A Sermon preached for the Second Week after Pentecost Year B (Proper 5B/Ordinary 10B/Pentecost 3) on Mark 3:20-35 for Preston High Street Uniting Church
What is your story? Where do you come from, who are you, what do you most desire from life?
It’s a big, difficult question, and a hard one to answer. But for a lot of people the answer is tied up in stories about our families.
It’s a complex thing though isn’t it? There are a lot of broken families in our world, and a lot of families which really don’t live up to the hype.
Family defines us, frames our own personal stories. We yearn for somewhere to be fully at home in the world, and with people who know us and love us for who we are. A shelter against a world which already felt threatening before Coronavirus amplified the sense of danger and locked us all in our homes for days, weeks, even months, on end.
But the spiralling family violence numbers resulting from lockdown suggests that for many people the reality of family life is completely different to its image.
Can the actual reality of family life support the expectations we place on it? And what does Jesus have to say about this complex reality of “family”?
Our culture, I think, is in a strange place with family. Family is much talked about, much praised, and carries high expectations. At the same time the way we actually live – working harder, distant from our families, marrying less and having fewer children – makes actual family life harder than it has ever been.
In theory our culture is very very pro-family. Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, the high expectations around Christmas and Easter family gatherings, and so on and so on – they are a powerful force in our society.
Anne loves Masterchef, and so I too find myself watching quite a lot of it. At one level, I really don’t get it: all that food, none of it for me! But it is interesting as a cultural phenomenon. Not least because of about the role of family. Every episode seems to have a story about one of the contestant’s families – either the partner and children who the contestant is missing, or the Nonna who taught them how to make this particular food from the Old Country.
Stories of the contestants families give them substance, give us a sense of who they are, and help us care about their struggles to produce a perfect meal for the judges. It frames their stories of themselves, which give us a sense of what it means for them to produce “me on a plate.”
It’s often family which is used to illustrate the cook’s motivation, rather than, say, a dream of opening a restaurant serving cupcakes or whatever.
A lot of hope and sense of identity is bound up in family – which makes me wonder whether any actual family can bear the weight of expectation being placed on it.
If we transpose our thinking to the non-Modern or non-Western world, families are valued even more highly. For us family formation is a choice. In the ancient world it was more like a matter of life and death. Families formed networks of practical support in the complete absence of any state support. In a world where legal rights were far from secure, especially for the poor, the question of “who can I trust” was answered, generally, by: family, tribe, and nation in that order.
Think of the story of Jesus calling Simon Peter and Andrew, his first disciples, who immediately left their nets and their fishing boats and their families and followed Jesus. That must have significantly added to the difficulty of scraping a living from fishing for their family. Fewer people to fish, to repair the boats, to take the catch to market – but no reduction in the number of dependants. There was, after all, no JobKeeper in the ancient world, no social welfare safety net. Think of the widow at the temple who gave two small coins, all she had to live on.
We put a lot of emotional loading on family, and, in a lot of cases, do provide practical support – I think, for example, of a friend of mine who has returned from Darwin to Melbourne to support her sister. But the degree of interdependence within a family in the Ancient World was vastly greater than in ours.
So, when Jesus’ mother and brother and sisters come to fetch him back home, it was a big deal. They came because they had heard that “he has gone out of his mind” – he is beside himself, he is not the same man he was.
Mark structures this story in a complex way – what scholars like to refer to as a Markan Sandwich. The setting is Capernaum where Jesus has made his home. Crowds gather around him for his healing and teaching.
It’s into this chaotic environment Jesus’ family arrive, having come down from Nazareth to fetch him home.
Then the Scribes – the experts in the Torah from Jerusalem, who had presumably heard much the same thing as Jesus’ parents, get stuck in. The arrival of the Scribes is evidence of the impact that he was making – they wouldn’t have made the trip form Jerusalem out into the back blocks of Galilee without a good reason.
They say something equivalent to: This Jesus bloke – he must be possessed by the devil!
Jesus then makes a fairly complex point, which could be expressed something like this: if the devil is fighting against the devil, then the devil’s rule is imminently about to collapse. Obviously this is a rhetorical point – Jesus does not at all work for the devil. It’s a sort of joke, to expose the ridiculousness of what they are saying.
He goes on to make two more serious points.
Firstly: no-one can rob a strong man’s house without going in and tying him up first. Afterwards, you can help yourself to his loot. In this metaphor, the “strong man” is the devil – the one who rules this world, the one who is totally opposed to God. A powerful and terrifying figure. But Jesus is stronger than the strongest devil and has defeated him. So now his house can be looted at will.
To put it another way, the rule of the devil is over. Jesus has defeated it, and the healings that he is performing are the evidence of that colossal fact.
The kingdom of this world is over: the Kingdom of God is at hand.
The second point is more serious still. To misname the coming rule of God as the rule of the devil is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, which he says is an “eternal” sin.
This idea has caused a lot of angst in believers over the years, so it is worth pausing for a moment to explore it.
What is the sin against the Holy Spirit, and why is it so serious? After all, one wouldn’t want to inadvertently commit it and find there was no going back.
Let’s start with the word “eternal.” Here means something like “on-going.” It isn’t something you do once and then regret, like snapping at a shop assistant. It’s more like a state you are in. So it isn’t something which you might inadvertently do, which is a relief.
The context makes it clear that the sin has something to do with seeing what God is doing and rejecting it- allying yourself with all that is opposed to God. Of course, the entire point of the idea of sin is that this is something we all do, all the time: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, as the Apostle Paul wrote.
What does it mean to be forgiven for our sins? In Christian terms, forgiveness is offered by God, through Jesus Christ. A shorthand way of thinking of this is that Jesus is God’s forgiveness. Can one receive forgiveness by rejecting God’s forgiveness? It’s an incoherent statement. If you’re in an ongoing state of rejecting God’s forgiveness you cannot, at that same moment, receive God’s forgiveness. Repentance isn’t something God wants as the price of forgiveness – it is a description of what receiving forgiveness actually is.
So, the take home message from this is that you won’t inadvertently fall into the sin against the Holy Spirit, and, more generally, if you are willing to receive God’s forgiveness, then it is available to you.
This stark warning is also, it turns out, a disclosure of who Jesus actually is. The very power and forgiveness of God.
The scene then turns back to Jesus’ family, trying to get Jesus to come home. The crowd says: “your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you.”
In its way, what comes next is as shocking as what he said to the Scribes.
Jesus replies: “Who are my mother and my brothers? You people are: you are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
The disciples are, in short, a new family, one which relativises one’s birth family, reduces it to secondary importance.
Even now that is pretty shocking – you’re saying that faith is more important than my relationship with my family? – and it would have been even more shocking in the first century.
It’s shocking, but there is a certain relief to it as well. No family can bear the weight of expectation it is expected to bear in our world. Just like no partner can be everything to you, neither can a family. We are tempted to make family an ultimate value – to put it in God’s place. But if anything other than God tries to take God’s place, it will go sour. No idols we create can replace God.
For those of us with more complex relationships with our families, or without close family at all, this is a profoundly encouraging truth. Our fundamental home, the place where we really and truly belong, is as a child of God – the mother, brother, sister of Jesus.
The consequence of this for us as church is also profound. We should be like a family to one another. What exactly this means in terms of practical and emotional help and support is secondary to this: we belong together, whatever our birth-family. Our fundament loyalty to the Gospel – to being people who do the will of God, which includes being people who recognise God’s action in the world for what it is, and who accept the forgiveness offered by God through Jesus – binds us together.
What is striking for me about Masterchef is the way people use their families as their framing stories – the story which explains who they are, where they come from, where they are going, and what they desire.
For us, as Christians, our families are still important. Scripture is full of encouragement to families. Many of us will have responsibilities to our families. But they can’t be the ultimate reality of our lives. They don’t provide the fundamental framing story of who we are, and what we desire.
The Gospel itself – the Good News about Jesus of Nazareth, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension – and the forgiveness which opens our way into it – is our fundamental story. Our small stories are brought into God’s big story of God’s ongoing work in the world.
So, in conclusion, a question for you: what does it mean to you to know yourself as Jesus’ family – his mother, brother, or sister. How does it affect your fundamental story of who you are in the world?