Water is thicker than blood!
"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (Luke 12:49-56)
Stanley Hauwerhuas, an American University lecturer, begins his lectures on religion each year by reading a letter to his class. It is a letter from concerned parents to a government official, detailing how their son has been caught up in a weird religious sect. Their boy had had the best of educations, had gone to the best schools, and was heading for a good job as a lawyer, until the sect got hold of him. Now they seemed to control his every move. They told him whom he could date and whom he could not date. They had taken all his money. And so the parents were asking the government official to investigate this sect and see if their son might be rescued.
‘Who is this sect that the letter is talking about’ Hauwerhaus asks? Most students assume it is the Moonies or some other exotic cult.‘No’ he tells them. 'It is the letter of a third century Roman family writing to the Roman government about that strange sect ‘the church’.
It seems odd, almost impossible to think of the church as being ‘anti-family’, and yet it was one of the main complaints that was made by the ancient Romans against the Christians – that they were not upholders of family values. How could this be?In the Western world ‘Christian values’ and ‘family values’ have become almost interchangeable terms.
One Christian Internet newsletter I subscribed to was from ‘Focus on the Family’.They are a Christian group – Christ-centred and family-centred.In one of their mailings they were highlighting the tragic point that in one of the Scandinavian countries (I can’t remember which) they have officially declared that the family is no longer to be considered the basic unit of society!
As a preacher, it is assumed that I will be appalled by this news, as I will be by statistics that are sent my way on the rate of divorce and family break-down, on the number of babies born outside of wedlock, the increasing percentage of full-time working mothers, neglected children, etc. And for the most part I am appalled by the statistics. I do grieve the rate of family breakdown within our society, and I do believe that divorce is one of the most terrible things that can happen to a family. And yet, when I read the gospels, I see Jesus more or less promising that He will be doing His best to tear families apart!
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: Father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
I don’t know why this list climaxes with mothers-in-law, and leaves out fathers-in-law altogether? Perhaps that’s just co-incidence. But I think we grasp the overall picture. Did we make the mistake of thinking that Jesus was going to draw our families together in peace? On the contrary, He is going to divide the family members against each other!
But hand on! Didn’t they prophesy at Jesus’ birth that Jesus was going to bring peace. Isn’t that what the angels said – ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men’. No! They said ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men with whom God is pleased.’ That’s what my translation says. Indeed, the quote from Luke chapter 2 that often appears on the front of Xmas cards is generally a misquote.
No one ever prophesied that Jesus’ arrival on the scene would bring a smile to everybody’s face. On the contrary, what the aging Simeon prophesied of Jesus was closer the truth: ‘This child is destined 'for the falling and the rising of many’ (Luke 2:34).He prophesied conflict!
Now, I love my family, and I do sincerely believe that God wants my family to work.And yet I must be honest - when I turn to the Bible looking for inspiration and guidance, you may be surprised to hear that there’s not an enormous amount of material to work from.
There’s some good stuff in the Old Testament of course.That’s where you find ‘honour your father and mother’.We’ve been trying to pump that one into our kids for years now.Mind you, in Old Testament times it was easier. If the kids didn’t show you respect you could have them publicly stoned to death, which is not exactly a model of parental discipline that modern ‘Christian family values’ groups want us to emulate.
In the gospels, we must be honest, the attitude of our Lord Jesus to the family unit is, at best, ambiguous! I’m sure Jesus loved his earthly parents and yet even as a boy he gave priority to being ‘in His Father’s house’ rather than being at His mother’s side.
When Jesus called His disciples to follow Him, He encouraged them to disregard their family responsibilities for the sake of the Kingdom.‘But first let me go and bury my father’ one would say.‘Let the dead bury their own dead’ Jesus would say.And indeed when James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were called to follow Him, they had to leave their father in the boat to carry on the family business alone.
Nobody asked Zebedee how he felt about having to carry on the family business alone.Nobody asked Zebedee how he felt about losing his two sons to Jesus.Probably not very good at first.
I read an account of a baptism that took place in a village in Central America.A little child was being baptised and the child was carried into the church for the baptism – carried in a coffin! And the parents of the child weren’t grinning and taking pictures apparently, but softly crying!Now I didn’t see any detailed account of the meaning of the symbolism here, but could it be that the parents were mourning the loss of their child to Jesus and to the church?
Baptism is the way in which we symbolically attach ourselves to Jesus and the church.There are major issues of loyalty and ownership here. The idea that we belong firstly to Jesus and only secondly to our parents, the idea that we are first and foremost a member of the church family and only secondly a member of our human family!
And that brings us to that other great incident in the life of Jesus concerning his earthly family.In Luke 8 and elsewhere we are told of that time when the earthly family of Jesus tried to make contact with Him. Indeed, it would appear that they tried to take Him home. And there Jesus seems to disregard his family and even disown them.‘Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’
These are harsh words.They are also very significant words for our reflection this morning, for they suggest that Jesus was not so much rejecting His family as he was replacing them, with his new-found family of disciples!
Now I don’t know whether those of us who had felt that the Bible and the family went together like peas and carrots are going to find this concept any more palatable, but it does suggest there that Jesus wasn’t so much ‘anti nuclear-family’ as he was ‘pro church-family’.
‘These are my brothers and my sisters’ said Jesus.He was very attached to this family.He felt responsible to this family.And so he set up the church along the lines of an extended family.
When Paul says to Timothy (in 1 Timothy 5) that in the church we should treat the 'older men like fathers, the younger men like brothers, the older women like mothers and the younger women as sisters', he is drawing upon a pattern of relationships already established by the Lord Himself. The church is a family. The church is your family.
And going back to the attitude that early Roman citizens took towards the church, this was one of the very reasons given for their hatred of the church - that they were incestuous, always referring to each other as brother and sister, father and mother. And loyalty to the human family seemed to be being replaced by loyalty to the family of the church. Water (ie. the water of baptism) was proving to be thicker than blood.
I distributed today a favourite article of mine taken from Time Magazine about the failure of the nuclear family. It suggests that the nuclear family has failed in our society, and it has failed because we have expected too much of it. It has failed because it has forced us to expect of our partners and (we might add) our children what can only be provided by a much broader community – a village or (perhaps) a church.
Yes, I do personally believe that the whole concept of Christian community is one of the most valuable things that we have to offer the society around about us – the idea of a broader group of persons taking responsibility for one another and so better fulfilling the heartfelt needs of the individuals within that group.
Of course, the church wasn’t established simply to meet the social and emotional needs of its members, but to serve Christ and the Kingdom.Even so, this is part of the miracle of the church; we find that as we move together in the service of Christ and the Kingdom that our own social and emotional needs are also met through the experience of Christian community.
I think that this is about enough from me.There’s plenty here for us to chew over without me needing to make any more points, especially if, like me, you love your family to death and would do anything for them.
If, of course, your partner has just left you to start another relationship and your children haven’t spoken to you in twenty years, then you’ll probably feel quite encouraged to know that God has plans for you that go beyond your family.If though, like me, you find the idea of spending an eternity with your wife and children quite appealing, you’re likely to find these thoughts quite disturbing.‘There’s no marriage in heaven’.Jesus told it to us straight.The future God has planned for us all is something much bigger than our human families.
Indeed, when we think about Zebedee, the disciples, and the early church, we realise that our Lord must have brought tears to the eyes of many an Ancient Near Eastern family.And when we read His words of prophecy, we anticipate that there is still plenty of pain and division to come.
I’ll never forget hearing about that child playing up at the airport – running around, rubbing his ice-cream on the seats, making an abominably loud noise everywhere he went.And his parents were overheard saying ‘maybe we should send him to church’ – to civilise him I suppose.
Perhaps we should take it as a compliment that so few people seem to want to send their children to Sunday school here. They know that our Sunday school teachers will fill young minds with the revolutionary values of the gospels, which turn mothers against daughters, fathers against sons, mothers-in-law against daughters-in-law, destroying family units. They fear that we will teach their children that loyalty to mother and father is not as important as loyalty to Christ, that we will teach them that water is thicker than blood.
Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, August 2004