The Family We Choose

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 4, 2016
Taken from Mark 3: 19b-21, 31-35


The Smothers Brothers provide some of my best memories of TV from the late 1960s and early 70s.  Tom and Dick Smothers were a comedy folk-music duo, and they were actual brothers.  Tommy played guitar; Dickie played the upright bass.  Dickie was confident and articulate.  Tommy was uncertain of himself, easily flustered, but most of all, Tommy was a prankster.

They’d begin their routine by playing traditional folk ballads.  Without fail, a couple of songs in, Tommy would start slipping in some new words to throw off Dickie.  Dickie would stop, and with great disdain, ask Tommy, “What do you think you’re doing?”  Tommy would try to be sly and funny, but Dickie wouldn’t let Tommy get away with anything.

Dickie would just keep badgering Tommy. Why had he thrown in those new words?  What did he mean to say?  How did he think that made Dickie feel? And on and on he’d hammer away until he had Tommy backed into a corner.

Finally, Tommy would angrily strike out, “Oh, yeah?  Well, Mom always liked you best!”  And Dickie would strike right back, “That’s right, Tommy!  And you know why?  You know why Mom liked me best?  It’s because of stuff just like this!”  That would be the end of that little spat.

They would start singing another song until Tommy couldn’t help himself, and he’d sing or say something that would set Dickie off again.

I suppose in every sibling rivalry there always comes that awful suspicion that your parents like your brother or your sister better than they like you.  Well, imagine that sibling rivalry when your older brother is Jesus, the Christ!  You couldn’t even use the most basic retort: “Oh, yeah, like you’re so perfect!”  Because, he was.

Jesus had siblings, brothers and sisters.  Mark here in chapter 3 mentions Jesus’ brothers.  Later on in chapter 6, Mark adds that Jesus had sisters. (Mark 6:3).  There was sibling rivalry.  John chapter 7, verses 1-9, describe an incident when Jesus’ brothers actually start taunting their older brother about his ministry.

Later generations in the church will argue over whether these other children were born to Mary or if they were Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage.  But that was not the Gospel writers’ concern.

Their point was simply to let us know that Jesus came from a large family; that he had brothers and sisters.  And, at some point, Jesus took the surprising step of leaving his family.  It was surprising, and it was contrary to what was expected of him in that time and place as the elder brother.

By this time, Joseph is probably dead.  Jesus is the eldest son.  He is responsible for the care of his widowed mother and his family.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  He left behind his family to become an itinerant preacher.

These verses in Mark chapter 3 illustrate just how baffled Jesus’ family has become over his behavior.  These are the early days of Jesus’ public ministry.  He is stirring up the crowds with his preaching and with his inexplicable power of healing.  The religious authorities have begun to denounce him as being possessed of the devil. (Mark 3:22).

Jesus’ brothers decide they must intervene; clearly, something has gone terribly wrong with their older brother.  They must take the difficult step of pulling Jesus back into their care, for his own good, for the sake of the family, for the sake of their mother, Mary.

But Jesus will have no part of it.  More than that, he publicly renounces them as his family.  Jesus is in this house, jammed full with the Twelve Disciples and with as many other people as could squeeze in around them.  The crowd standing outside the house yell to the crowd packed inside the house, “Tell Jesus, ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.’

That’s when Jesus makes the break with Mary and his brothers and sisters.  He replies, basically saying, “I don’t know who those people out there may be because,” and he pauses to look around him, “here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  What a truly bizarre thing for Jesus to say.

Mark recounts this painful incident where Jesus breaks with his own family, why?  Well, he’s sure not doing it to offer us ‘Four Steps to Improving Family Communication’ or some such family-enrichment sermon.  This is not a “fix your family” text.

Instead, Mark in this text and the one just before it conveys to us how Jesus radically redefined and expanded the boundaries of what it means to be the people of God.

Now, I’m just gonna do a quick download of Bible information.  We don’t want to rush the Lord’s Supper this morning.  But there’s something I want to point out that you have done, and it’s going to take a little more background, so I’m just going to lay it out there in summary fashion.

Before this incident between Jesus and his family, Jesus goes up on a mountain and appoints the Twelve Apostles.  The Twelve are to be with Jesus, to learn and witness of all that Jesus will say and do, and then Jesus is going to send them out with his authority to preach and to heal.

Why go up on a mountain to appoint the Twelve?  Why not appoint them down by the Sea of Galilee?  Does it matter that Jesus went up on a mountain?  Does it matter that Jesus chose twelve?  Why not ten or thirteen or nine Apostles?

Jesus goes up on a mountain for this reason: long ago, when God made covenant with the Israelites, God called Moses to go up on a mountain to get the terms of that covenant.  We know them as the Ten Commandments, basically.

God, now in Jesus, was redefining that covenant; that’s the religious significance Jesus going up on top a mountain to appoint the Twelve.  He’s mirroring Moses on Mt. Sinai.  So, that’s quick Bible download #1.

Quick Bible download #2 is why Jesus chooses Twelve apostles and not ten or thirteen or any other number.  Jesus does that to mirror the twelve tribal patriarchs, the twelve sons of Jacob.  Participating in God’s revised Covenant is no longer based on the Patriarchs; it’s based on Jesus.  It’s based on hearing and believing the teaching that will be conveyed through the Twelve Apostles.  That’s what we understand to be our twenty-seven books we call the New Testament.

Can any of us trace our physical lineage back to one of the Twelve Apostles?  No, we cannot.  And, it doesn’t matter.  The Christian faith is not a patriarchal faith.  The Christian faith is a testimonial faith.

Let me say that again:  the Christian faith is a testimonial faith.  It is the testimony of this present generation of believers, based on the testimony of an earlier generation of believers, all the way back to the testimonies of these twelve whom Jesus chose that day up on that mountain.

To make sure you and I get that message, Mark then immediately turns to describe this incident with Jesus’ natural family.  Jesus explicitly rejects the notion of any relationship to him based on the physical descent of patriarchy.  For Jesus, who are the members of his family?  It’s not his brothers and sisters by way of Joseph; it’s not by his mother, Mary.  It’s the new, faith family gathered around Jesus.

Now, notice something here with me in verse 35.  Jesus looks around and says, whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.  Well, that’s fine, but someone’s missing?  The father’s missing.  Jesus mentions a mother, but there’s no father in the group of men and women.

In that day and time, who’s in charge if the father’s absent?  The elder brother.  So, where’s the elder brother in this new family that Jesus describes in verse 35?  Somebody’s got to be the elder brother.

There are no elder brothers, plural, in the family of Christ, because Jesus does not delegate that title to anyone.  Jesus alone gets to be elder brother in this faith family.  Who is the father in the family of Christ?  There are no fathers, plural, in the family of Christ because we are taught God alone is our Father.

These two texts describe the foundational moments when Jesus lays out the basis for his community.  It is a covenantal community no longer based on patriarchal lineage but based instead on testimonial lineage.  We belong to this family of God, based on our testimony of our personal experience with Jesus Christ and on nothing else.

In other words, the community of Jesus is a family where no one gets “to wear the pants in the family”…all family members are on equal standing; gender does not signify authority; it only signifies gender.  There are no ruling fathers or elder brothers in the community of Christ.

Now, finally, I can get around to talking with you about what you are doing, first by observing what you have done in the past: you have welcomed women into the ordained ministry of this church as deacons.  You have ordained women to the vocational Gospel ministry and sent them out to serve in various places.

This seems like no particularly exceptional thing for you to do, which is as it should be.  The fact these are ordained women means only that: they are deacons or ordained clergy who are women.  We can discuss their gifts, their skills, their experience, but gender is no longer part of the conversation at University Baptist.

You now have an active Senior Minister Search Committee.  You have told them, go find the right person for this congregation.  The right person whom God calls and whose call you, in turn, recognize…that call you will know by their gifts, their education and skills, their testimony, and their experience as an ordained clergy person.  But what about their gender?

What are your expectations of the next Senior Minister’s gender?  I am not in the position to tell you the “should” or the “should not”, of that person’s gender.  But I do want to lay before you the implications of Jesus’ teaching as it applies to gender-specific roles within the community of Christ.  Which is, as I read it, there are no gender-specific roles.

What I say next, I say only out of my own guessing, and nothing else.  At this juncture in the interim, I feel like I should point something out.  If I had to guess, I would say the unspoken assumption among most of us is that the next Senior Minister will be a man.  That’s only my guess.

If that’s true for you personally, that the next Senior Minister must be a man, at least articulate that expectation to yourself and examine it.

Examine your own gender assumption in the light of this church’s practice of ordaining women.  Examine your assumption in the light of how Jesus chose his family of faith.

This congregation’s next Senior Minister may indeed be a man and perhaps should be a man.  But, it is equally true, the next Senior Minister may be a woman and should be a woman, perhaps.

Wow.  That’s something to think about, and to pray on, to prepare yourselves to examine whomever, based on their calling, and gifting, and experience, and all the rest that has nothing at all to do with gender.