Church Family – June 10, 2018
What does it mean to be church? Today we hear a Gospel story that wades directly into our understanding of church and turns traditional family values upside down.
In the whirlwind that is the Gospel according to Mark, much has already happened in 3 short chapters: Jesus has appeared at the Jordan River to be baptized by John; he’s been tempted in the wilderness and begun his ministry, proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus has called disciples away from their nets, healed the sick and cast out unclean spirits. He has re-interpreted sabbath rules and consorted with undesirables, eating with tax collectors and sinners. Immediately before our passage today, Jesus has just called his 12 closest disciples and anointed them as apostles to go out to proclaim his message and cast out demons.
It’s been a busy couple of chapters and so today, Jesus goes home. He goes home and there’s a buzz in the neighbourhood. It’s not a good buzz and his family is worried about him. People are talking. They’re saying he’s gone out of his mind. Scribes from Jerusalem also have concerns about Jesus and Jesus ends up getting into a debate with them about the nature of his authority. Does Jesus’ power come from God or from Satan? Is Jesus a force for evil or for good? Jesus responds with the logic that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. If Jesus is casting out evil by an evil force… well, that just doesn’t make sense. A house divided against itself cannot stand. And to call what is good, evil and what is evil, good, is a sin like no other. Having so responded to the charge about the source of his power and authority, Jesus’ family finally returns to the story and the plot continues.
Jesus’ family are standing outside. They aren’t, apparently, part of his inner circle of disciples, calling him instead from outside the gathering. Their presence and their wish to see Jesus is relaid to him and Jesus replies, most shockingly, “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those seated around him, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”
So much for so-called traditional family values. So much for the importance of family above all else. There is no more problematic text for the likes of “Focus on the Family” and much of traditional Christianity than this. Jesus demotes natural family while raising instead followers of God, his disciples, to the status of family. As the church, the Body of Christ, and the community of followers of God, this Gospel story has much to tell us about what it means to be church: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Church, in a nutshell, is a family.
Considering the metaphor of family for our understanding and practice of being church is both instructive and challenging. We don’t, for instance, choose our family. With our families, we get who we get, and who we get is often not who we would choose. What a challenge this is to the contemporary practice of “church shopping.” One of the great strengths of our traditional model of belonging to a specific parish based on geography alone is that it encourages this model of church as family. You just go to whichever church is closest to you and you dig in and stick with it, even though not all the people are your favourite. Some might be easy to connect with and quickly become beloved friends, but some… well, some are just annoying… and stay that way the whole time you know them.
If church is like a family then there are people different from you… with different political inclinations, different tax brackets, different generations. How different it is from our social group, our friends. We choose our friends, and mostly we choose friends who are “like us.” Our social group is generally much less diverse than our family; it’s comprised of people in the same or similar stage of life, often with similar backgrounds and experience. Family, on the other hand, is multi-generational. It’s grandparents and great-grandparents and children and adults and babies and teenagers… all gathering to celebrate each others’ milestones and just hanging out at the summer cottage. Family means showing up for one another, even when it’s inconvenient. It means showing up out of love, to offer support, even for activities you’d rather not participate in or at times when you’d rather be out with friends. When church becomes more of a comfortable circle of friends, than reflecting the messiness of a family, something important is lost.
At its best, family teaches us forbearance. At its best, we stick with our families, even when we’re upset with each other, and even when we don’t like each other very much. At its best, family models forgiveness as the pathway to an ever greater practice of love. At its best, family is where we are known most intimately, with all our glorious quirks and imperfections. At its best, family is where we can be most fully ourselves and know that we are loved and accepted for who we really are. At its best, family is where we know we are beloved, no matter how much we mess up.
But we all know that family is not always at its best. Family is also where we experience the deepest hurts and the most profound pain. Family is where we can develop unhelpful or even destructive patterns of relationship that can dog us our whole lives. Good family relationships take more effort than social relationships because of their diversity and because of what’s at stake. The dark side of forbearance is taking our hearts into hiding, burying our hurts and hiding our misdeeds, instead of offering and receiving forgiveness. There is a dark side to not talking through our disagreements, or seeking to understand diverse opinions. There is a dark side to uneasy compromise that builds resentment and undermines common purpose. A community divided against itself cannot stand. Learning and growing in true love, in Godly love… means risking telling the truth about ourselves and truly listening to the truths of others in the family. Practicing love in healthy and life-giving ways is the hardest thing in the world. And it is the most rewarding. It is where salvation – eternal life – is found, here and now.
I have often heard people talk about St. Andrew’s as a family. I’ve heard this named as one of the key reasons why people choose it as their community and why people stay. This is true of long-time members and of newcomers alike, who I’ve heard say: “as soon as we arrived, I felt like my young son gained a whole bunch of grandmas and grandpas.” I’ve also been struck again recently at the rather unique place this parish holds in this neighbourhood of St. Andrew’s Heights. As folks from the neighbourhood have come for our Tuesday lunchtime concerts, the sense of community has grown. We’ve heard one remark that he’s live in this neighbourhood for decades but had never set foot in this church. Just yesterday we gathered to say goodbye to one of our founding members and again witnessed a gathering of the original local community, mostly scattered now… elderly people who moved in to the first houses in this neighbourhood and raised their children, who are now adults looking to retirement. We have a history of being a neighbourhood family church. I wonder how we can renew and build on that history for the present moment… for today?
“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus’ words to us today do indicate one critical difference between natural family and church family. We might not choose every member of our church family, but we become family because we have chosen to follow the will the Christ. We are united as family in the church because we have chosen a common purpose. It is not blood that connects us and it is not friendship of the usual sort; it’s not liking one another, but rather it is choosing to love one another because of our common purpose, our common commitment to Christ, out common faithfulness to Jesus’ command to love, even when we don’t like each other.
And quite ironically, our common purpose is to serve those outside the family, to bring good news to the neighbourhood, to reach beyond the love of this family, to care for those most vulnerable in the wider society. Jesus didn’t stay home with his family. Jesus didn’t simply enjoy the love of his brothers and sisters and mother. Jesus took those closest to him out into the world to heal the sick and to bring good news to the poor and the oppressed. Jesus went out with his disciples and empowered them to cast out demons. Doing the will of God includes being part of the family of the church, but it is not limited to it.
Loving one another through our differences and disagreements is what it means to be family. Being united in common purpose to love God and to love our neighbours is what it means to be church family. May we grow in this common purpose through this season after Pentecost, and may our love and commitment to one another as family strengthen us to go out into the world to share that love more fully with those who desperately need it.