Seeing Family Anew

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
Matthew 12: 46-50

While an intern at Duke Chapel, this passage of scripture was the assigned gospel reading one beautiful autumn Sunday. Interestingly it was not just any autumn Sunday. I remember that Sunday clearly, because Dean Will Willimon—now United Methodist Bishop of the North Alabama Annual Conference—commented on the providence or mischievousness of this Matthew lectionary reading and Duke’s family weekend falling on the same day. This, as you might imagine, was not exactly the text most parents who had driven hundreds or thousands of miles to share in a weekend with their child hoped to hear as they gather for worship in the University’s chapel. Nevertheless, it was the assigned text. And, as a faithful lectionary preacher, Dean Willimon proceeded to analyze the text and consider how the coincidence of that Sunday’s text reminds us of the gospel’s often inconvenient intrusion into our lives.

Regularly, the tenor of the whole gospel, much like the tenor of this text, is intrusive. We have things just so, and, then, here comes the gospel.

The gospel is not always received as good news by everyone. Frequently, the good news of the gospel is difficult news to receive because it turns upon their heads all sorts of expectations. The blind are to see. The captives set free. The oppressed are to be liberated. The rich must give away everything. The poor inherit the kingdom. The temple is torn down and rebuilt around a people. Empires are disempowered. The marginalized are invited in. The whole gospel is about social, religious, personal, institutional, and political transformation. And, as this text confirms, nothing is off limits to the transformative reach of the gospel, not even the sacred territory of home and hearth.

Here, Jesus, resisting the temptation of his family to “just calm down and be a little more reasonable,” not only rejects their cautioning but rejects them, too. His quick outburst serves as notice that even the bonds of family will be challenged and strained by the expectations of the gospel. Consider these verses from Luke’s gospel where Jesus is describing the characteristics of the kingdom:
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
“father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke12:51-53)

With everything shaken up, this new community of church is meant to become the defining, central social organization of his new kingdom.

And, it is a community not predicted by the old bonds of obligation and kin and blood. Rather, this new community is defined by love and kingship and water. The old adage that blood is thicker than water is inverted as the water of baptism erases divisions stained in blood. The waters of baptism become a radical washing away and remaking of everything, including faith and family. I think it no accident that some of the Apostle Paul’s favorite descriptions of the gospel are about adoption and the elimination of social, political, and economic barriers within God’s resurgent kingdom. I think about those eliminated barriers and the new communities, families created through water every day.

Each morning when our daughter calls for my wife or for me, I am reminded how the gospel is no respecter of biological bonds, and that family, in God’s kingdom, is primarily a relational category. When my wife and I married, we were determined that we would find a child who needed a home. When a pregnant 16 year-old and her family arrived at my wife’s church nearly four years ago, we instinctively knew what our response must be. Of course, we worried about lots of issues surrounding adoption but decided that families are constructed of love not DNA. Moreover, as we strove to be faithful practitioners in God’s water-washed kingdom, we needed to let our concerns wash away, too. We knew that if any of us are to be a kingdom people, then sacrificial love must be at the core of who we are, of our church communities, and of our homes. That included our home. So, we said “yes” to a young girl and her baby, transforming two ministers into one family.

The decision was not an easy one. But it was one that felt “second nature” when we made it. It felt like second nature because we had read the stories many times and seen first-hand through the countless lives we encountered in the various communities of faith we served that sacrificial love is a life-transforming, community-building act. We wanted to share, in our small way, in contributing to a world reflective of such love and possibility.

I share this story not because my wife and I are some super-Christians or award-winning examples of parenthood. In many ways, we are neither. Rather, I share this story because I hope in some useful way it demonstrates how the transformative narrative of the gospel finds expression in concrete, life-altering, real ways. We are different because of it. Our family exists because of it. Our communities might be different, differently organized, sacrificially bound, and radically renewed when such love of God and neighbor is not just seen as a nice idea but is embodied in thought, word, and deed. The good and terrifying news of the gospel is that we are expected to enact Jesus’ socially, religiously, personally, institutionally, and politically transformative words. It will not be easy, and it will require sacrifice. Such sacrifice is always more readily accomplished when shared with friends, with a community, with a family willing to risk sacrifice and distribute the burden together.

This weekend is YHC’s family weekend. Families are vital in shaping who we are and who we must become. Also, families come in many configurations. Each configuration’s potency is not determined by origin but by intent. May this family called Young Harris intend to be such a place where a kingdom of love is manifest and a new community of shared transformation is embraced.

Have a wonderful week, brothers and sisters.

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