Churches can be like an old fashioned village. Small, parochial, cliquey. Alternately, they can work like a well-oiled machine. Or, there can be different political “factions” that oppose each other over everything from church finances to how the biscuits should be put out at morning tea. They can be hubs of support and love and care. And they can be enclaves of grumbling and toxicity.
What we forget among the brokenness, and even among the awesomeness, is that our church is supposed to be our family. We say it, of course, but do we really know what it means? What did it mean in the early church – for those who knew Jesus? And what did Jesus mean it to be?
In the early church they were suspected and accused of immorality and incest because their doctrine was love and they called each other “brother” and “sister”. A second century document outlines a mock debate that discusses the principle charges. In response to “we also hear that you meet in secret, even before sunrise, and the gross immorality that we hear goes on in those places is repulsive — especially the incest.”
The second party says: “If you came to one of our meetings you would find that the lovemaking and intimacy you are so quick to imagine is of a totally different nature. We meet before sunrise because we are working people. We have jobs to go to. We do not always meet in secret, but we have no temples or synagogues, so we use somebody’s home which has enough room. We call one another brother and sister and pledge to love one another because that is what our Lord commanded us to do. And we greet one another and bless one another with a holy kiss, not out of lust but out of genuine love and concern for one another. Come and you will see that we demand the highest standards of morality among all who join us.”
The concept of “family” for the Israelites centred on the household – that is, the immediate family, extended family and slaves and servants. All these made up the household. Outwards from this centre was the clan, which could refer to a group of households tied by kinship. Outwards from this orbit was the tribe, which included multiple clans within one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Each circle was bonded by close ties of kinship, patronage and obligation. We see this working throughout The Old Testament – Boaz was a kinsman redeemer to Ruth, under Jewish rules of kinship and obligation for example.
What we see in Mark 3:13-35 is a series of scenes:
- 3:13-19 Jesus calls the 12
- 3:20-21 Jesus’ family Part 1
- 3:22-30 Conflict with the Pharisees
- 3:31-35 Jesus’ family Part 2
The order of events is important here. In the calling of the 12, Jesus draws his “family” to him – and they are chosen. And, they include the one who will betray him. Jesus knows this when he calls him. I find that staggering. As God, Jesus knew this. As a man, I really feel for him. Imagine picking the people who you would work with forever, and included is the person who you knew for a fact would stab you in the back. How would you go interacting with them, working with them, loving them, knowing that they would do that to you?
Anyway, it’s significant that Jesus calls 12 – an embryonic new Israel, representative of a new covenant.
Next comes what is known as a “Markan sandwich” – its a literary device where Mark starts a story, then puts in another one, and then finishes the first story afterwards. So a meat in between two bits of bread if you will. Its a literary device but it has a purpose in bringing to light something the author wants us to see, so lets dig deeper.
In the first scene, we see “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
Just as his own family say that Jesus is out of his mind, we switch to a scene in which the Pharisees – the leaders of Jesus’ Jewish “family” – say that he is possessed by Beelzebub. But what is it about this conflict with the Pharisees that provides the key to interpreting the “Markan sandwich” literary device?
The Pharisees say he is nuts because he is driving out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Note that they don’t disagree that Jesus is driving out demons – he seems to be doing this pretty successfully. They are arguing about in who’s name Jesus is doing it. That is remarkable. The miracles are real. They just argue about the authority behind them.
Jesus, by way of explanation, gives two responses. The first is “How can Satan drive out Satan?” and the second is “no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.” The former says basically, how can you have a civil war with both parties on the same side? They would just be killing each other for no reason and with no winner. So what the Pharisees are saying makes no sense. They are saying the spirits are from the devil and Jesus’s authority comes from the devil. Nope. No sense.
In the latter response, Jesus gives more. He is saying that something or someone has already gone ahead of him and tied up the strong man. Then the house can be robbed. So he’s saying that the devil has already been tied up and then Jesus can complete the work of casting him out. The devil has already been defeated! But what Jesus says next is truly astonishing.
“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
What does blasphemy against the Spirit mean? Many conflate this with “taking the Lord’s name in vain” which minimises this statement to a slip of the tongue. In the context of what Jesus is saying here though, blaspheming against the Spirit is a rejection or a refusal to acknowledge the existence and work of the Spirit in people’s hearts and minds. The devil is defeated by the work of our triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To deny the Spirit, is to deny the Father – which is the eternal sin.
From here we go back to Jesus’ immediate family. Jesus’ mother and brothers had arrived. In Mark 6:3 his brothers are identified as James, Joseph, Judas and Simon. James, it should be noted, was not one of the disciples, but later became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and was martyred in the early 60s AD. At this point however, James and Mary and the rest of the family, were definitely not acolytes.
Both Jesus’ immediate family, and religious family, say he is out of his mind. This whole scene started with Jesus choosing the new representatives of the new covenant. And ends with his assertion that all those who do the will of God are his family. Again, this “family” includes Judas – his betrayer – and I’ll bet it includes all manner of other great people, boring people, annoying people, nice people and awesome people. They are not a group of shiny holy Christians surrounded by doves and soft lighting. They are the family of God, joined together in Jesus. This is the point of the Markan sandwich – showing the ties that bond the family of God outweigh the earthly ties of our other circles. This is a new society, a new covenant, a new age.
If we look around our churches, do they feel like family? Bearing in mind, that our church family is similarly not meant to be a perfect soft-lighting tableau either, but a rag-tag mixed bag of the good and the bad and the faintly annoying. BUT they ARE our family. We are bonded to them by Jesus – a source stronger and more profound than any other. And we will be with them in heaven.
This can be difficult, especially for those whose churches and ministers have disappointed them. I have no answer for that, and, in love, I pray everyone finds their home in a church that will love you exactly how you are and where you’re at.
But hurts meted out to us by the church or those who lead it, cannot drown out the scriptures. And Jesus says clearly that those who do the will if God are his family. However, in this Jesus is not abolishing his earthly family. He is however, establishing his church family along lines that would have been shocking at the time. The assembled “family” was not drawn along kinship or household lines, it was open to Jew and Gentile, any race and gender, and even cut across hierarchical lines. This is a new family whose primary allegiance was to God and whose citizenship was in heaven.
This includes us.
All who do God’s will are in Jesus’ family. That includes you. And what is God’s will? Go to Matthew 22:36-40 and Micah 6:8 which Jesus paraphrases in Mathew 23:23. Look at them. Meditate on them. Pray about them. They are not how you get into Jesus’ family – you’re already in it. These are the bedrock of our discipleship. These are the foundations of our familial obligations.
Look afresh at your church. They are you’re family. And look to your discipleship. Maybe it needs a kick start. Maybe it’s something to share with your Christian family. But above all, know that you are already in Jesus’ family. When he said “whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” he was talking about you.
This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:
- Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
- Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
- Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
- Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
- Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
- Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12