Because of divided loyalties and different values, Christians sometimes find themselves torn between two families—their biological family of origin, and the Church, the family of God. How shall we act when this happens?
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Bible Passage: Mark 3:20-35
Last week at this time we were worshiping at our Church Retreat at Highland Retreat. It was good being together there in that beautiful setting, and in spite of the weather, it was a great time.
I met a lot of people I hadn’t met before, mostly extended family members of our church members. It was almost like a hybrid group that brought together two types of families– biological families and our Daniels Run Peace Church spiritual family.
The gospel story today is also about an encounter between two different types of families—Jesus’ biological family, and a spiritual family that transcends bloodlines and has God as the Father.
And while the coming together of biological and spiritual families at our retreat could be described as pleasant and enjoyable, in this story from the gospel of Mark there is so much tension that you could cut the air with a knife, as the saying goes.
This is actually one of my favorite stories from Jesus’ life, because here we get a glimpse of his family life that we all can probably relate to—a family that has it’s own share of problems and drama.
We often think of Jesus as the model of a “perfect person”, but at the same time he was human so even Jesus experienced many of the same disappointments, challenges and conflicts that are part of the reality of being part of a family, in a world that is far from perfect.
My experience with families is that we try to put our best foot forward and keep any conflict or problems with have behind closed doors.
But here we see family drama on full display, unfiltered, unedited, and it kind of shakes us up, because we don’t hear much about Jesus’ family relationships and we just kind of assume that his family would have been pretty close to perfect and that they would be 100% behind what Jesus was doing in his ministry.
But that’s not what we see here. In this passage, we see Jesus’ family seeking him out while he was in his home away from home in Capernaum, surrounded by his disciples and a large crowd.
Leading up to this time, Jesus had hit the ground running when he began his ministry. He had been healing the sick, and teaching in the synagogue, and driving out demons and unclean spirits in people.
This new movement he was starting was picking up steam. He had just pulled together a group of 12 young men from all walks of life. And they started doing life together with Jesus as their rabbi.
Now as an emerging Jewish rabbi, he had been pushing the envelope a little too far. He had been forgiving people’s sins, something that only God was able to do.
Also, Jesus had started performing healings and also harvesting grain on the sabbath, the day of rest, which was a big no-no. So the religious leaders–scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees–were upset with him and saw him as a threat to the established order, because so many people were following him.
And I would guess that there was a ripple effect, a trickling down of attitudes from the religious leaders to the people in the pews of the synagogue, including his own family. Respectable people were talking, and it wasn’t all positive.
I can just imagine a couple of the key leaders of Jesus’ home synagogue paying a visit to his family’s house to have a conversation with his parents. Maybe they’d say something like:
“Joseph and Mary, we love having your family as part of our faith community. You’re a great family and are so faithful in your attendance and in your giving. But we’re concerned about one your sons, you know, Jesus.
He just seems to be headed down the wrong path, a dangerous path. He’s breaking rules that are an important part of our religion. And he’s starting to gain a following.
Some of the people he’s hanging out with are people he shouldn’t be associating with as a good Jew. And some of them are our own people, and, frankly, he’s a bad influence on them.
Mary and Joseph, the bottom line is that your son Jesus is being disrespectful to his faith and to us, his religious leaders and elders. And we would guess that you may also be wondering what’s gotten into him, and that his behavior is not good for your family’s reputation either.
So… could you maybe try to talk to him about all this? Maybe he’ll come to his senses and tone things down a bit, you know, stop steering people in the wrong direction, and conform more to the way we do things around here.”
Of course I’m speculating and reading into the story a bit, but it’s not hard to imagine that kind of conversation taking place.
But whether the religious leaders talked to the family or not, Mary and Joseph, along with Jesus’ siblings, went to find Jesus to talk some sense into him, maybe tell him to come chill out at home for a while with the family.
After all, the family name was at stake. And you see, family was first in those days. The biological family was the foundational unit in society. What one member of the family did, was a reflection on the entire family.
So they show up at the house where Jesus was staying, and story says that they wanted to seize him, or restrain him. And it says that “they were saying he’s out of his mind!”.
Now some versions like the one we heard implies that his family said this, while in other versions the “they” could mean people in general. But in any case, there were people who thought Jesus was crazy.
And not only that, but the religious leaders attributed this craziness to Jesus being possessed by the very demons that he claimed to be casting out of people. They call him “Beelzabul”, which is just another name for the devil himself.
And Jesus’ family were there outside the house, and some people in the crowd around Jesus said to him,
“Hey, your mom and your brothers are outside looking for you.”
(I don’t know about you, but think I can recall hearing this a few times in my childhood!)
And then Jesus responds with one of those one-liners that so often caught people off-guard. He said “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And he looked at the people sitting around him and he said,
“Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”
Whoa! Nobody saw that one coming. And we don’t really know what the immediate response was, because the story then goes from the house to the sea of Galilee, where Jesus teaches some more.
But let’s sit with what Jesus said for a bit. A Canadian pastor named David Ewart called these words of Jesus “one of the most radical statements in the Gospel because it announces a whole new way of being family, and the abandonment of blood-relations as the primary bond that defines and orders a person’s life”.
Jesus is making it clear here that there are two families that we can be part of. One is our biological family, which we know plays a huge role in shaping us into who we are.
But those who cast their lot with Jesus and his kingdom, those who submit themselves to God, as their spiritual parent and seek to do his will in their lives.
These people become part of a new family, a spiritual family. On the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out, the Church was born and the Church is now the new family that Jesus is referring to.
And sometimes, as we see here, there is tension between these two types of families. It’s not that the two families are always at odds with each other. I mean, at our church retreat, we saw how they both can get along just fine.
And when our biological families reinforce the values of Jesus’ kingdom and when they provide a setting for being nurtured in the faith, in the church family, it can be a great partnership.
The tension occurs when the values of our families of origin and spiritual families conflict with each other, or the priorities compete with one another. Or when our biological family tries to stand in the way of us doing God’s will and following God’s call upon our lives. Then we can feel torn between two families.
Jesus knew this well, and made it clear on several occasions that our allegiance to him and his heavenly Father should take ultimate priority in life; it even more important than loyalty to our own families.
In Matthew 10:34-37, he spoke some other words that are hard especially for us peace-loving folks to take. He said:
Don’t think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, And a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…and it keeps going.
Talk about being torn between two families–whew! This is one of those passages I wish wasn’t in the Bible–it literally hits home!
Now maybe Jesus was going to the extremes here; after all, he did speak in hyperbole at times, exaggerating things to make a point.
But nonetheless, we all probably know of people who Jesus is talking about here, whose family relationships were strained—maybe even cut off–because Jesus and his Kingdom got in the way.
You might know the story of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis lived in the 13th century, and he was the son of a wealthy textile merchant.
His father wanted him to take over the family business, but Francis was not interested. Instead, he became increasingly passionate about following Jesus wholeheartedly with his life, wherever that might lead him.
Francis’ father was furious with him, and he dragged him across town to see the local bishop, hoping that this religious leader could talk some sense into Francis. But Francis would have none of it.
And there in front of his father, the bishop, and the whole town, Francis stripped off his clothing and handed it to his father. Standing there buck naked, or as we say, in his “birthday suit”, Francis said:
Until now I have called you father, but from now on God will be my father. From now on I can pray without reserve, “Our Father who art in heaven”. (p. 45-6, Daily Office, Peter Scazzero)
Francis of Assisi gave up his family’s wealth, its reputation and social standing in the community, and left his family so he could become the person that God, his heavenly father, had created and called him to be.
Now not many of us will experience the kind of rejection and severing of relationships with our biological families that St. Francis did. But if we take God’s calling on our life seriously, there may be conflict and tension with our family of origin and other relationships that are significant to us.
I remember when I decided to go into Mennonite Voluntary Service after college. When I shared my plans with my parents that I accepted a position in Denver to be a volunteer teacher in an inner city alternative school for kids who had been kicked out or dropped out of public school, I think they thought I was a little out of my mind.
Their response was something like “You’re telling us that you want to go and be a volunteer? Why would you spend four years of your life studying, and us spend a lot of money for you to get a college degree to prepare yourself for a career and a job that will give you a salary and maybe a pension.
And then walk away from that and move to a city where you don’t know a soul, where you won’t get paid, in a neighborhood where you might get beat up?”
So they weren’t too keen on the idea to say the least. But they didn’t stand in the way, and over time, my parents warmed up to the idea, as they saw how I was trying to live out God’s call upon my life, a call whose seeds had actually been sown in the church that they had raised me in.
As I worked as a youth pastor and then as a campus pastor over the years, I saw a similar scenario play itself out in a multitude of ways, where youth and young adults felt this tension of being torn between two families, between their parents and families’ hopes and expectations of them on the one hand, and their increasing desire to live their lives as followers of Jesus, in service to God, giving their ultimate allegiance to their heavenly Father, on the other.
Like the time when our youth group was going to be part of an intergenerational service trip to Bolivia, and the parents of two of our youth told them they couldn’t go because they were afraid that it wouldn’t be safe to go to a 3rd world country.
These two high school kids were devastated and confused. They’re thinking, “You raised me in a church that believes in following Jesus wherever he leads, and that we are called to serve other people, but you won’t let me live that out by going on a service trip that will even be supervised by a bunch of responsible adults?”
I could tell a lot more stories of people who were torn between their biological families and their church families, and maybe you have some from your own experience. If you’d like, you could share one during our response time.
But I want to close on a little more upbeat note, with a promise. One time, Jesus’ disciple Peter asked him point blank, “Look, Jesus, we’ve left everything to follow you. What will we be left with?”
And Jesus replied to Peter with this: “Everyone who has left houses and brothers and sisters or father and mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:27-29)
Personally, I’ve caught a small glimpse of what Jesus is talking about here. Karen and I and our family have geographically left our families of origins and lived far away from them almost our entire adult life.
We’ve missed a lot of family gatherings, and special celebrations and just being able to build close relationships with our extended families. Sometimes it’s been really hard to be away from them.
But at the same time, God has blessed us with church families and communities where we have formed relationships where we have truly felt like part of this new family that Jesus is talking about in this story.
People who were once strangers to us have turned into brothers and sisters to us, and to our children, they have had older adults who have been like grandparents to them.
And in Bolivia some of our peers actually became surrogate tios and tias (uncles and aunts) to our children. And then when they were in the youth group in churches in the US, our kids had adult mentors who became like second parents to them.
So in some ways, we feel like we have inherited the hundredfold that Jesus promises to Peter and all those who give up some things to follow him.
It’s great living close to family now, and it’s great being part of a church where there are biological extended families who are part of it. And at the same time, it’s good to know that whatever our situation in life, we can be part of a spiritual family, a family called the church.
A family that shares life together, worships together, celebrates together, laughs together, eats together, grieves together, bears each other’s burdens together, and seeks to do God’s will together.
What a blessing it is to be part of the family that is the Church of Jesus Christ. AMEN.
Questions to Ponder:
How has the Church (Daniels Run or a previous church) been like family to you?
Have you ever felt like you have been “torn between two families” (your family of origin and the Church)?