Sunday, 7 June 2015

A family under God

The place and role of the family is never far from headlines. Pope Francis has at the beginning of this ministry as Pope sent tremors through the world wide Roman Catholic community in the way in which he chooses not just to live, simply, but also last year when he  Catholic bishops gathered in Rome to listen hard to the “beat of this age” as he opened a landmark assembly that many hope will spark reform of some of the Roman Catholic church’s stances on marriage, sex and divorce.

Congratulations to Egzon and Christina married at St John 
With the change to the definition of marriage in this country last year
to include same sex union, there is much debate on not just the place and role of marriage but sexuality and the impact on our understanding of family. Some see these moves as eroding the family and contributing to the further disintegration of society where as others take a more hope- filled view that new understanding of marriage and sexuality will enhance and strength the institution of the family.

It interesting that when it comes to the pages of the bible the image of family is not a “Hello” or “OK” airbrushed version but a more realistic and dare I say dysfunctional description of family life. From Cain and Able the children of Adam and Eve to Noah and his sons, Isaac and Esau, Samuel, Moses and  David; family life is not without its tensions and even violence.

Consider Jesus' family, for example. His birth is surrounded with scandal as Mary finds herself with child but unmarried. St John in his gospel uses language that suggested that Jesus' relationship with his mother was rather strained, Jesus is only recorded as referring to his mother as “Woman” and at the wedding of Cana in Galilee he seems to be rather abrupt with his mother. Similar tensions appear to have existed between him and his siblings, as well.

And then we have the occasion referred to in our Gospel this morning, Mark 3.21 which says: "21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind”.

This episode in Marks account of Jesus’ life is set in a wider context that runs through out the gospels, namely that people around Jesus find it hard to understand who he really is. Jesus does not fit in with the expectations or traditions held dear by those around him. His own family assume he has lost his sanity and the religious authorities see him as an evil and dangerous force who will destroy their power and the traditions handed down since the time of Moses concluding that he must be possessed by Satan.

The scene underscores how those who presumably they were in the position to understand Jesus were not immediately able to see him as God's agent. As Jesus announced and re-inaugurated God's intentions for human flourishing, many could not overcome the disorienting character of his message. Even close relatives and religious insiders were bewildered by what he said, which threatened to disrupt so many aspects of human society.

Maybe Jesus' relatives were dismayed that the first-born son wasn't supporting his family but was gallivanting around Galilee as a self-appointed prophet. Or maybe they wanted him, as Messiah, to have bigger and better ambitions, such as promising a revolution instead of preaching and healing the sick. The Gospel of Mark does not explain; it merely sets up a showdown of sorts when the family arrives to seize Jesus.

When the crowd says that his family is summoning him from outside the crowded building, Jesus answers with a shocking statement: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? ... Look, here [these people seated around me] are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God's will is my brother, sister and mother."

It's good news for those inside the house, who seek to identify with Jesus and his message. Its good news for the disciples who have left their families and their homes (Mark 10.28-30) and its good news for Christians from the earliest time to our own day who face persecution from their families when they embrace Jesus as their Lord, especially those who convert.

It is bad news, however, for his relatives on the outside of the house who seek to impede his mission and ministry to the poor, sick and dispossessed and for others who have dedicated their lives to preserving the traditions and customs of the past in order to sure up their own position of power and provide social stability

Jesus redefines Family. Jesus redefines the criteria for who constitutes his true family.
This goes beyond striking back at his mother and brothers' opinion about his sanity. More foundationally, Jesus makes a claim about what it might mean to belong to the community he is creating, the Kingdom of God  and later the Church.

He makes a claim about identity. Families, or "households," were the primary social and economic units of first-century society as much as they are in our modern urban societies. Jesus speaks to deeply embedded cultural assumptions when he defines his true family not by blood relations or kinship ties but by doing the will of God.

For Jesus, family -- at least, one type of family -- is a community of people joined as an expression of their commitment to discover and manifest God's will. It would appear that Jesus is allowing for a new understanding of family, one defined by those who promote God's will.

As many in our day are urging society, and yes the church too, to redefine our understanding of family I wonder if we will find ourselves on the outside of the house as Jesus’ family or on the inside with his disciples?

Obviously, Christians have not found consensus on these topics, as discussions of sexuality and marriage have polarized many communities.

Jesus did not abolish the idea of family or household. It goes too far to suggest he overthrew his culture's values about family, society and religion -- in this passage or any other. But he does consistently unsettle and sometimes redefines those values.

When Jesus teaches, heals and makes pronouncements, everything gets put up for renegotiation. Old values aren't necessarily flawed, simply by virtue of their being old or established. But God's presence in the world, manifested through Jesus' words and actions, repeatedly turns on their head the conventional assumptions about what's "real" or what's "normal."

Jesus’ actions and words upset those around him as much as they are upsetting our world today. Jesus creates a reversal of priority, not to change for change's sake, but so we might reconsider just how  our living  can be authentic manifestations of who God is and how God can be known.

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