There’s an old saying: “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family!” Not absolutely accurate, of course, when you think about it, as those who adopt children will realise – but essentially it means that your parents, your grandparents, your brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts – they are all who they are! You can’t just decide one day that if you don’t like them or aren’t getting on to change them for someone different. There’s many a teenager would like to change their parents, and many a parent who would like to change their teenage children – but you can’t! Friends you can change if you fall out – family you are stuck with.
Families! We all have them, yet what a mixed blessing they can be! On the one hand, they can be a wonderful place of love and support. At the other extreme, they can be an awful place of hurt and abuse. But for the most part our experience of families is neither completely one nor the other, but full of contradictions. They can love and protect us, but also be stifling and discouraging at the same time. George Burns, the American comedian, once said “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family – in another city!”
Sometimes as Christians we gloss over the tricky nature of families. The Church is the family of God, after all, and there has been the tradition of thinking of the family unit as a lynchpin of the Christian community. But in Mark’s Gospel we have permission to reflect upon the contradictory and sometimes plainly difficult nature of families. For Mark is really rather harsh on the family, particularly the family of Jesus, and by extension, the home and home town, and families in general.
At the time of Jesus the wider community in the locality was much like an extended family – very close-knit. In our Gospel reading Mark recounts that Jesus was not accepted by his own people. “Prophets are not without honour,” Jesus says, “except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Basically, he is saying, “Wherever I go people will honour me – but not at home, and not my own friends and family!” And remember – according to the gospels Jesus did choose own his family!
I can echo that experience of Jesus from my own experience. I grew up in an age when unlike today clergy were still treated and spoken of with great reverence, even by those who never went to church, and especially in their own congregations. Mr Roberts, the minister of the Baptist Church my family attended when I was young, was spoken of by my mother as though he were almost royalty. I never knew his first name and I suspect hardly anyone else did either – it was always Mr Roberts.
Likewise, when I was about 11 and we moved to our local Church of England, the minister was always The Rector or sometimes The Revd Williamson, and he also was spoken about with the same kind of awe. He was still there when I became a Christian and it was he who helped me when I applied for ministry. He died recently at the age of 96! My mother never came to terms with the fact that I called him Peter. You might have assumed that, given the pedestals on which my mother had always placed clergy, that when I broke the news to her that I was leaving banking (and in hindsight that was a wise career move) in order to enter full-time church ministry, she might have been at least a little supportive. Far from it – I was clearly quite unsuitable for the Church and she wanted to know what she had done in order for me to let her down so. It took her twenty years to finally accept what I had done.
Prophets – said Jesus – are not without honour except in their home town and among their own kin and in their own house. And because of the reception Jesus has at home, says Mark, Jesus could do no deed of power except cure a few sick people. And that’s interesting – not that he chose not to do any deeds of power – he could not. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
And that’s not all Mark has to say about families either. The passage from our Gospel reading echoes an earlier event that we heard about from Mark four weeks ago where Jesus’ family set out to restrain him because they think he’s gone just a little bit mad. And a few verses later where they turn up the at edge of the crowd and call for him, and Jesus dismisses them in an astonishingly harsh manner, implying that that his mother and brothers are not necessarily his flesh and blood, preferring those who do the will of God. Those who do God’s will, he says, are my mother, my sister, my brother.
Jesus’ ministry is seriously hampered in his home town and amongst his family – he was amazed at their unbelief – in sharp contrast to the villages where he and his disciples subsequently go and cast out many demons and cure many sick. It really does seem that familiarity breeds contempt. Somehow, Mark tells us, Jesus’ family and friends and neighbours lacked the imagination to see him as God saw him, and ultimately got left behind.
Families can sometimes be difficult to cope with. And the fact remains that even Jesus experienced the contradictions of family life. The family that nurtured and supported him – that got him to the point in life where he was to launch his ministry – were somehow unable, according to Mark, to make the leap of faith and imagine what he really could be. Jesus has to walk away from them – to go to other places where his message would be received, and where he could be what he was meant to be.
But perhaps the scariest, harshest aspect of Mark’s message is when we apply it to ourselves as the family of God. For we are, of course, a family. That is what Jesus calls us to be. He has called us to be his brothers and his sisters. Those who do God’s will, he says, are my mother, my sister, my brother. Those who do God’s will, he says, are those I choose to be my family.
And yet there is always the danger that we become so familiar – the word has the same root as the word family – so familiar with Jesus and his teaching that we stop expecting much to happen. We can, if we are not careful, become like those members of his own community and his own family who simply couldn’t see Jesus for who he really was.
Perhaps we no longer, for example, hear Jesus speaking to us through his Word or expect him to – we just complain there are too many readings or they are too long. We’ve heard the readings before and we know what they’re about, don’t we! So we stop listening.
We stop seeing Jesus in those around us. We can become so familiar with one another that, if we are not careful, we stop recognising the potential that each of us has in Jesus. We’ve known people so long or know them so well we think, “Well, God couldn’t possibly use them!” You’d be surprised – or perhaps you wouldn’t – the number of times someone offers to do something, or takes on a particular role, in the church and someone else comes to me and says “Well, they can’t possibly do that!” and expects me to stop them.
He could do no deed of power there, says Mark, and he was amazed at their unbelief. May that never be the case here! May we always recognise the potential of the ministry of Jesus here – unlike those in his home town and his own family.
For our church family should be a place where we have become so familiar that we see Jesus in one another, and one another in Jesus. Let’s pray that as the family of Jesus we have the courage to be the best that it is possible for us to be for Jesus – and that we never allow our familiarity with Jesus to blind us to what he can do among us and to what each of us can do for him.
For then – and only then – we can be used by Jesus, just as he used the twelve in our gospel reading. Sent out to love and serve the Lord, sent out to love and serve his world.
Note: The names of the clergy mentioned are not their real names – they have been changed to conform to GDPR legislation in the UK.