When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” Then his mother and his brothers came and standing outside they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:21, 31-35)
Things happen quickly in Mark’s gospel. By the time we get to the 3rd chapter of the book, Jesus has been baptized by John, called the twelve disciples to follow him, and has healed many people of their diseases and ailments. So, his ministry is vamping up and he’s already very popular – a crowd now follows him everywhere he goes. Even when he goes inside a house to eat a meal, the crowd is there so thick that they can’t get served! But that popularity comes with a price because it has put Jesus under the scrutiny of the religious authority. They have come out from Jerusalem and are watching him closely, jealous of all the attention he’s receiving. They’re concerned because Jesus has no credentials. He’s not a card-carrying Pharisee, so he’s easily controlled. They disapprove of some of the things he’s doing ‒ like healing people on the Sabbath, but how do you control someone without credentials?
So, they do their best to discredit him: they say, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.” They can’t discredit the healings he performs so instead they attack the source and question his motives: He’s obviously a sorcerer, working for the devil!
Jesus takes exception to their personal attack saying: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” If the Evil One casts out evil, then Satan is pitted against himself and his house cannot stand! He goes on to pronounce judgment on them for claiming that the work of the Spirit, healing sick people, and freeing troubled souls from captivity, is the work “of the Devil”! This is an unforgiveable sin! So, the battle lines are drawn between Jesus and the religious authority long before he ever sets foot in Jerusalem.
But the religious authority aren’t the only ones standing in the way of Jesus and his ministry. Believe it or not, his own family are running interference too! To be fair, they’ve been pressured by the religious authority... they’ve sent word home to his mother and family saying, “Best come and get your boy, he’s gone a bit crazy and frankly, he’s an embarrassment to the family name.” So, here they come to collect poor Jesus and bring him home before he really does something stupid.
When they arrive at the place where Jesus was staying, they can’t get near him! The home is surrounded inside and out by a huge crowd of followers, thirsty for his teaching and eager to receive his healing. Since they can’t get in to him, they send word for him to come out. So, in the middle of his lesson, someone shouts out to him: “Hey Jesus, your mother, brothers and sisters are outside, and they’re asking for you.” Perhaps his initial reaction was one of joy – “my family is here, what a nice surprise!” But then he questions their presence – I wonder why all of them have come? And then the penny drops...he realizes they’ve come to steal him away from the crowd and his ministry.
His only rebuttal is to stay inside and refuse to greet them. He says to the crowd: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And pointing to the crowd of followers around him, he answers his own question: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus leaves his own family standing outside.
It’s a disturbing scene, to hear Jesus speak so dismissively of his own flesh and blood. This is not the picture of family togetherness we would expect. We prefer the scene from John’s Gospel where from the cross Jesus spies his mother and the beloved disciples standing below. He says to his mother, “Dear woman, behold, your son,” (referencing the beloved disciple) and then to the disciple he says: “Behold, your mother.” Even in death Jesus looks out for the wellbeing of his mother! That’s the closeness we like to see between Jesus and his family!
But, no, in Mark’s gospel, his mother and sisters and brothers aren’t even granted audience with Jesus that day! They are turned away. Why? What possible threat could his own family cause to his ministry? According to Mark, his mother, brothers and sisters had placed the family’s reputation above the ministry of Jesus. They aren’t there to offer him moral support, but to take him away ‒ remove him from the public eye and into seclusion for the sake of the family name!
So, today’s lesson is a hard one ‒ not all those who stand in the way of the gospel of Jesus Christ are enemies ... sometimes those who stand in the way of the gospel are the very ones we love. Even family. Family? But family are who first introduced us to the faith, family nurtured us in the faith and taught us the bible stories, family mentored us in the faith! How could family ever be considered an obstacle to the faith?
One of the books that the Hidenwood book club recently read and discussed is called “Waking up White” by Debby Irving. Debby was raised by a loving, nurturing family in Winchester, MA. She was raised in what she calls a “monocultural world” – a white neighborhood, all white friends, a predominantly white schooling. She was sheltered completely through childhood and adolescence from the civil rights movement and the politics of the time. “Here’s the embarrassing truth: until I was a teenager, the only parts of the paper I ever saw were the sports and the comic sections.” After college, she moved away from home and took a job as a teacher in downtown Cambridge. There she became increasingly disturbed by the racial divide she observed. She was utterly perplexed by the problem and realized that her sheltered childhood had not prepared her for this at all. She stumbled along until returning to school for her master’s degree where she took a class called “Racial and Cultural Identity.” She said: “Though the decades since college had stripped away some of the naiveté left by my sheltered white childhood, nothing had prepared me for the dose of reality I was about to get.” Debbi Irving goes on to share the racial education she received in that class and how it’s helped her address the issue of race in her work and personal life.
Her book raises the question of whether her own family’s complicity in segregation didn’t contribute to the race problem which we continue to face today. It’s an uncomfortable question to consider but until we do, how can there be any change? Irving dares to ask it, and as a result she is raising her family in a different manner than her family raised her.
On “CBS This Morning” this week, they interviewed Anthony Ray Hinton, the author of “The Sun Does Shine.” Anthony Ray Hinton was wrongfully convicted of capital murder by the state of Alabama back in 1986 and spent the next 30 years on death row. He was convicted despite a strong alibi (he was at work at the time of the murder and his white manager testified to that fact), he didn’t own a gun, (and the only gun he had access to was his mother’s 38 revolver which hadn’t been fired in 28 years), and he passed a polygraph test they conducted with flying colors. The police needed to arrest someone in answer to this crime and Mr. Hinton was the person of choice for whatever the reason. So, he was arrested and found guilty in a trial without any solid evidence and then several weeks later he was given a death sentence for the crime. Anthony Hinton remained on death row until his eventual release in 2015.
How did he keep his hope up all those years? He did so because he knew he was innocent and kept believing that the truth would somehow prevail and bring his freedom. He did so because his mother had raised him in hopefulness, saying “God can do everything but fail.” And he did so because he had a childhood friend named Lester Bailey who stood by him through thick and thin. Lester was there for him at the trial and throughout his 30-year incarceration. Every weekend without fail for 30 years his faithful friend Lester came to visit him in prison and never once doubted his innocence. Lester was like a brother to him, and that faithfulness helped keep him going.
Eventually an organization called Equal Justice Initiative took up Anthony Ray Hinton’s case and won his release from prison. That first night out he stayed at his friend Lester’s place but he couldn’t sleep in a bed because it was too soft and the room was too large, so he locked himself in the bathroom and slept the night away on the floor. Anthony went on to write the book of his ordeal which he gave the title “The Sun Does Shine” (the first words out of his mouth when he stepped outside into freedom). His friend Lester was there with him for the CBS interview and continues to be with him every step along the way. A true friend to the end.
When I was a kid growing up in Maple, Ontario, my next-door neighbor, Donnie Principe, was a true friend. We decided we were such good friends that we should be blood brothers. We would each cut our wrists and put the bloody arms together so that our blood would intermingle. It was something we’d seen on a Daniel Boone show. Problem was, neither of us could bear to slice our arms open, so we just pricked the skin of our arms with a pin and shared that.
We thought that act somehow made us kin... blood after all is thicker than water, right? Well, Jesus suggests there’s an even better way to be kin. He says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” True kinship has to do with showing the love of God to each other. If we love as Christ loves, we can become his family, brother and sister of Christ and each other. Blood is not the thickest – love is. If we follow Jesus Christ and live in his love, then we will find a bond that is stronger than any earthly union – stronger than our political allegiances, stronger than our fraternity and sorority unities, stronger even than family ties...
When discipleship and Christology unite, a new relationship is forged that is stronger than any earthly union. The church universal is one big family – doesn’t matter what color your skin, what country you come from, what language you speak or what social class you come from... if Christ calls you brother, then you are my brother too. If Christ claims you as sister, then you are my sister too. Think about it – no matter where you go in this world, you have family in Christ. Crazy? We’re in good company ‒ that’s what they said of Jesus too... our brother.