The Rev. Melanie McCarley
A crowd had gathered around Jesus; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
It’s a chaotic scene. We’re only on to the third chapter in the Gospel of Mark; yet Jesus has been hard at work. Our Savior has gone from his hometown in Nazareth to the wilderness, the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum to a deserted place and back to the towns of Galilee. He then goes to Capernaum and Nazareth, and then to the sea, to Levi’s house, through the grain fields and on to the synagogue, and then back to the sea and into a boat, before heading up the mountain where he gathers the twelve apostles around him, and then, finally, he goes home. He does all of this followed by crowds who are clinging to him, begging for healing and to be released from the demons that had taken hold of them. And not only are there these, but others as well: there are the curious, earnest seekers and, of course, (always) the critics. All this, and we’re not even through the third chapter of the Gospel.
So, should we be surprised that Jesus seems…well….a little testy—a wee bit on edge?
In truth, we don’t know precisely what motivated Jesus’ family to come and retrieve him from the crowds. It could have been concern for his welfare or worry over the family’s reputation—they, after all, still have to live in Nazareth while Jesus roams the countryside teaching. If you pause to think about it, wouldn’t you consider doing the same for a son or brother whom you cared for who has been behaving in a way which has provoked the religious authorities to go so far as to accuse him of being in cahoots with the devil? No matter the reason, Mary gathers up the family and sets out to find her son and bring him home. And it’s here that Jesus’s family happen upon a tumultuous scene of desperate people, earnest seekers and irate Scribes and Pharisees. Yet, rather than embracing his family with open arms and returning home to seek sanctuary and respite, Jesus essentially, accuses them of being on the side of Satan rather than the side of God. It’s enough to make any parent wring their hands in frustration.
In order to hear what our Savior is really saying, and in the hope of unraveling at least a little of the tangled confusion resulting from the Messiah’s words, it’s important to understand some of what Jesus is not implying in his rather terse response to Mary and his siblings. Jesus is not saying that he does not love Mary and his other family members. Instead, he is declaring a rearrangement (a realignment, if you will) in the order of his relationships, and as a result of this, he is implying that we (you and I) should consider a rearrangement in our order of relationships as well.
Take a moment to consider the variety of relationships in your own life. For myself, I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, an aunt and a mother. I’m also a priest, rector of this church, a neighbor, a citizen and (I hope) a friend to many. Yet all of these relational definitions are secondary to one primary relationship in my life that over-arches all of the others. I am a child of God and a follower of Jesus Christ. And it’s this relationship that takes priority over, and enables me to define all of the other relationships in my life. I am a child of God. You are a child of God. Knowing first, that we are children of God reminds us of how we should prioritize everything else. So, after we have established a sense of order—what then? What do we do? How, from a practical point of view, shall we live?
Here’s another way of thinking about what our Savior is saying: Family, in the Gospel sense of the word, is not defined by genetics, it’s defined by “doing the will of God.” In other words, it’s not “who you are” that gets you a seat at the family’s table, it’s by recognizing and accepting what Christ as done for you, and then living a Gospel life that makes you a member of the family of God.
Consider our Baptismal Covenant. The first three questions are about belief. They reflect on the nature of God. God as Father, God as Son and God as Holy Spirit. The next five questions, however, deal with the practicalities of how you live your life—and their verbs are particularly interesting. We are to continue in an active life of worship; persevere in resisting evil; proclaim the Gospel, seek and serve our neighbors and strive for justice and peace. In other words, being a Christian isn’t simply about what you believe—it’s about what you do. It’s about how you live your life. James, Mary and an assortment of cousins might share a good amount of DNA, but in Jesus’ mind, that’s not what makes them family.
There’s good news here. What this means, is that Jesus has thrown open the door to the concept of family. He isn’t rejecting the notion of family; instead he is reframing and redefining it. Everyone who recognizes who Jesus is and does the will of God is family.
The funeral of Emperor Franz-Joseph I of Austria helps illuminate this point. In 1916 Emperor Franz-died. He was a member of the Hapsburg dynasty—a family which had ruled much of Europe for more than 600 years. At his burial a procession of dignitaries and elegantly dressed mourners escorted his coffin. A military band played somber music as the torch-lit procession made its way down winding narrow stairs into the catacombs beneath the Capuchin Monastery in Vienna. At the bottom of the stairs were great iron doors leading to the Hapsburg family crypt. Behind the door stood the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna. The Commanding Officer rapped on the door and cried out. “Open!” The Archbishop replied, “Who goes there?” “We bear the remains of his Imperial and Apostolic Majesty, Franz-Josef I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Defender of the Faith, Prince of Bohemia-Moravia, Grand-Duke of Lombardy….” And so it went, through the entire litany of his 37 titles. “We know him not,” the Cardinal said. “Who goes there?” The officer spoke again, using the informal title, “We bear the remains of Emperor Franz-Josef I of the Hapsburg line.” We know him not.” The Cardinal said again. “Who goes there?” This time the officer replied, “We bear the body of Franz-Josef, our brother, a sinner like all of us.” And at that, the doors swung open and Franz-Josef was welcomed home.
In the end, while what we do is important….it’s what Christ has done for us that makes all the difference. Whoever else you may be, whatever relationships you may have in your life, there is one title, one relationship that can never be taken from you. Once baptized, you are always a child of God, born out of the waters of baptism, and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever. No matter who you are, no matter what titles you bear, which part of the glove or whatever side of the tracks from which you hail, you are at home in the family and kingdom of God; for all who do the will of God are children of God, heirs with Christ and members of God’s family. In Jesus’ name. Amen.