Anyone who has ever watched Eastenders will know that it’s all about faamily… it’s based on a particular view of family loyalty, the central importance of the blood ties of family – and particularly of the small, nuclear family. This is a central theme in much of what we read, watch, think about and experience ourselves. Some of the political debates we’ve had over recent decades have been about who is entitled to have such a close family – who can get married and to whom, for example. We value family very much – and even though so much is changing about how such families are made and recognised (I love those McCain adverts on TV about how families have different shapes!), the family remains something we hold very dear in our culture, almost sacred. Throught the long months of lock down – the cry has constantly been ‘when can we see our families again?’ ‘when can we hug our relatives?’ There seems almost to have been a resurgence of the sense of how important our families are to us. It has seemed as though those who find family a bit of a struggle have just held their peace.
But this honouring of family has meant that we have sometimes found some of the things that Jesus said a bit awkward or embarrassing. Because he actually doesn’t seem to have had a kind of Eastenders view of the importance of his own family. There’s that story in Luke’s Gospel of how he gets lost as a child and is a bit chippy with his mother, telling her that where else could she have expected him to be but ‘in my father’s house’? There’s those troubling verses when some potential disciples say they need to go back home first to bury their father and Jesus says ‘leave the dead to bury the dead…’. And there are these verses from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus’ family (his mother, brothers and even sisters) come to find him – worried that he isn’t eating properly because of all the fuss. You can imagine his mother saying, ‘It’s all very well feeding the five thousand, but what about having a square meal yourself once in a while!’ But Jesus doesn’t seem to appreciate this maternal concern and just looks round at the people gathered to hear him speak and says, ‘Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my family.’ Alan Bennett comments in one of his Talking Head monologues that Jesus is ‘downright snotty’ to his mother. And it does kind of look, in a way, as though he might have been right…
Jesus seems to have been more interested in dining with sinners and taxcollectors than going home for a regular shabbat meal with his family. We have no record of him having been married – which would be unusual if he really wasn’t. And he seems to have been quite content to take disciples away from their jobs and their families to follow him around the country. To cite Jesus as a defender of the traditional family would seem ironic at best.
So what should we make of this? And what might it mean for our own families and lives?
It has to be said that you can also find stories in the Gospel and in the tradition that also show how much Jesus loved his family; that scene at the foot of the cross where Jesus asks a disciple to look after his mother and her to look after him, the way that Jesus’ brother James became a leader in the Jerusalem church… But more than those you can find signs that what Jesus was doing was saying not that family should be abandoned, but that it should be widened, that family should not only be extended in the normal sense of extended family, but should be taken even further than that – that the love and regard we have for our own family should be stretched to cover a much wider circle… This was the person who asked us to love our enemies, for goodness sake, so you can understand that he was doing something more than building disciples who could be a bit nicer to their own mothers…
My eyes have been opened a bit more to the implications of this widening of family through a visit to indigenous people who are Christians in what we call Canada. I’ve been on a series of Zoom meetings with people there over recent weeks. And at every single meeting, whether it was worship or discussion, we were always greeted with the words, ‘I welcome you as relatives..’ I’m used to Christians calling each other brother and sister, but I hardly notice that now because it’s so familiar and almost formulaic. When I was called so often a relative, in these meetings, I began to wonder what it means or implies… or what it could mean.
I learned that for indigenous people there are only either family and strangers – there is nothing in between. And, for them, it means that we treat everyone we meet and know with the kind of respect and love and regard that we should, or might, treat our close family. It means that we should expect to find love in the wider community, that we should know that we will be well treated and honoured as family by anyone we join in community. Imagine what that might imply.
I also learned that, for indigenous people, we are not only family with other human beings, but also with the wider creation, with creatures and animals, with the earth and the soil, with the sun and the moon, with the prairies and the skies. We are part of one family of creation. This reminded me so much of Pope Francis using that telling and powerful phrase that the earth is our ‘common home’. We are one family, with one home.
Jesus did have blood family; brothers and sisters in that sense. But he was building a community, and a sense of what it means to be human, with a much broader understanding of family than the one of our blood. We often say that blood is thicker than water, but for Christians the water of baptism binds us to one another – and not only in the sense that we make brothers and sisters of other Christians but that being baptised into Christ makes you part of a community that is making the world one family – whether it’s officially Christian or not. For the indigenous people of Canada, to call any older woman ‘mother’ is to commit yourself to treating her as you would your own mother. To sense how radical this vision is we only have to see how the world is now and compare it.
Only this week there came to light a story from Canada – the discovery of the bones of 215 children, buried in un-marked graves, in the grounds of what had been a church residential school for indigenous children. These children were once taken away from their own families, their braids were cut, they were beaten if they spoke their own language, they were taught Western history and to speak English. They were cut off from family and people and traditions. They were baptised, but even that was not enough for those who buried them to give their dignity as human beings. Racism works by dehumanising others, by seeing them not as the same as ‘us’, not as our family, not even sometimes as fully human. I learned in my visit to Canada that this is unlikely to be the only find of such a kind. The settlers did not treat the indigenous people like their relatives. They treated them as creatures to be annihilated, by death or by assimilation. God calls us to live in a different way.
What would it mean to treat other people as our relatives, as family? What would it mean to find ourselves honoured as mother, brother or sister? This is the new kind of world that Jesus wanted to see and that he lived, and that he calls us to be part of. That’s why he said what he did about his mother, brothers and sisters. It is a much wider community and we are invited to be part of creating is.
The communion meal that we celebrate today is not a meal only for insiders, for close family in that sense. It is not to be fenced and private. It is not just so that we can remember Jesus and twelve close friends or just the saints who are gathered here or in other churches. It is a a meal with the whole family; of the church, of humankind, of all of creation. It is food for a new community, food for a new kind of world, a meal in our truly common home.
During the pandemic we have learned to value family in a new way; no doubt. I hope and pray that we shall be able to widen the meaning and embrace of that word, as Jesus did. As we have been welcomed, so let us welcome all to the feast of life. Amen.