(The concluding sermon in a three part series on Family and Faith. Preached at St. John’s UMC on 9/22/2013)
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘”Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to this disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Families of faith – part 3. We began by looking at the role of God within the family- we talked about how our individual relationships with God extend out toward others around us including our family, and we left with the challenge to encounter God through scripture and regular prayer. Last week we were challenged by Paul’s description of the Household code in his letter to the church in Ephesus, we pondered over the problematic interpretations of hierarchical family structures throughout the centuries, and we left with the challenge to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Today we conclude our sermon series on Faith and Family. We have already covered the first two primary aspects of Christian families: God and the family unit itself. And now we come to the end by addressing the role others play in families of faith.
Matthew perfectly paints the picture for us.
Jesus has been speaking with the crowds for some time about an assortment of things: The metaphor of a tree and its fruit, a comparison of the sign of Jonah to the resurrection, and warnings against the return of an evil spirit.
Everyone is gathered tightly together, inspired by the words. Here we have Jesus at his very best, teaching with his disciples. This is where they belong, nestled together, perhaps sharing some bread and wine, daydreaming about the kingdom of God.
And then someone told him, “Look, Jesus, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” There is no hesitation on Jesus’ side, no spared moment to contemplate his action, he simply questions to the one who interrupted: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And with the simple gesture of his hands toward the disciples in the room he continued, “Here are my mother and brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!”
Have you heard this story before? It’s fantastic, clear, straightforward, and it contains its own simple message: Whoever does the will of God is your new family. I love passages like this one because it does not require preaching; it preaches itself!
In the first century, this story was one of the most widely quoted in early Christian literature. People loved to share this little anecdote about the new family in Christ because wherever the Gospel was received, families were divided, and those cut off from their blood relatives found immense comfort in the knowledge that they now belonged to Jesus’ true family. However, as the centuries passed, Christianity became the dominant faith, it went from being a movement to an organization, and it was an expectation for people to be Christian.
This story lacks the same luster that it held in the beginning because being Christian is no longer considered revolutionary, its more like a club or civic group. Today, commitment to Christian faith may still result in alienation from family members, like it did in the first few centuries, but for different reasons: in our time family members might reject the Christians in their midst because they cannot comprehend or tolerate such a waste of time or talent. Some of you have perhaps experienced someone in your own family or social group dismiss you for being a Christian, but chances are this hasn’t happened. However I would venture to guess that everyone here can think of a person that has treated you differently, even just once, for being part of a community of faith.
I’ve felt called to the ministry since I was 16, and the seed itself was planted long before that. When I shared it with my family they embraced this revelation in my life and have done everything in their power to support it. My friends and church affirmed my call and rejoiced in my own discovery. Passages like this one from Matthew always sounded nice, but I already had my Christian family in addition to my church family.
Years later, when I was in college, I got a phone call from my grandfather. He spent most of his years living either in France or Florida so I had a very minor relationship with him, and when he called to say that he was coming to visit I was elated. I planned my whole week around his arrival and took care of all of my assignments early so that I could spend as much time with him as possible.
I remember picking him up from his hotel and showing him all around campus before we made our way to the restaurant. Our conversation flowed so easily and I soaked up every detail. It was turning into the kind of night that I had prayed and hoped for.
After ordering our food, he looked up from his folded menu and said something that I will never forget: “Taylor, I think going into the ministry is a waste of your time.”
What was Jesus’ family doing outside when they called for him? What did they want to speak to him about? Did his mother and brothers think he was crazy and want to stop him? Probably! We’re talking about Jesus here. You know the guy who helped some fishermen bring in the biggest haul of their lives only to tell them to leave it on the shore and follow him. The guy who made just as many enemies as he made disciples everywhere he traveled. The guy who questioned authority, walked on water, ate and drank with the poor and the outcast.
If he were my brother I would’ve tried to stop him too!
Everything Jesus did carried with it a hint of disruption. You say you need to stay behind to bury your father, I say let the dead bury the dead (Matthew 8.22). You want to know what to do to inherit eternal life? Sell all of your possessions and give to the poor (Mark 10.21). I could go on, but the point is: following Jesus requires us to make significant changes in our lives.
Rather counter-culturally, Jesus calls his disciples his new family as a replacement for the traditional family. This is not a rejection of his biological family, but an extension of the family unit to those beyond blood relation.
In the church today we carry on this practice through the sacrament of baptism and the reception of members. When we baptize individuals in the faith we are welcoming them into a new family where everyone that gathers is connected with everyone else.
That means when you look around this morning at the congregation you are not just sitting with neighbors and fellow Stauntonians, but you are with your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. All who gather in the name of the Lord to worship and do the will of God are the new family (for better of worse).
This passage strikes forth to combat loneliness in the world. We’ve all lost someone in our lives, and this place, this church, is where we come to rediscover what it means to be together. It is also particularly meaningful to those who have been liberated from an emotional slavery to dysfunctional families and can now find a new family in the church.
Last week more than sixty people gathered together in our fellowship hall for a murder mystery spaghetti dinner. Everything had been taken care of. We advertised it appropriately, gathered plenty of donations, and set up the room beautifully. A team of us gathered the night before to make sure all the food was prepared and ready to go. The day of the dinner came, and many volunteers arrived early to put everything in the right place and when everything started we could all breathe a sigh or relief.
We made it through the first two acts of the play, and after praying, everyone lined up to receive their gourmet spaghetti. I was enjoying myself in the kitchen, helping as I could, when some guest barged in, “Um, there’s somebody outside to see the pastor.”
“Right now?” I thought to myself. I mean we’re in the middle of serving all of these people dinner, they paid for this, and now somebody needs me. And so I reluctantly made my way out of the kitchen and into the fellowship hall.
Standing in the doorframe was a homeless man who had seen the sign out front and the cars in the parking lot and decided to come in. At first I felt like everyone in the room had their eyes on that disheveled man, everyone sitting quietly looking at him, but then I realized that many of the eyes were on me wondering, “what’s the pastor going to do?”
After speaking together in the hallway, I collected a container of food for him, asked if he would like to stay and eat with us, but he expressed his desire to keep walking. I made my way to the door with him, shook his hand, asked if there was anything more we could do, and wished him well.
As I stood there in the doorway, one foot in the church and one on the brick walk way, I considered my position. I could hear my church family behind me upstairs in the fellowship hall eating and laughing together, while watching this homeless man walk away from the building. Who is my brother?
What Jesus offered his disciples, what he still offers each and every one of us is a new family. Jesus called all of us to this church and this way of life in order to live into the kingdom of God on earth. Some might consider our participation in the church as irrelevant or a waste of time but its not. We are here to be Christ’s body for the world. That means we have to learn a new language and a way of thinking. It means that when a homeless man walks into our fellowship hall he is our brother!
We sit at a remarkable moment in time. For perhaps the first time in centuries Christianity no longer carries with it the air of gravitas that it once held. Sunday mornings are now recognized as a time to sleep in more than the time to be reverently present in worship. Though the majority of Americans still identify their faith in God through Jesus Christ, the church is losing its role in the political arena and churches are struggling to fill their worship spaces.
Many people look at the changes to the role of the church in the world and they see failure. I see opportunity.
We have the opportunity to discover what has and always is the case – that the church, including the people called by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot know on its own terms. Perhaps because we are finally being seen again as counter-cultural we are free to be faithful in a way that makes being Christian today an exciting and life giving adventure.
Many people today do not understand the church. It’s why people like my grandfather consider my vocation a waste of time. Our responsibility to Christ’s church is not to describe the world in a way that makes sense, but rather to change lives, to be re-formed in light of the stunning declarations of the gospel.
Families of faith contain three important priorities: God, the family itself, and others. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment he responded by calling his disciples to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves. If we want to cultivate families of faith we need to learn how to maintain these three important areas of our lives: God, our family, and others.
One of ways we can live out our calling to maintain relationships with others is to simply go out and be Christ for the world. It means being willing to open our eyes to the suffering and tragedies around us and no longer ignore them. We can continue to bring donations to the church, bags of food and clothing, but to really live out our Christian identity we have to follow Christ and be radical people committed to the kingdom.
I know my grandfather loves me, and that precisely why he wanted to stop me. Just like Jesus’ mother and brothers he was no doubt concerned about what I was going to do with my life. And frankly he just did not understand. But nothing can ever compare with the importance of following Christ. It is my prayer that we all live everyday to the fullest potential of our baptismal identity ready to be a strange people in a strange land, willing to invite the lost and lonely into our space to feel the warmth and love of God, and eager to go out into the world to serve one another.
Jesus asks: Who is my mother and who are my brothers?