Big Idea: In the kingdom of God, our spiritual family becomes more important than our physical family.
Parker Palmer had a decision to make. He had been offered a job as the president of a small educational institute. He had visited the campus; spoken with trustees, administrators, faculty, and students; and had been told that if he wanted it, the job was most likely his. He was quite certain that this was the job for him.
Most of us at that point would know what to do: accept the position. But that’s not what Palmer did. He called a half dozen trusted friends to help him make the decision. He gathered this group of friends. For three hours they asked him questions. They didn’t give him advice, but they asked him penetrating questions that got to the heart of making a decision.
Palmer says that, looking back, he thinks he called the group to brag to his friends that he’d been offered a job that he’d already decided to accept. But he still had to face the group’s questions. Halfway through, someone asked him a question that stopped him in his tracks. As he answered the question, he realized he was about to accept the position for all the wrong reasons.
By then it was obvious, even to me, that my desire to be president had much more to do with my ego than with the ecology of my life-so obvious that when the clearness committee ended, I called the school and withdrew my name from consideration. Had I taken that job, it would have been very bad for me and a disaster for the school. (Let Your Life Speak)
Think about this. Palmer avoided one of the greatest mistakes of his life because he saw himself as part of a wider community that helped him process the big decisions of his life. And yet this is one of the things that we’re least likely to do, which leads to the question: What mistakes are we making because we’re making decisions on our own?
We’re beginning a series today on spiritual friendship. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be looking at the radical nature of Christian community. We’re going to talk about what it could look like to live our lives not as autonomous individuals but as part of a larger community that has a bit impact on our lives and the decisions that we make.
But as we start today, we need to acknowledge: this is both strange and inviting.
It’s strange because we’re used to living autonomous lives. We live in what someone has called an age of radical individualism.
We in America have been socialized to believe that our own dreams, goals, and personal fulfillment ought to take precedence over the well-being of any group—our church or our family, for example—to which we belong. The immediate needs of the individual are more important than the long-term health of the group. So we leave and withdraw, rather than stay and grow up, when the going gets rough in the church or in the home.
The influence that our radically individualistic worldview exerts on American evangelical Christians goes a long way to explain the struggles we face to keep relationships together. (When the Church Was a Family)
We just assume that this is the way we should live. We assume that we have the right to make our own decisions, and that our individual dreams and goals trump anything else. So what we’re going to talk about in these coming weeks is going to be strange. I promise you: it’s going to be uncomfortable for us at times.
But it’s also going to be inviting. Who among us hasn’t been hungry for deeper connection and community? We instinctively know that we were designed for more. We’re tired of living lives on our own. We’re frustrated when it’s assumed that intimacy has to equal sexuality. We want deep, meaningful relationships without going there. We’re tired of the stereotype that men have to be tough and a little emotionally distant. If we’re single, we’re tired of feeling like we’re second-class unless we’re in a relationship. And if we’re married, we’re tired of relying on one person to meet all of our emotional and relational needs.
I need this series, and you probably do too. It’s going to be stretching, but it’s also going to be inviting. And there’s better place to start than the story we’re going to look at today.
The Way Things Usually Operate
The story that we’re looking at today gives us a profound insight into the way we’re called to live.
In this passage we read that Jesus was teaching when his family arrived. His mother and brothers stood outside and wanted to talk to him. In that culture, family was a big deal. It was an honor and shame culture in which it was always important to bring honor to your family, and to never cause them to lose face. Family loyalty and honor were big priorities, and everyone knew it.
Three things were true of families back then:
- The group comes first: In the social world of the early Christians the survival and health of the group took priority over the needs and desires of the individual.
- It’s all about family: The extended (patrilineal) family system was the group to which persons in Mediterranean antiquity expressed primary relational allegiance.
- I am my brother’s keeper: The closest same generation family bond in the New Testament world was the bond between consanguine siblings. (From When the Church Was a Family)
It’s like today, except on steroids. To this day our families have priority over other commitments that we have. I have a lot of friends. But I have a mother, two brothers, and a sister. Charlene has a father, mother, sister, and brother. And, of course, we have two kids.
If any of them need us for any reason at all, we’re all over it. We’ll get up in the middle of the night. We’ll travel great distances. We’ll go into debt if needed. We’ll do pretty much anything necessary to help our immediate family out. There are practically no limits on what we’ll do to meet the needs of our immediate family.
So when Jesus’ family show up and want him, you’d expect that he would go out and see them.
Let’s be honest. I’m in the middle of preaching right now. If you came up to me and told me that someone is outside waiting to talk to me, then I’d politely tell you that I’m busy right now, and that I’d talk to the person when the service was over. I know, because it’s happened before.
But if you came up to me and told me that my mother and my brothers were outside and needed to talk to me, I would immediately pause the sermon and go see what’s going on. I just would. In fact, if Charlene came up and said that my mother was on the cell phone and needed to talk to me, I’d know that it was important because she knows that we’re in the middle of a service. You would understand too.
That’s just the way we normally operate. We all place first priority on those who are closest to us. At the most recent presidential inauguration in the States, we heard two words: “America first.” At some level we understand and would say ourselves: “Family first.” We prioritize those who are closest to us, and that usually means that we prioritize our family.
How Jesus Changes What’s Normal
But look what happens in this passage.
But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)
It’s hard to capture how shocking this would have been back then. When you think about it, it’s still shocking today. Jesus valued his relationship with his disciples more than he valued his relationship with his family. This does not mean that Jesus turned his back on his family. Later on we see that Jesus still cared for his family. At the cross, he entrusted care of his mother to one of his closest friends (John 19:26). Jesus wasn’t putting his family down; he was elevating the importance of his spiritual family.
In the kingdom of God, our spiritual family becomes more important than our physical family.
The 1968 song “Time of the Season” by The Zombies introduced a question that’s become part of the popular culture: “Who’s your daddy?” Let me paraphrase this question for you: Who’s your family? If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then your answer is found in verses 49 and 50: “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” You have a new family.
I want to clarify something before we look at what this means. This isn’t a metaphor or a figure of speech. Jesus isn’t saying that we’re like family. It’s a reality. The church is not like a family; it is a family. In fact, Jesus says that it’s your family more than your physical family. Jesus is clear here and in other places that our new alternate family actually takes precedence over our physical families.
This would have been very important back then when some of those who followed Jesus would have had to give up their physical families. A couple of chapters earlier, Jesus told his followers:
And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever 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. (Matthew 10:36-37)
Jesus knew that some of his followers would lose their families because they had chosen to follow Jesus. This happens even today. The cost is high.
But then Jesus assured them:
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)
Here’s the promise: that those who have lost brothers and sisters or fathers and mothers for Jesus’ sake will receive a hundredfold back. What does this mean? It means that both in this life and the next, you’ve got an even bigger and better family that you had. You may have a great family. You may not have had a great family. Either way, the family that you have now is even better and will never be taken away.
This was actually one of the reasons the church grew so fast in Roman culture. People saw their solidarity, the sharing of material resources, their primary loyalty to each other. One Roman emperor named Julian the Apostate complained about the church:
Why do we not observe that it is their [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism? . . . When . . . the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.
Let’s talk about what this means. And let’s be clear. There’s nothing halfway about what Jesus says here. What Jesus says calls for a radical reorientation of our lives. Here’s what it means:
- The group comes first. We don’t make decisions about our mate, careers, or place of residence as isolated individuals. We are a family. Families care for each other and help each other make decisions together.
- It’s all about family. Your primary allegiance isn’t to your physical family or to your friend group. It’s to your spiritual family. It should guide the decisions that you make.
- I am my brother’s keeper. We have a responsibility to each other. We belong to each other.
Talk about revolutionary. Talk about radical. But talk about something that might give us what we need the most. When Jesus offered his life to make us right with God, he also made us part of a family. The gospel doesn’t just save us as individuals. It saves us and places us into a family.
A week ago I was in Madison, Wisconsin with Charlene. We ate at a restaurant downtown. I was watching a large table close by. It’s fun to people-watch. The food arrived, and I watched everyone at this large table pause and pray before they ate.
For some reason it was a moving moment for me. I was in a town 800km from home in which I know exactly two people, none of whom were around at that moment. But as I looked over at that table I realized that I had family here. Not a metaphorical family, but a real family. No matter where I go in this world, I have brothers and sisters who are my family just as much — even more, according to Jesus — than my physical family.
This is true at the general level as we think about the worldwide church of which we’re a part. But it’s true in particular as we think about our particular church. When you came to Christ, he put you in a family. Your family has actual people who are actual brothers and sisters now. Your life is interweaved with theirs. Your joys and sorrows are theirs; their joys and sorrows are yours.
We’re going to explore what this looks like in the coming weeks. But let me close with a way to start. It’s as simple as the way we answer doors.
Here’s one way of opening the door. The Rule of St. Benedict, written by Saint Benedict of Nursia 1,500 years ago, has instructions for a very specific role in the monastery—the porter in charge of answering the door. The porter’s job is to open the door to the monastery when someone knocks. Not much of a role, you say? It actually is. One contemporary Benedictine author notes, “The way we answer doors is the way we deal with the world.”
The porter is given very specific instructions. He is to sleep near the entrance to the monastery so he can hear and respond in a timely way when someone knocks. The porter is to offer a welcome, in Benedict’s words, “with all the gentleness that comes from reverence of God,” and “with the warmth of love.” As soon as anyone knocks, the porter is to reply, “Thanks be to God. Your blessing, please.” He is to say this before he even knows who’s on the other side of the door. And then the porter is to make sure that the other monks know of the presence of a visitor in their midst so that they can join in extending a welcome. They’re welcoming family.
In contrast, the 20th century writer Dorothy Parker used to answer her telephone with this greeting: “What fresh hell is this?”
And so let me close by asking you: How do you respond when someone knocks on the door of your church or home or life? Is it closer to “What fresh hell is this?” or “Thanks be to God”?
God is calling us to the privilege of opening the doors of our lives to each other, to welcoming each other as family. In the kingdom of God, our spiritual family has become more important than our physical family. So open your door with reverence and love. Lean into it. Let’s become the family God designed the church to be.