including that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebul.

Jesus’ own family wants to bring him home and stop this “madness,” this “nonsense,” of Jesus’ ministry and healing and preaching, but Jesus declares that Satan cannot cast out Satan; therefore Jesus, who is doing good works, cannot be possessed by a demon, for what he is doing is the complete opposite of what demonic forces would do. Demonic forces would destroy, bring pain and anguish and despair; Jesus brings restoration, healing, joy and hope.

When Jesus’ family calls out to him and the crowd informs Jesus of this, Jesus reminds them that whoever does the will of God is Jesus’ family– for we are all children of God, we are all Christ’s brothers and sisters, when we do the work of God, bringing healing, hope and restoration to the world by sharing God’s love. Whoever does the will of God is Jesus’ family. His family is not determined by blood lines or marriage certificates. All those who do the will of God are Jesus’ sisters and brothers.

Most of us know that family is not always defined by who is technically related to us. I remember learning years ago from one of our Cameroonian church members that family can include more than just the people who share blood lines. When Flora would tell stories of her home in Cameroon, she would often mention her aunties. And then she would correct herself, or adjust herself to accommodate my Canadian perspective on family… “She isn’t really my auntie,” she would say, “but that’s what we would call these women in our lives who supported us, and encouraged us, and helped us along the way.” Like Jesus’ definition of family, it had more to do with what you do, and less to do with who you are.

Today’s story from the Gospel of Mark might make us wonder about how Jesus seems to treat his family of origin. He has a good point to make about understanding “family” much more broadly. But in making his point, he leaves his mother and sisters and brothers just standing at the door and waiting.

You might even notice something of a pattern here. There’s a story in Luke’s Gospel from when Jesus was quite young when he seems to disregard his family in a similar way. They’ve all been up at Jerusalem for one of the festivals, but it’s time to get on the road to go home and Jesus is nowhere to be seen. Mary and Joseph search and search for their eldest son, and they eventually find him in the Temple, speaking to the religious leaders… asking questions, and likely answering them too.

And rather than being apologetic for his absence, Jesus wonders why it took them so long to find him. Of course he would be “in his Father’s house.” Jesus’ family is God’s family. And it is that family (not his technical relatives) that take priority in his life.

Those who look to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as the perfect model for a nuclear family, and those who focus on families as the most important social unit in society, might be put off by scripture texts like these. How can Jesus be so dismissive of his own family? It just doesn’t seem right!

Of course, we know from other stories that Jesus doesn’t completely reject his family of origin. His mother is still with him at the end of his life, and there is the suggestion that at least one of his brothers was a leader in the early church. Indeed, one of the Gospels records the fact that when Jesus was dying on the cross, he instructed one of his beloved disciples to look after his mother.

He didn’t hate her or reject her. He loved and respected her, and he wanted to make sure that she would be well cared-for. He knew that “family” is much more than blood lines, but it is about care and compassion and commitment. That’s why he could say to his disciple, “Here is your mother,” and to his mother, “Here is your son.” He encouraged them to be family to each other.

The difficulty in the text comes from the fact that engaging in Christ’s mission means putting the will of God AHEAD of our families. Like the early disciples of Jesus who were called to drop their nets and follow, leaving behind work, and family, and friends, our discipleship will at times require us to leave family behind and follow where Christ is calling us.

Ministers, for example, may be called to churches that are far away from their extended families. And immediate family members may have to put up with less than ideal circumstances when the family moves to a small or remote community where a minister is needed.

But I don’t think that the message is for clergy and their families alone. All Christians are called to follow Jesus where he leads, and for many of us that will mean living with the fact that some of our family members think we’re a little bit crazy. It may even mean going against the wishes of our parents or children, or brothers and sisters, because we want to follow Jesus with our lives and we are willing to put him first.

I’m thinking of a Christian family that I heard about who decided that they needed to make their Christmas Day celebrations about following Jesus, instead of letting the holiday become focussed on giving and receiving gifts that they didn’t really need. I think there was some resistance from the children at first when the family started volunteering at a soup kitchen on Christmas Day. But the resistance didn’t last long, as the family members found meaning and purpose in their new Christmas tradition.

The decision wasn’t about neglecting the children… denying them the Christmas tradition of sitting around a tree and opening presents together on Christmas morning like everyone else did. But it was about putting Christ’s mission first. And in this case, the family was able to share in Christ’s mission together.

In our reading this morning from 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks about suffering. He talks about the hardships that he and other Christians have to endure because of the choice they have made to follow Jesus. He knows that “the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.”

And this knowledge brings him hope and sustains him through sufferings. Whatever hardships he has to endure are “for Jesus’ sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

That’s the problem with Christians who get focussed on their own particular families, as if our families are the only ones for whom we are responsible. It’s the same problem as when congregations get too focussed on just the people who are in our church families. We stop reaching out beyond our families and congregations. We fail to be concerned about the people who are outside of our immediate communities, and the gospel does not spread. God’s grace is not extended to more and more people, as Paul says.

Today’s Gospel text certainly includes some difficulty and challenge for those who want to follow the way of Jesus. It becomes clear that Jesus’ way is one that includes both commitment and sacrifice, and there will be difficult decisions of priority to be made. But there is good news in the text as well. Did you hear it?

The good news is that when we seek to follow Jesus and do the will of God we become a part of the family of God. When we are alone, or rejected… when our families think we’re a little crazy… when we do need to leave some family connections behind in order to follow the way of Jesus… The church becomes our surrogate family.

And it is a family that we belong to… not by virtue of our birth into it, or by way of our worthiness to be in it… but simply by virtue of our baptism. We belong to God, and therefore we also belong to one another in the family of God.

The best thing about belonging to a family is the relationships that we share with our family members. And the worst thing about belonging to a family is the relationships that we share with our family members. We don’t always agree. We don’t always understand each other. We don’t always take the time to listen.

Early in the Gospel passage, the scribes are telling people that Jesus is casting out demons because he is himself possessed by some kind of demon. They say that “he has Beelzebul,” the ruler of the demons, and it is by this power that he is doing the healings.

It’s a strange accusation, really, because Jesus is casting out demons. He’s freeing people from their illnesses and addictions, and he’s not taking over their lives by force…. But Jesus argues that he’s not in league with the demons because that just doesn’t make any sense! If he were on their side, then it wouldn’t make any sense for him to be casting them out. It wouldn’t make any sense for him to be fighting against them. “If a kingdom is divided against itself,” he says, “that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.”

At this point in his ministry, Jesus’ family is divided. He knows that he has a special calling to do God’s work in the world, to preach the coming of the kingdom, and to help and heal the people that he encounters. While his family members are starting to think that he is crazy… A divided household cannot stand.

Jesus looks around to the crowd, identifying his listeners, those who do the will of God, as his mothers and brothers and sisters. This family of God, to which we all belong, must not be divided either. Otherwise, it too will be in danger of falling.

Our congregations must be united in purpose. Our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, must be unified by our common faith and our shared goals. The Church throughout the world, including Christians from all kinds of backgrounds and traditions, must be one also. Indeed, we must strive for unity with all those who seek to do the will of God. And the family of God needs to have an open door policy, to welcome new people and to unite with them in our common purpose and goal of following Jesus and doing the will of God in the world. Otherwise, our divided house will be in danger of falling.

It was a wonderful experience to be participating in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada this past week. The General Assembly is the highest court of our church – the yearly national meeting – this time taking place in Oshawa Ontario, including about one out of every six ministers from across the country, along with an equal number of elders.

The meetings of the General Assembly are important, as together we are making decisions for the ministry and mission of our Presbyterian Church as we move forward in faith and hope for the future. It’s always a great experience to worship with such a large group of about 300 people, and to meet friends and colleagues from across the country.

But the Assembly has its challenges too. The Presbyterian Church is diverse, and sometimes in the midst of debate on an issue, it seems like our differences may be insurmountable. The Young Adult Representatives who participated in the Assembly noticed this problem as well. In their presentation to the Assembly on the final morning, they noted the fact that Presbyterians have a wide range of perspectives on some pretty important issues.

And yet the YARs also commented that they were impressed by the way that such a diverse group of Christians could get together in one room and discuss the issues openly and honestly. There was no yelling at each other. People treated each other with respect, and listened to the variety of viewpoints. Most individuals probably didn’t go away from the General Assembly pleased with every single decision that was made, but we did make the decisions together… hopefully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The young adults thought that it was pretty spectacular that the process would allow such diversity of people and perspectives to meet together, discuss together, debate together respectfully, and ultimately to make decisions together. We might not completely agree on music, on liturgy, or on some significant theological issues… but we are one as we seek to do the will of God together.

As Jesus looked around at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my sisters and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Together, may we seek to do God’s will today and each day. And may God expand our vision of what it means to be members of the family of God. Amen.