Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God. Amen.
Wow! This Gospel text has all the ingredients for a particularly pungent fire and brimstone sermon. Satan, demons, blasphemy, the fire of the Holy Spirit, eternal sin and the will of God. And it appears to offer a simple solution, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Basically, if you do what Jesus tells you to do, you will be “true kindred.” But since I am about the farthest thing imaginable from a revival preacher and have no intention of scaring you into following Jesus, there will be no fire and brimstone today. We need to dig a little deeper.
Jesus has just returned to his hometown after wandering through the countryside, healing and casting out demons. He has appointed his disciples. And he has caught the attention of the authorities. At this point, we hear that the crowd is pressed so closely into Jesus that he cannot even raise his hands to eat. There have been murmurings of discontent among the religious authorities when Jesus and his disciples have not adhered to religious laws regarding fasting and the Sabbath, but it is this massive crowd trailing Jesus that prompts the big guns from Jerusalem to make their way to Nazareth.
Even Jesus’ own family is concerned about all of this attention that he is getting. Instead of a welcome banquet, his family has decided to stage an intervention. Jesus has been doing all sorts of socially unacceptable things and hanging out with generally undesirable folks. Jesus seems to have amassed a ragtag collection of groupies that follow him everywhere he goes, and he has caught the attention of everyone. His family decides that it is time to get this behavior under control, because it is reflecting badly upon them, and they go out to restrain him. Not exactly the most hospitable homecoming. At best, Jesus seems to have boarded the express train to insanity, and at worst, he is possessed by a demon.
We would like to see the religious authorities as evil, because we have the benefit of hindsight and we are reading the story knowing who Jesus is. But the scribes who come down from Jerusalem are enforcing order to prevent chaos. At the time, possession by a demon was the default explanation for any sort of behavior that was outside the rigidly controlled social and religious norms. Because it was believed that closely adhering to the laws that ordered the world, would save you. This crazy Jesus character, I imagine him as filthy and unshaven, sunburned and weary, was casting out demons and healing. He was doing it all without the involvement of the temple priests and temple offerings and in doing so, was threatening the economic system that was intertwined with the religion of the day. But perhaps even more troubling he was threatening the status quo, by bringing socially undesirable folks right into the consciousness of the community, when they were typically relegated outside the city gates, and was providing an uncomfortable reminder of the systems of power that perpetuate oppression. In some ways, we are not really all that different from the religious authorities attempting to order a disordered world.
We attempt to control the chaos in our world with social, religious, and political norms. Those who are progressive think that those who are conservative are evil and those who are conservative think that those who are progressive are cavorting with Satan. We want to see ourselves as loving our neighbors, yet we perpetuate systems of injustice through our complicity in power and privilege that oppresses the most vulnerable among us. We eagerly move into newly gentrified urban neighborhoods and pay skyrocketing rents without consideration for those forced out by mixed-use development. We fiercely cling to the myth that financial prosperity or even financial stability, is a result of our own hard work instead of a mixture of our social location and privilege. Perhaps most painful to consider, we are inclined to see ourselves primarily as individuals instead of part of the great human collective, the body of Christ.
Jesus makes a powerful statement to the religious authorities with his confusing little parables in the middle section of this text. They say that he must be possessed by Beelzebub, Satan or demons. He says that there is no way that Satan can cast out Satan. They say he must be motivated by evil, because such a threat to the carefully constructed social order must be evil, Jesus says that anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness. This pronouncement is harsh and it is intended to be. Jesus is saying that “eternal sin” is to fail to see the work of God in the world, to attribute Jesus and his work to the devil. To fail to see God in Christ walking among us. To deny the continued creative and life-giving activity of God’s spirit in the world is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And it is an indictment of us too.
After this exchange with the religious authorities, we return to the conversation between Jesus and his family. Still wanting to do their intervention, Jesus’ mother and brothers remain outside the house where he is teaching a large crowd. They call for him, and someone conveys the message to Jesus. “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And Jesus replies, “Who are my mother and my brother?” He gestures to those sitting around him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
This doesn’t feel like good news. Jesus’ family is feeling compelled to explain Jesus’ behavior and wants to prevent him from further embarrassing them or himself. They want to whisk him away, take him home or ship him off to a 90 day rehab where he can learn how to behave respectably again. Yet Jesus is stating that he does not know them and would rather call the crowd surrounding him family. This is not the kind of Jesus that we want. We want to see Jesus as gentle and loving and oriented towards family. This Jesus is rebellious and insistent and abrasive. For his family, who wanted the best for him, this was probably unbearable. None of this really seems like good news until we put ourselves into the place of the crowd.
The people who pressed in to see Jesus were desperate for a word of healing and a word of belonging. They were the outcasts of the time, the people who had mental illness or disfiguring ailments or who were homeless or otherwise not part of respectable society. We would probably see them lining up outside the Denver Rescue Mission or struggling to survive in a Syrian refugee camp or imprisoned in part of our prison industrial complex. The belonging and acceptance and even healing offered by this prophet and teacher Jesus who wandered the countryside, was good news. To be called brother and sister and mother, to be part of a family, when you felt nothing but indifference and disgust from those around you, this was the good news of Jesus. Jesus looks to those gathered around him, and says, “These are my brothers and sisters.”
We are not that different from the crowd pressed in to see Jesus. In a world that seems to value individual fortitude above all things, we crave solidarity with others to bear the burdens of being human. In a world where relationships crumble and leave us aching and heartbroken, we need to feel loved and cherished. Many of us have come from faith communities that have hurt us or tossed us out because of who we are, or perhaps we have been afraid to venture into a church until now because we have heard how others have been hurt. And many of us come from families who aren’t sure how to love us. Or from families that don’t understand us or who have abused us. We come to this place, this community called church, because we need to hear that we belong. We yearn to hear that we are loved. Even when we feel like we have no where else where we belong, we belong to Christ and in the body of Christ.
But we tend to get stuck on what Jesus says next, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Because it is a basic human impulse to want to control our destiny and make sure we are doing it right, we make our best guess at what God’s will would be, which is often strangely similar to what our will would be, and make belonging to the body of Christ contingent doing those things.
Jesus calls us family FIRST, then calls us to do God’s will. Our belonging is not contingent on doing something right first. Belonging to the Body of Christ has nothing whatsoever to do with what we do, but rather, what has been done for us. We already belong to Christ, and we begin to follow God’s will by drawing close to Jesus and bringing our brokenness and our whole selves with us. But we are not invited to bask in our belonging in a community of faith, we are sent out for the good of the world. What we do in our work as disciples flows first from our identity as Christ’s beloved. Doing God’s will comes from our being freed in Christ to serve our neighbors. It means recognizing that we are part of a community and that what we do or fail to do has a rippling effect on those around us. Because we have a voice, we can advocate for affordable housing in our neighborhoods and we can vote for political representation that attends to the needs of the community, not the needs of business. It means speaking out and acting for justice and mercy, because that is the way of Jesus and the will of God. Whatever your particular passion, whether that is rights for transgender youth or equitable mental health care or early childhood education, live deeply into that calling for justice and mercy. Engage in work that makes our world a better place, by using your God-given time, talents, and treasure to invest in loving your neighbors. Do your paid work for the glory of God. Engage in volunteerism and advocacy and financial giving for the sake of the world. This is the will of God. Beloved community, you belong to Christ and we belong to each other. Thanks be to God!