"The Unexpected Family of Jesus"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts October 22, 2006
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Luke 8:19-21
Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you." But he said to them, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it."
What Identifies You?
I want to begin today with some simple questions: What identifies you? What gives you your fundamental sense of self? What tells you who you really are?
Could it be your family? For most of the world, and throughout most of human history, families are a primary means of self-definition. The question "Who are you?" would be answered with something like, "I'm William's son" or "I'm a member of the Williamson family." (In Armenian, "ian" means "son of." So Tim Avazian is in the family of Avaz.)
Yet in contemporary American society, family is not nearly so important for many people. What else tells you who you are? Perhaps it's your friends, the people with whom you hang out and who let you know that you belong.
Or maybe you identify yourself by your school, the one you attend now, or the one from which you graduated. You might answer the "Who are you?" question with "I'm a student at Woodbridge High School." Or "I'm a Trojan." Or "I'm a Bruin."
Some of us are defined by our possessions. We purchase jeans, cars, shoes, even cell phones to tell people who we are. A friend of mine admits that his family really needs a minivan, but, he adds, "I could never drive one of those things. I just don't want to be a van kind of person." So he spends more money than he needs to for a less practical but much more hip SUV because he likes the statement it makes about his identity.
Maybe you get your basic identity from your favorite activities. You see yourself as a surfer, or a skater, or a golfer, or a "hang out at Diedrich's" sort of person.
In our culture, often the most significant determiner of identity is our work. When you meet somebody new, odds are that within seconds you're exchanging job titles. Who am I, really? I'm a pastor, or a writer, or a lawyer, or a teacher, or a "stay-at-home-mom who used to be in real estate" or. . . you can fill in the blank. Who you are is what you do for a living.
The Role of Family in the Time of Jesus
In the time of Jesus, two things helped Jewish people know who they were. First, they were Jews, members of God's chosen people. They were children of Abraham and Sarah, inheritors of the covenant. As Jews they circumcised their baby boys, kept the Sabbath, and honored the law. They offered sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem and celebrated the sacred holidays. All of these actions confirmed their fundamental identity as Jews.
The second most important defining characteristic of Jews in the time of Jesus was family. They belonged, not only to a nuclear family, but also to an extended family that gave them their place in the world. It's no coincidence that two of the gospels, including Luke, provide genealogies that spell out Jesus's family location. And it makes perfect sense that one of the toughest things about following the itinerant Jesus was the requirement to leave one's family (Luke 9:57-62; 18:28-30). For Jews in the first century A.D., family was everything. It was the primary context in which one lived out one's identity as a Jew, indeed, as a human being. Family told you who you are.
The Surprising Family of Jesus
Thus what happened in Luke 8:19-21 must have been shocking to those who were present there. Jesus had been teaching in the villages of Galilee, moving from place to place with His good news of the kingdom of God. In one unidentified location a large crowd had gathered around Jesus, when all of a sudden His mother and brothers showed up. It's likely that they were unexpected.
The crowd passed on the word of Jesus's special visitors. "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you," the crowd said (v. 20). No doubt they expected to witness some warm family reunion. "Send them right in," was the reply they would have anticipated. But instead Jesus did a very odd thing. He seized what we call a teachable moment, replying to the crowd, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (v. 21).
Luke doesn't tell us how the crowd reacted. It's not hard to envision their first response, however . . . shock, amazement, perplexity. Remember what family meant to Jews in the time of Jesus. It was crucial to their identity, to their sense of well-being. Yet, not only did Jesus not rush to welcome His family, but also He had the audacity to suggest that His natural family wasn't His primary source of identity and fellowship. For Jesus, the family that really counted was the collection of people committed to hearing and doing God's will. Jesus's true "mother and brothers" were those who heard His proclamation of the kingdom and responded by living in a new way, with new priorities, new values, and a new identity in His new community.
I wouldn't be surprised if some of those in the crowd that day decided then and there that Jesus was for the birds. They weren't going to follow somebody who didn't even respect His mother, for God's sake. But I expect that others in the crowd, after they got over their shock, began to think about the implications of Jesus's statement. Can't you just hear some of the disciples murmuring to each other: "Hey! We're hearing the word of God preached by Jesus. And we're trying to do it. We're following Him, even leaving our own families to do so. So do you know what this means? We're not just the disciples of Jesus. We're His family! We're His brothers and sisters! We matter to Him most of all!"
Adoption into the Family of Jesus
In Luke 8 Jesus doesn't explain how one gets into His family. Rather He focuses on how His relatives act in the world. They're ones who hear and respond to God's word. Other passages of the New Testament make clear the way into the divine family. Christ's death on the cross makes possible, not only our salvation, but also our adoption as children of God (for example, Gal 4:4-7). We enter the family of Jesus on the basis of His sacrifice, when we hear the good news of God and receive this good news in faith. We don't earn our place in God's family. It's a gift of grace.
I've just seen a touching example of this kind of grace in the life of my natural family. Last week my sister and brother-in-law adopted a new baby. This was an especially wonderful event because four months ago they went through the heartache of having a birth mother take back a baby even after they held this baby, believing that it was theirs. But now Julie, Jay, and their son Declan have a new member of their family, Brody Roberts Sanders.
Brody, who is now 8 days old, didn't do anything to earn his adoption. He's already dearly loved by my sister and the rest of our family, yet he's done little more than eat, sleep, cry, and use up a bunch of Pampers. Brody is now a member of my extended family every bit as much as I am, and it has nothing to do with his own effort. Rather, it has everything to do with the gracious decision of my sister and her husband to adopt him. And, as they would tell you, it has everything to do with God's grace in their lives. Adoption can be one of the most grace-filled experiences of life.
So, even has Brody belongs to Julie, Jay, Declan, and the rest of us because of His adoption, so you belong to Jesus as an adopted child of His Heavenly Father. And, therefore, you are also a member of God's extended family, the family of Jesus.
More Than Just Theology
I realize that this might sound like the sort of thing you hear in church that doesn't impact your daily life. But, in fact, what I've just said about the family of Jesus is one of the most transformational truths you'll ever hear. It can, and indeed, it should, change your life, and my life, and our fellowship as a church, and our mission in the world. Let me spell out some of these implications.
You're a Member of Jesus's Family
My friends, I don't know if you've ever thought about this before, but if you have put your faith in Jesus, then you are in His family. You are His brother or His sister. And He prizes this relationship with you more than you might ever have imagined.
How you receive this news has a lot to do with your own sense of identity and belonging. If you have a strong connection to your natural family, for example, at first you might not feel the impact of your adoption by God. But if you're the sort of person who often feels on the outs, if you're not quite sure who you are or where you belong, if you're looking for your identity, trying to find your place in the world, then your being a member of the family of Jesus might be the best news you've heard in a long time, maybe the best news ever. Now you have a place you can call home. Now you have people you can call your folks. You aren't alone anymore in this world. You have a namecard at the table of the family of Jesus.
Living It Out
This is a theological reality that God intends for us to experience in real time, down-to-earth relationships. The church is meant to be the tangible expression of this familial theology. Here is where we share life together as brothers and sisters in Jesus's family. And how do we do this? By hearing and doing the word of God. By putting into practice the teaching of Jesus, especially that which relates to how we treat each other.
This means the church should be a family where you give and receive love. The church should be a family where you forgive seventy times seven times, and where you are forgiven just as much. The church should be a family where you walk the second mile with people, even as they walk along with you. The church should be a family where you come in your woundedness to receive healing, and where you extend the healing hand of God's love to others. The church should be a family where you learn to live as a disciple of Jesus. The church should be a family where you know you belong, even when you fall short, or wander away, or act as a pretty poor sibling in Christ.
Family Isn't Easy
By holding up this vision of the church as Jesus's family, I'm not suggesting that we do this prefectly, though at times we do in fact live out our identity as brothers and sisters. But there are the other times, I'm afraid, and they are unavoidable. One of the ironies of being in Jesus's family is that, as you draw near to your sisters and brothers, you'll end up stepping on their toes, and they on yours. On this side of the new creation, in the family of Jesus you'll get more love . . . and you'll get more headaches.
Quite a few years ago I in charge of a leadership team that was struggling to get along. There was way too much sibling rivalry, and many feelings were getting hurt. In the midst of a tense conversation among several who had wronged each other, one woman cried out, "I can't believe we're doing this to each other! I thought we were supposed to be a family!" My response was to say, "Yes, that is what we are, a family. And that's part of the problem. How many families do you know that live in perfect harmony? How many families do you know where everybody gets along without conflict?"
Friends, one of the dangers we face in seeing the church as a family is idealizing it, expecting members of the family to be what none of us will be this side of heaven. In truth, our reality will be like a healthy human family, with lots of love and lots of conflict. For half of my life I have loved my wife Linda. She, along with my children, is the most precious person in the world to me. And, you know what, I've probably had more conflict with Linda than with any other human being. Even after 22 years of marriage we still step on each other's toes. But, as hard as our marriage has been at times, I know that Linda loves me. And she knows that I love her. We will hang in there through the hard times. We will work to make things right between us. And we will not quit, by God's grace, because we are a family. The cost of our marriage has been very high, for both Linda and me. And the benefits have far outweighed the costs. They've been way beyond anything I could ever have imagined.
So it is - or so it ought to be - in the family of Jesus.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I call you today to a new commitment to being the family Jesus together. It won't always be easy, that's for sure. But it is God's call to us. And it is also God's gift to us. It is well worth the effort in the long run.
The Family Business
Remember that Jesus said His mother and brothers "are those who hear the word of God and do it." You and I, as basically individualistic Americans, will tend to hear this in terms of our individual discipleship, and we won't be wrong to do so. If I am Jesus's brother, then I need to hear and do God's word. It's not enough for me merely to believe the facts of the gospel. I need to live them out in my daily life. And so do you.
But our individualism might keep us from hearing what else Jesus means when talking about His family. You see, He's speaking not only about individual behavior, but also about the shared activity of His family. Together, as a family, we are to hear and do the word of God. More specifically, we are to hear the good news of God's kingdom and live under God's reign in our daily lives. Together, we are to proclaim the good news of God in this community and, through our kingdom partners, throughout the world. Together, we are to live out this good news through tangible works of love and justice.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus has a family business, and we are part of it. The business of Jesus is our business as well, the family business of Irvine Presbyterian Church.
What is this business? From one point of view, it involves hearing and doing the word of God. From another point of view, it is proclaiming and living the good news of God's kingdom. From still another point of view God's business has an inner movement, as family members build up one another in love, and an outer movement, as we proclaim and incarnate the gospel in the world. To put it most simply, our business is to love one another, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Sound familiar?
Your Part of the Family Business
When I picture a family business, I picture the Nelsons. Danny Nelson was one of my best friends when I was growing up. We built forts together in the hills. We ditched my little brother up there once, for which we both were grounded for a week. Danny and I played football and kickball in the cul de sac of our street. And we often hung out at Tommy's Flowers, the Nelson family business, named after Danny's dad, Tommy.
Even when Danny was in elementary school, he was expected to help out around the shop, and every now and then I got to help. Mostly this involved cleaning up. But before long Danny began to learn the art of flower arranging. Soon he and his younger sister were active in all parts of the business. Their involvement wasn't an option. It was a necessary implication of being in the Nelson family. Each member of the family was essential to the family business.
And so it is for God's family business because that's the way He designed it. Every successful business is based upon a good business plan. And so it is with the family business of Jesus. And you know what? You're in God's business plan! As a member of God's family, you are essential to His family business, just like Danny was essential to Tommy's Flowers. As Jesus's siblings we are expected to invest our lives in the work of the kingdom, just like Jesus did. And, just like Jesus, we have been empowered by God's Spirit to do His ministry, both in the church and in the world.
Segue to Stewarship
In the next month you're going to hear quite a bit about our family business at IPC, because Family Business is the theme of our stewardship ministry this year. Why have we chosen this theme? There are several reasons.
First, I believe we need a fresh understanding of who we are as a family together. One of the most important things we can do right now as a church is to strengthen our family ties, to renew our commitment to each other, and to live out that commitment in tangible acts of mutual love and grace. This is essential to our stewardship of God's gifts to us. It doesn't have anything to do with church finances, but it has everything to do with our being a strong, healthy church family that is able to do God's business together.
Second, we need to be reminded that we are a family, not only so that we might care for each other, but also so that we might do God's business together in the world. Sometimes churches get so wrapped up in themselves that they forget the business they're in. We at IPC need to hold "family" and "business" together, and to renew our commitment to doing the business of Jesus in the world as His family. This does have financial implications as we seek to grow our ministry and mission, something that requires both personal involvement and financial faithfulness.
Third, we each need to consider our individual role in the family business. Like Danny Nelson, many of us in this church are fully invested in God's work here. We regularly engage in tangible service, in prayer, and in faithful financial support for our ministry. But some members of our IPC family are not involved. This means that our family business lags behind because, as I said before, God's business plan assumes the involvement of every single member of this family. So, talking about our Family Business gives you a chance to ask the Lord - our Boss, if you will - what He'd like you to do in His business.
Sisters and brothers, there is little more wonderful in this life than being a member of Jesus's family. And there is little more meaningful and rewarding than doing our part in His family business. So as you consider what it means to be in the family of Jesus, remember His words: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it."