Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to 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.”
I am here today to preach about family values. Later on I shall denounce a heresy – you might enjoy that bit – but firstly, I want to talk to you about family values. I take my place in a long line of Christian preachers who have spoken about this subject. It is one of the favourite topics amongst some groups of Christians. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that it is an obsession with some. Family values have come to be a shorthand for a whole view of the world – with that phrase comes a raft of assumptions about how people should behave, what sort of work they should do, how they should dress, how they should talk, whom they should marry, and generally how they should live their lives. When I say “family values”, I bet you know what I mean. Politicians have made “family values” into a vote-winner, a sort of signal which indicates who they think are they right sort of people. It’s up there with another favourite phrase, “this is a Christian country”. But I do not see what either of them has to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The family is a wonderful thing for many of us. Perhaps most of us. As I grow up a bit, I begin to see how my ideas about life and love have been shaped by the family I was born into. Specifically about love. And as Christians, we believe that love is terribly important. God is love, our scriptures tell us, and those who live in love live in God. There was something particular about the love I experienced as a child in my family. It was given to me without stinting and without grumbling, and without cost. I was loved not because of what I could achieve, or what I could give back, but because I was me. It was unearned love. It was love that wanted the best for me. Love that wanted me to grow up into the truest version of who I could be. Not that I always appreciated it, of course. At times, when I quarrelled with my parents, I fell back on that favourite staple retort – “I didn’t ask to be born into this family!” A verse you may know from the Gospel According to Kevin the Teenager.
I didn’t ask to be born into this family. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, the Bible says, and perhaps out of the mouths of ungrateful and desperately unhappy adolescents too. I didn’t ask to be born into this family. No, I hadn’t asked, and I hadn’t earned it, and it wasn’t my choice and it wasn’t my decision. It was a gift, that I gradually came to understand. The givenness of love.
And when love is like that, it can give us a glimpse of what God is like, and what God’s love for us is like. Not to be earned. Not to be bargained for. Not bestowed on condition that we do something in return. I said just now that love was given to me without cost, but of course that wasn’t true. It cost me nothing. But I know it must have cost my parents a great deal at times. Fur hundred years ago, the philosopher Francis Bacon, a courtier of Queen Elizabeth I, wrote that “the joys of parents are secret, and so are their griefs: they cannot utter the one, nor they will not utter the other.” Parents’ feelings about their children must be hidden, he says, because they can’t explain the delight and joy their children bring them, and they won’t disclose the pain or trouble they feel. At the centre of the Christian faith is this kind of costly love – the cross at the foot of which we worship is a sign of love which gave itself up for those who are loved.
So I don’t speak lightly of families or family life. The values of the family can be the values of God. But if we look in the Bible to find the family most associated with “family values” – the husband and wife and their two children who provide an example to the community – I’m not sure where we would find it. Many people look to Genesis, to Adam and Eve. The first pair of humans of whom the Bible speaks. We hear a great deal about Adam and Eve in discussions of the family today. But what does the story talk about? About shame, about blame, about disappointment and betrayal. There are profound insights in this creation story, but they don’t give us a picture of an ideal family to imitate. Adam and Eve did have children, but you can look up how that went.
When we turn to our Gospel reading, we find an even harder picture. Jesus being told that his mother and brothers were outside, and apparently rejecting them, saying that his real family were those around him. I cannot imagine the kind of pain Mary must have felt – what any parent must feel – to hear words like that. But when we look closer, what was being said to Jesus? He was being told to be quiet, to stop speaking out, to stop prophesying, because his family were waiting outside. A fine example of “family values”. The love and loyalty of a family was being invoked to stifle him and to keep him from living in the spirit of God. And Jesus refused that, offering instead a radical love and loyalty to those around him.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, in a young man with his background. (Yes, I say young man – he was in his early thirties, remember. Absolute youth.) Perhaps we should make allowances if Our Lord Jesus Christ didn’t understand family values properly. After all, who were his family? Mary, the young woman who had been visited by the Gabriel and told that she would be pregnant with the son of God. And when she spoke about the pregnancy to her cousin Elizabeth, she spoke the Magnificat, the hymn we still sing, which speaks of God raising up the weak and feeding the poor. And Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth, who realized that his fiancé was bearing a child that wasn’t his, and who brought the boy up as his own son. I think that sometimes gets missed in our retelling of the nativity – Joseph’s worries and his commitment. But it’s very important a some medieval and Reformation Christian writers. And it’s in the Bible. In modern terms, the Bible is quite clear that the Holy Family was a blended family. Perhaps it should be no surprise that Joseph and Mary’s son understood that family love was something more complex and more profound than many of those around him knew.
At the other end of his life, Jesus showed this strange understanding of the family once again. Almost the last thing he said before dying in John’s Gospel is about family:
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27 Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
The last thing Jesus did in John’s Gospel was redefine the family. In the midst of his sacrificial self-giving on the cross, he named Mary and his disciple as mother and son, and made them into a family.
So with these in mind, we might return to the troubling story we heard today, with Jesus apparently denying his mother and brothers, and calling his disciples his family instead. He shows up the desperate attempts we make to replace the radical love of God with human customs and respectable habits. His family life had been complicated before he was born, and in this story he shows the family being remade – not as a way of banding together against people outside, or of keeping family members in line, but as a sharing of the unearned and unasked love he had known in a family.
There is a long tradition of finding this uncomfortable in Christianity. That discomfort has even turned into heresy at times. Most famously in the modern era, it has given rise to The Da Vinci Code. It’s a book and a film that some of you may know, and it tells the story of a heroic academic (less laughter, please, some of us are jolly heroic), a heroic academic who uncovers a centuries-old secret: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child, and that Jesus’ bloodline has continued to this day, covered up by the Church. Like all heresies this sounds exciting and radical. Jesus having sex! The Church hushing it up! Someone is alive who is the descendent of Jesus Christ!
But, also like all heresies, it is actually much less radical than the Gospel. It is a story that tries to trap Jesus in family values. It says that instead of Joseph’s blended family and the new family made at the cross, and the radical offer of God’s unearned love, we can keep Jesus safely inside our modern ideas about how a family should be. This story wants him to settle down with a nice Jewish girl – or in the latest version perhaps an excitingly not so nice Jewish girl – and have children in the respectable way. It says that God’s family are a few people descended from Jesus. That Jesus’ blood can be found via a DNA test. Do you see how paltry this heresy is? How boring? How hasty to make Jesus safe and respectable?
This is the Jesus of family values. This is who he rejected in that house the Gospel tells us about today. We don’t have to settle for this. We are offered Jesus’ blood every single time we come to the altar. We can meet his family every time we turn to share the peace, and every time we pray with another believer. Let’s make our own families places where we learn about and share in the love of God, and let’s replace family values with the Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord.
This sermon was preached at the parish church of St. John the Baptist, Beeston, on 10th June 2018