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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He is recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Why Jesus? Part 4: Jesus the Home Wrecker

Mark 3:31-35

Proper 5 (10) - Year B

October 24, 2010

"Your mother and your brothers are outside waiting on you, calling for you," one of the disciples said to Jesus. 

"Who is my mother and who are my brothers?" Jesus replied. "Any one who does my will, anybody who gets on board with my movement, that's my family," said Jesus. 

Jesus has some strange ideas about family.

When you join a fraternity, they give you a pin and a secret handshake. But when you join on with Jesus and join the church, you get stripped naked, thrown into the pool, washed, half drowned, and required to revert and be born again. Now what does that tell you?

To those who took comfort in the old order, boasting of their memberships in God's chosen people saying, "My family founded this church" or, "I'm not very religious but I'm really, really spiritual," John the Baptist sneered, "Don't say to yourselves 'I'm a dues-paying member! I've got Abraham and Sarah as my parents!' God can raise up a family from the stones in this river if God's people won't turn, return, be washed, and get with the revolution!"[i]

God is determined to have a family. But in order to join a new family, one must detach from the old. Membership in God's kingdom is a joyful thing, but it also involves some relinquishment.

Look, hey, I love my family. I mean, why shouldn't I? They all look just like me. But I'm sorry to tell you that "family values" was not really a Jesus' thing. We know all about the prophet Mohammed's kin; we know next to nothing about the family of Jesus. Mark says that Jesus had a number of brothers and sisters, but what do we know about them? Jesus' family plays a remarkably negligible role in his story.

And in his ministry, Jesus thought nothing of destroying a family business with a terse, "Follow me," demanding that these fishermen abandon their aging father in the boat and join Jesus as he wandered about with his buddies.[ii] Jesus' invitation to hit the road broke the hearts of many first-century parents who were counting on the kids for help in their old age.

"I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother," Jesus threatened.[iii] "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, can't be my disciple."[iv] That's a text rarely used by the church on Mother's Day.

"Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you," someone said. Jesus replied, "Who? Anyone who does my will is my family."[v] "I'll follow you," a man said to him, "only first let me go give my recently deceased father a decent burial." 

"Let the dead bury the dead!" replied Jesus. "Follow me and let somebody else do the funeral!"

Wow! To be fair, Jesus seems no more antipathetic toward family than he is toward money or success or government officials or religious authorities. In Jesus, everything is subordinated to his mission; nothing is more important than obedience to his heavenly Father. Still, isn't it interesting that Jesus appears to devalue that which we consider so valuable?

There was a day when Christmas greeting cards routinely displayed pictures of the baby Jesus in the manger and Joseph and Mary standing close by. Now, our Christmas cards feature OUR smiling families on the slopes at Vail. The family has become the center of our adulation, the most important of all human gatherings.

Why, Jesus? Why were you so cool toward family, sexuality, romantic attachments, all which preoccupy us?

The gospels tell the story that the chief focus of Jesus' mission was to reconstitute the scattered lost sheep of Israel. Jesus left his biological family in order to form a new family based not on genetic kinship--that is, the way we make family--but rather upon the gracious, barrier-breaking summons of God. Jesus got into trouble for practicing a scandalously open-handed table fellowship, calling the lost and orphaned back home. "This man eats and drinks with SINNERS! That's one of the earliest and most persistent claims against Jesus. Even as he was dying in agony on the cross--a gruesome form of punishment that Romans enjoyed applying to difficult-to-manage Jews--Jesus invited an outcast, a somewhat repentant thief, to join him and his family in paradise.[vi] In all these actions and in his stories of seeking the Lost Sheep and seeking the Lost Coin and the Lost Boy,[vii] Jesus is forming a new family composed of those who had difficulty fitting in with their human families.

Your human family, for any of its virtues, is just too small, too closely circumscribed. As a pastor, I spend much of my time in pastoral counseling helping people get over the damage done to them in their family.

Thus, when someone steps up and answers Jesus' call to follow him, the church washes that person in water--baptism--which says, among other things, that the person has been reborn, started over, and has been adopted into a new God-formed family. It is as if the person gets a new name, "Christian," that takes precedence over that person's family name. It is as if the person has already died to old attachments and former relationships and has already been raised to new life. And the church is that fresh, new family that is composed of those who have heard Jesus' "Follow me" and have stepped forward and said "Yes." The chief act of Christian worship isn't some mysterious, dark, esoteric rite. It's a family meal with everyone around the table, the Sunday dinner that we call the Lord's Supper, family as God intended family to be.

Thus, when parents bring a child forward for baptism, Christian initiation, the pastor takes the child from them and says, in effect, "You are two wonderful people, but you are not knowledgeable enough, not skilled enough on your own, to raise a Christian.  Therefore, we'll adopt your child, we'll take responsibility for this baby, we will help you raise a Christian."

In a world of grandparents without grandchildren close by, and single-parent families, and grandchildren growing up without grandparents, and marriages under stress, you need a bigger family than the one you were born into. You must be born again into a new, far flung family, a family as large as the love of God in Jesus Christ.

What do you have to do to be credibly called a Christian, a contemporary follower of Jesus? Well, you must be willing to be baptized, that is, to be adopted by a new, far-flung, barrier-breaking family, the church. You must be disposed to let go of your innate American rugged individualism and be subsumed in a family bigger and more demanding than the one into which you were born. You must join us at the table, addressing some of the most sinful, often difficult-to-bear rascals as "brother" or "sister," just because Jesus loves them to death.

So you can see why, when the Jesus movement got going as the church, baptism became the radical rite of Christian initiation. Baptism not only signified everything that water means-cleansing and birth, and death and refreshment, renewal, life--but baptism also meant adoption.[viii] As John the Baptizer said, "God is going to have a family, even if God has to raise a people out of the rocks in this river. To become a Christian, to have your life taken over by Jesus, is to be joined into a family, a people convened by "water and the Spirit,"[ix] a family bigger and better than your biological family, a worldwide, barrier-breaking family that goes by the name, "body of Christ."

I was pleased that our church responded to the suffering victims of hurricane Katrina, sending money and rebuilding homes and staying there long after many other relief agencies had left. But, of course, the victims of Katrina were Americans, people who looked and talked fairly much like us.

But I'll tell you, I was even more delighted that when the earth shook and the buildings fell in Haiti that we sent tons of supplies, water treatment systems, and medical supplies, along with money. Why? Because Jesus has made them part of God's family and has by his love transformed us from being strangers into being sisters or brothers.

On Good Friday, as Jesus hung on the cross, he performed an amazing last act of invitation and adoption. Having been deserted by most of his family, the crucified Jesus, in a last, wild, desperate act of inclusion, invited a thief to join him in paradise--a stunningly defiant rebuke to the ways the world gathers people. Only a Savior like Jesus would parade into Paradise arm-in-arm with a criminal, some great trophy for his painful rescue operation for humanity. Well, today, every time the family of God gathers for Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper or a covered-dish fellowship supper or serves up soup to the homeless on the street corner, the world looks at this odd family and says, "Jesus is hanging out with the same reprobates that got him crucified."

And we say, "Thank God."

Let us pray. 

Lord Jesus, by your grace bring us into your big family. Help us to feel part of the family. Help us to see all people as brothers and sisters in your family. In the name of one who was crucified for hanging out with people like us, we pray. Amen.

 


[i] the revolution! Luke 3:8-9, paraphrased.

[ii] with his buddies. Matthew 4:19.

[iii] he threatened. Matthew 10:35.

[iv] be my disciple. Luke 14:26.

[v] is my family. Mark 3:32-35, paraphrased.

[vi] In paradise. Luke 23:43.

[vii] the lost boy, Luke 14.

[viii] meant adoption. Galatians 4:5.

[ix] water and Spirit, John 3:5.

 


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