Monday, June 1, 2015

Family or Foe?

Things got off to a slow start for me this morning, and nothing benefitted from that except my blog post. Because I'm late to the game, I get to piggy-back off of the work of others. In particular, I'm taking an unfair leap from Steve Pankey's post today, which you can read here. (You should go ahead and read it because I'm building on his post and don't need to restate what he says well.)

In Sunday's lesson from Mark (and thanks be to God we're out of John and back into Mark), Jesus seems to offer a shocking and theologically confusing description of his family: "Who are my mother and my brothers?...Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." For starters, he's ignoring the people standing outside--presumably his "blood-kin," to use a descriptor popular in this part of the country. On top of that, however, as Steve points out, it brings into question the issue of whether one becomes a member of Jesus' family by doing the will of God--a works-based approach to righteousness that good Protestant clergypersons like me (and I suspect Steve, too) would rather avoid at all costs. There's good reason to write about that, and I think Steve does a good job of addressing it, but I think there's another part of this passage that changes the conversation.

Take another look at the beginning of this lesson:
The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons."
Why was Jesus' family coming to see him? To restrain him, to stop him, to quietly but forcibly usher him away and take him back inside where he wouldn't make a scene. In other words, his family wasn't just coming to check on him. Even though they might not have known it or meant it, Jesus' mother and siblings were there to interfere with the divinely ordained work Jesus was there to do. Keeping that in mind, this passage comes into clearer focus. It's not a passage about kingdom relationships--choosing those who do God's will above all else. It's more than that. It's a passage about deciding which side you're on--God's or Satan's.

I agree with Steve that Jesus is telling us that kingdom relationships matter more than familial relationships. If you're not willing to sacrifice a relationship with mother or father or brother or sister you cannot be a part of Jesus and his ministry. But Jesus' conclusion--whoever does the will of God is my relative--isn't itself a rejection of familial relationships nor is it a statement about what an individual must do to belong to Jesus. Instead, it's a line in the sand for those who aren't comfortable with Jesus' controversial ministry--that not even the bond between mother and son can get in the way of God's mission.

I've never felt my family pull me in a direction that seemed opposite of God's will. That probably says less about my loving and supportive family than it does about my tame and uncontroversial ministry. But there are lots of pastors out there who find themselves preaching the gospel in a way that threatens relationships that they hold dear. Prophets don't make good pastors even if they do make godly ones. It's hard to listen to a prophet every week. That's the joy of being an interim minister or a visiting preacher: you can shake things up and then go away. But sometimes the truth of the gospel can't wait.

Sometimes we are called to preach difficult truths, and sometimes congregations aren't willing to hear them. Jesus' instruction to prophetic pastors is clear--no relationship comes before God's kingdom. To take a dive or duck underneath the Spirit's prophetic message--to call something God is doing ungodly--seems to be an unforgivable sin. And why? Because how can we recover once we've decided to label what God is doing as ungodly? Where can we go from there? What can pull us from that self-seeking, refusing-to-hear abyss?

Don't worry, moms and dads and sisters and brothers. I can't imagine that many of you are going to lose your loved-ones because they are doing God's will. But congregations? I'm not so sure about you. Maybe you should be nervous.

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