On 7th June, the first Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:30-35.
When I was involved in teaching the faith to young people I tried to find a simple way to help them remember the Ten Commandments. I drew ten concentric circles and coloured them in four different colours.
All the commandments are concerned with honouring (holding in high esteem, respecting, loving) as we live in relationship. The inner four circles I coloured to keep them together as they all concern honouring God: his supremacy, his form, his name, his day. The next circle was on its own. It concerns honouring parents, and brings with it a promise of prosperity. The next four circles were of one colour and concern our neighbour. We honour him (or her) by not taking wife (or husband), life, possessions or reputation from him (or her). The final circle concerns ourselves. We honour ourselves by being content. The Ten Commandments were summed up by Jesus as: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s pretty much how my structure worked out.
As we enter what the church calls ‘ordinary time’ the focus is on learning how to relate to God and to other people. In the gospel reading we have an example from Jesus’ life of how to relate to parents and siblings. Jesus’ family had obviously heard that Jesus was teaching long hours on a regular basis with barely time to rest or eat. It seems the rumour was that Jesus had finally gone from having great zeal for God to being so fanatical that he was no longer sane. It was probably a very worried family indeed which made the thirty mile trip from Nazareth to Capernaum with the intention of ‘restraining’ Jesus.
When the family finally found the place where Jesus was teaching, predictably enough they had no chance to get near him. He was completely hemmed in by those who wanted to listen to his teaching and to the way he responded to the blasphemous allegations of the Scribes. The only option for the family was to pass a message to the outer parts of the crowd and hope that it would finally reach Jesus, which it did.
Jesus had a habit of saying things which shook people out of their comfort zone. It’s almost like he needed to shock them at times in order to be really heard. He did that on this occasion. His response to the message was: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Those who thought he was mad must have had their opinion confirmed. You can imagine the muttering: ‘He doesn’t know his family?’ ‘How can anyone forget their mother?’ ‘He really has lost his mind.’ ‘His memory has totally gone.’ ‘Poor man. Someone will have to take him in hand and look after him.’ And then Jesus followed his first statement with one that appeared to reject his family and replace it with those who do the will of God. How was this honouring father and mother? Jesus had apparently rejected one of the Ten Commandments.
Before jumping to conclusions, it’s worthwhile examining what we know of Jesus and the commandments, particularly with regard to family. When Jesus had been lost in Jerusalem as a youth, he returned home with his parents and obeyed them even though it was obvious they didn’t fully understand what his life was about. Jesus’ first miracle, according to John, was at the wedding at Cana. Mary and Jesus seemed to have a good relationship. Mary simply brought the problem to Jesus and trusted him to resolve it, which he did, perhaps even overriding his own sense of timing in the process. When Jesus was dying on the cross he made a point, even while enduring agony, of making provision for the care of Mary by entrusting her to John. The evidence suggests Jesus loved and honoured his mother.
What about Jesus’ attitude to the Law? Jesus stated that he was not intent on doing away with the Law but with fulfilling it. We know that he actually made the Ten Commandments tougher: do not murder became do not get angry; do not commit adultery became do not lust. Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that they had found a way round the commandment to honour parents. They could declare things ‘corban’ which meant that they were not then available to be used in the care of parents. Jesus was not happy that human ideas had been allowed to set God’s commandments to one side.
It seems to me that Jesus could not possibly be choosing to break the fifth commandment which he said about those who sat around him: ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ Rather than rejecting his family, Jesus was extending it to embrace as many as wanted to be in his family. We have the saying ‘blood is thicker than water’ indicating that a family relationship is stronger than any other. Jesus’ death on the cross extended his family by his blood. Those who were far off from him, alienated from God, were drawn close and adopted into God’s family by the blood of Jesus. That was true of Jesus’ earthly family as well as all those who had no relationship to him.
The commandment to honour parents (and, by extension, siblings) does not come with a ‘get out’ clause. We may not agree with our parents; they may have ideas we consider old-fashioned; they may seem out of touch; they may be unreasonable; we may not like them very much; they may actually not have been very good parents. We are still told to honour them. I don’t think that is always easy. It may only be possible in a limited way, depending on the circumstances, but that is the ideal we are to strive towards.
The same is true in the extended Christian family. We are thrown together in the church with people who are very different from ourselves. They may disagree with us on many issues. They may make choices in life we would not make. They may ‘press our buttons’ at times. Yet we are to do our best to honour one another and to find a way to get along together.
When we think of all the hassle St Paul had with the members of the early church, he had as much reason as anyone to struggle to ‘be family’ with these folks. Yet in his letter to the Corinthians he was looking forward to the time when he and the members of that church would be raised together to join Jesus. He expected the extension of Jesus’ family to carry on, including more and more people.
Each person who joins brings unique gifts and challenges to the family of Jesus. I pray that the community of Epiphany will find a way to welcome all who seek to do the will of God, however imperfectly. I pray that we can embrace each one as a sister or brother, loved and accepted by us as much as by Jesus.