Saturday, 24 June 2017

Elevating others into our family!

Matthew 10: 24-39

I have been involved in teaching Religious education or instruction in schools for just over 20 years and each year as I begin with a new class I hand out a get to know you sheet.  I have provide one each for you this morning.

As you can see on the sheet students are asked to finish the sentence, “The most important thing in my life is...”

Through 20 years of teaching classes from Grade 3 through Grade 7 one answer dominates this sentence.  It comes up again and again.

The most important thing in my life is... Family!

The idea that family is the most important thing in life constantly comes through in pastoral conversations in congregations as well.

Family is important to us, really important.  It is, no doubt, important to you, just as it is important to me.

Despite its importance another lesson I have learnt over 20 years of teaching in schools and working with congregations is that how we define what a family is varies a great deal.  When I ask students to draw a picture of the people they live with this reality is often emphasized.

Some families have one parent.  Some families have half brothers or sisters.  Some families have a step dad or step mum.  Some families now have 2 dads or 2 mums.  Some families include grandparents and some include the whole wider family. Family is important but families are also defined by culture and the experience of life. 

It is amongst all this importance that we place on families as well as alongside the ambiguous definition of what family means that we come and hear Jesus words from Matthew’s gospel:

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;

36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me!

Taken at face value we could assume that Jesus is attacking the idea and place of family and elevating individuals and their choices. 

We could make sense of this by reflecting on the concept of family from Jesus time, which is quite different to how modern Western people understand family.  Family meant the household, it could include slaves and servants, the father was the head, and women had a particular place.  If one member of the family did something wrong it would bring shame to the whole family.  Honour would have to be restored.

Jesus could be challenging this idea of the binding ties of family but such a reading of Jesus words put us in direct conflict with other parts of the scriptures, let me share just a few:

1 Timothy 5:8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her

Wife Proverbs 31:31 Honour her [your wife] for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Exodus 20:12 Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord, your God is giving you.

Psalm 127:3-5 Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.

So which is it and what can we do with this complicated issue. Are our biological ties to one another important or not?

If we return to the passage from Matthew and consider the words that Jesus first speaks I believe we might find some help here:

“‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.’”

The question that might be raised by this comment then is what was Jesus relationship with his own family, how did he view them. 

If we read on in Matthew’s gospel to Matthew 12 we get an interesting insight. 

In Matthew 12 verse 47 and 48 is says, “Someone told Him, “Look, Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48But Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49Pointing to His disciples, He said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.”

Jesus view of the idea of family here is not to diminish it but to augment it.  Family is not defined by biological ties but is defined by the growing relationship he had with those outside his own family – his disciples.

The restriction of who could be part of the family changed, the goal post was shifted.  The fact that he defines the disciples as mother and brothers reminds us of how important Jesus views family to be, yet at the same through his words Jesus time elevates others into his family.

When we combine this with his sayings in Chapter 10 about putting God above family then maybe we could summarise Jesus’ teaching about family like this.

We should not elevate our family above God. Rather we should elevate others into our family to honour God.

Let me repeat that:

We should not elevate our family above God. Rather we should elevate others into our family to honour God.

Years ago I can remember reading the influential book Being as Communion by the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas.  In the book he speaks of our baptism drawing us beyond our biological ties and into the family of God with God. 

Another way of recognising this is to speak of each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  The exclusive biological boundaries of family are broken down and we are reminded of our common humanity.

From my perspective Jesus is not encouraging family division but is about elevating others into our family, which ultimately is the family of God.

Earlier in the week I was preaching about this issue in another setting and I made the comment that in our contemporary world many parents create idols of their children.  Sacrificing themselves so that the children can have everything that they want.  Our hands are always open providing more and more to them.

One of the older men there agreed with me about parents who seem to give the children whatever they wanted.  And we spoke about the sense of entitlement many people within our culture seem to have.  But almost in the same breath he said that it was luck the passage didn’t mention grandchildren!

The notion of elevating others into our family is not an easy one.  For me to think of other people as being equal value as Tim and Lucy is hard for me to wrap my head around.  Yet this is the challenge that Jesus lays before us – not to make idols of our families but to keep God at the centre of our lives and to honour all people as members of our family.

This is important for us to grapple with as a congregation – how do you elevate each other into being family members of one another?  And, how do you elevate our Christians into your family?  I can remember saying to another congregation that if every child that came into their midst, every family, had been treated as mine had then I could not see why that family would ever leave.  The day I turned up at my new manse there was a fresh meal provided and others frozen.  When my children were born they were showered with gifts.  At times I was embarrassed of the privilege treatment my family received when I could see that this was not extended to everyone. 

More than that how does this love for others extend outwards into the community?  In the reading from Genesis were reminded that God’s concern extends even to those who appear to be cast out.  The story of Hagar and Ishmael is another uncomfortable one for us, a difficult passage, but one which drives us to contemplate how God views those beyond the family of God as still part of God’s family.

37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me!

This is a difficult teaching but I would place it in the context of the words of grace that God cares as deeply for us as any sparrow, that God counts the hairs on our head.  Jesus presence with us is precisely because we live with these tensions and so often fail.  Paul’s letter to the Romans from which we read struggled with these very issues of sin and works and grace.

I believe Jesus teaching acknowledges the messiness of our human existence.  Family is important and the idea of family is important to Jesus but it is easy for us to elevate our family above God and distort and disrupt our relationship with God and with others when we do this.  Jesus words remind us not to elevate our family above God, but rather, that we should elevate others into our family to honour God.  To honour the God who has freely, lovingly and graciously drawn us into his own.

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