Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Someone's Brother

"Where did this man get all this?" the people asked. "Isn't he Mary's son? Aren't his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? Don't we know his sisters, too?" Isn't it interesting that the gospel writers bother to tell us what sort of reception Jesus had in his hometown? Matthew points out for us that Jesus did not do many deeds of power in that place because of the people's unbelief. Mark even implies a causal relationship, writing that Jesus "could do no mighty work there" because the people who knew him as a child and who knew his family could not accept that in him God was doing something special. Why would they bother to tell us that? Isn't that the sort of detail an evangelist would normally leave out? Doesn't the "authorized biographer" usually skip the critical parts and only give us the flattering bits? What is it supposed to teach us, therefore, that those who knew Jesus as the hometown kid had a hard time believing that he was more than that?

One of the important themes of the gospel is that we belong to God. In Christ, we are made God's beloved children. The overwhelming adoption that we receive overshadows any other familial relationships we have. Whoever follows Jesus must hate father and mother and sister and brother. Why? Not because family relationships are ungodly but because our relationship to God and to each other in Christ is so important that it must become primary. Even the most fundamental relationships we have grown up to depend on are subordinated to the relationships we gain as children of God. It's not only a question of relationship. It's also a question of identity.

I did not grow up as someone else's younger brother. I don't know what it's like to have my teacher say on the first day of school, "Oh, you're Paul's brother!" I did not follow in the footsteps of a sibling. But, in the small town where I grew up, I was Doug and Emily's son. Whenever I got into trouble, the adult who caught me always said, "Aren't you Doug and Emily's son?" Whenever I was recognized for an achievement, I was told, "I know your parents, and I know that they are proud." Because of that, I've always felt more comfortable in my hometown as kid-all-grown-up rather than as a preacher. Sure, people in Fairhope know that I've gone to seminary and have been ordained, but it doesn't feel like that's who I am in that context. If it's hard for me to merge those two identities and confidently claim my role as priest in a town where I was just a boy, imagine what that was like for Jesus or, for that matter, Jesus' brothers.

Because the feast was transferred from Sunday, today we remember St. James of Jerusalem. Even to this day, we remember him as "the brother of the Lord." But is that all he was? It seems that over time James became more than the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. He became his disciple--a brother of faith in Jesus the Christ. I don't know how it happened, but, by the time the church faced its first major controversy, James was in a position of ecclesiastical authority. At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, after receiving testimony from Paul and Barnabas about their missionary work to the Gentiles and hearing from Peter about his vision and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and the other Gentiles, James pronounced the decision that Gentiles would be accepted into the faith without needing to be circumcised as long as they abstained from sexual immorality, things polluted by idols, and food that was strangled or had blood in it. You know--the basics.

How did James get that authority? How did he leave behind his identity as the younger brother who always got in the way of Jesus and his friends and become a leader in the church. It's cannot only be because he grew up in the same home as Jesus. He doesn't speak to the assembly as the Lord's brother. He is simply James, and James speaks to the men gathered together, calling them "brothers." His identity has changed. Although his identity is still built upon Jesus, it isn't one that depends on a biological relationship but on a spiritual one. Even James has transcended his earthly identity in favor of a heavenly one. Might we do the same?

You are a son of God. You are a daughter of God. You are a brother or sister of Christ. Together, we are God's family. It does not matter what household you grew up in. It does not matter whether you were born a Jew or a Gentile, black or white, rich or poor, an American or a foreigner, Republican or Democrat. In Christ, you have a new identity--one that matters more than any other identity you have. You are a part of God's family. If you haven't found an identity beyond that of someone's child, someone's sibling, someone's parent, someone's spouse, consider leaving home behind. Christ has given you a new identity. He calls you to a new home. May we live together as members of the family of God.

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