The Family of God

+In the Name of God:  who was, and is, and is to come.  Amen.

“Then Jesus went home; and the crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”  Mark 3:19b-21

Many years ago, now, John Cleese of Monty Python fame co-wrote a book called Families and How to Survive Them. Cleese’s co-author was a psychiatrist named Robin Skynner, who was a pioneer in family systems in Great Britain. John Cleese had participated in one of Dr. Skynner’s therapy groups – a group Skynner co-led with his wife, Prue – and Cleese had found it extremely helpful

Like many people who seek psychological help, John Cleese entered therapy reluctantly. He describes his decision this way: “I didn’t enter the Wonderful World of Shrinks very enthusiastically because I had all the British reservations about the Whole Psychiatry Business. Nevertheless, despite my scepticism – I might almost say mistrust – I began to attend a therapy group. . . . there were seven other people in the group, including several couples. . . . for an hour and a half late every Thursday afternoon, the ten of us sat in a circle and just talked, for the next three and a half years!”

What prompted Cleese to seek help in the first place? There were two things: the first was that he had suffered from flu-like symptoms for two years. His doctor could not find any medical reason for his symptoms – and this was after three very thorough physicals which included blood work, X-rays, and other tests. After ruling out any physical reason for his distress, Cleeese’s doctor told the comedian that his problems were probably psychosomatic, and he recommended therapy.

The second reason John Cleese sought help was that he was having trouble in his first marriage and, as he said, I “came to the conclusion that I was too confused to sort [my problems out] out without outside help.”

There are lots of different reasons why people seek psychotherapeutic help. Sometimes there’s a shock that upsets their equilibrium and overwhelms their ability to cope. A loved one dies unexpectedly. A job is lost. A relationship falls apart.

Sometimes there isn’t any kind of shock – there’s no sudden event that is the catalyst for entering therapy. Instead, pain over time becomes unbearable, and prolonged suffering overcomes any hesitation to seek help.

This latter reason is why Cleese entered the Wonderful World of Shrinks, as he called it. As it turns out, Cleese ended up in the hands of a psychotherapist who took a family systems approach to treating his issues – an approach based on the belief that most of our attitudes and characteristics are grounded in the family we grew up in – what is often called our family of origin.

My first introduction to family systems came from a book written back in 1972 by Virginia Satir called Peoplemaking. Her pioneering work led her to be honored with the title: “The Mother of Family Therapy.” Satir believed that we become the people we are in our families of origin. How did our family system function when we were growing up? What were the roles played by the different members of the family? How did our families shape us?

My ongoing education about family systems theory continues through the work I do with congregations. It turns out that congregational dynamics are nearly identical to the dynamics in families. The late Edwin Friedmann wrote a book called From Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church & Synagogue that’s a “must read” for parish clergy.Those of us who work with churches in transition call Friedman “The Rabbi.”

But back to John Cleese. . . Since Cleese found the work he did with Robin Skynner to be immensely helpful to him personally, he asked Skynner if he would be willing to write a book with him. Families and How to Survive Them was the result.

I thought about Families and How to Survive Them when I read this week’s Gospel. Because the Gospel begins with a story about Jesus and his family of origin. What is so wonderful about this story is how Jesus takes what was clearly a difficult encounter with his own family and uses the encounter to say something deeply meaningful to all of us about life in God’s family.

The incident takes place early in the public ministry of Jesus; we’re only in chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel. By this point, Jesus had developed a huge following.  Mark says that “a great multitude from Galilee followed him” and that the multitude “came to him in great numbers from [as far away as] Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon.” The crowds got so big that, at one point, Jesus “told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him.”  It must have been exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time.

After this particularly intense period, Mark says, “Jesus went home.”  Mark doesn’t specify the place because he doesn’t have to.  Home is home.  It’s where we all go at the end of the day, and for most of us, thankfully, it is a place of refuge and comfort and peace. I suspect that’s just what Jesus was looking for – a place of refuge, where he would be cared for, have mom cook his favorite meal, and take a break from the crowds.

But that’s not what happens.  First of all, Jesus and his disciples are unable to shake the crowds.  Mark says, “the crowd came together again, so that [Jesus and his disciples] could not even eat.”  Then, the very people Jesus had been hoping would take care of him – his family – came to restrain him and take him home with them. They came because they think that their son and brother is crazy! It must have been a tense situation. I don’t know about you, but it sounds like a dysfunctional family situation to me.

The late Ed Sims comments on this family meeting in his little book, A Season with the Savior. He writes, “Why is it that those who mean best by us are so often those who do us worst?  Why is it that those closest to us are so often the last to understand us?”  Sims goes on, “I suppose doubts about the sanity of this carpenter’s son were bound to arise sooner or later; interesting that they took root so quickly in his immediate family.  The New English Bible’s language is wonderfully graphic: ‘they set out to take charge of him.’  I can see them [Sims continues]: bewildered mother, troubled sisters, disapproving and jealous brothers.”

And if family problems weren’t enough for Jesus to deal with, there were the scribes who came from Jerusalem. They basically said that Jesus was demon-possessed and that the power he was exercising had not come from God but from Beelzebub – the prince of the demons! So much for a peaceful homecoming. So much for a little respite from the demands of the crowds. So much for a break from the conflicts with the religious “experts” who didn’t like what Jesus was doing.

I will leave the dispute between Jesus and the scribes to another time. I want to focus on Jesus and his family and what Jesus has to say about that instead.  After the scribes have accused Jesus of being in league with the devil, and Jesus has told the crowds several “parables” to demonstrate just how wrong the scribes really are, we are told that Jesus’ “mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.”  We can only guess that Jesus’ family was separated from Jesus by hundreds of people – far enough away from him that he can’t hear what they are saying.  So, the people in the crowd passed the word forward to Jesus saying, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.”

These are the same people who had earlier come to restrain him, take him home with them, and try to talk some sense into him. 

What Jesus does next is fascinating.  He takes the situation and uses it to make a larger point about God and the kingdom.  And as he will do so many times during his ministry, he begins with a question.  “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  Then he answers his own question.  “Looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

It’s masterful.  In a single stroke “he renounces his family’s claim on him, their suspicion of his sanity and their overprotective concern.”[1]  But he does this without being unkind to them.  There’s nothing harsh or scornful about his response.  Instead, what he does is he takes the circle of his family of origin – his mother and brothers and sisters – and he expands it. He draws an enormous circle that includes countless more people.  He sweeps his mother Mary and the rest of his relatives into a definition of family that they can be part of, too, if they wish.  He takes nothing away from them while at the same time giving a place in his family to anyone who wants to accept one. 

I wonder what words of Jesus got passed back to his family standing on the perimeter and what they thought about what he had said.

I know what words the crowd heard.  They heard and understood that they were all members of his family – of God’s family – in a way they had never really thought of themselves before. I know this because they passed those words around to each other and down to the next generation of Christian disciples, and the next, and the next, until Mark finally wrote Jesus’ words down in the Gospel, preserving them for all time.

What happened to Jesus’ immediate family?  It’s worth noting that at least a couple of his family members who came to restrain him and talk sense into him became his followers.  One of those was, of course, his mother, Mary, who traveled on the Way with the other women of Galilee – the women who followed Jesus all the way to the Cross.  After the resurrection, Mary was with the twelve apostles, watching and praying with them until the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. 

The other was Jesus’ brother, James, who was converted when Jesus appeared to him in person after the resurrection. Eventually, James became the bishop of Jerusalem and was martyred when he refused to renounce his belief that his own brother was the long-expected Messiah.  Perhaps there were other members of his family who became members of Jesus’ great family of followers. We don’t know. Jesus asked the crowd, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?”  The Good News is that we all are – all of us members of God’s family – one big extended family – bonded together by Love and a willingness to do God’s will.   Amen

[1] Edward R. Sims, A Season with the Savior.  New York: The Seabury Press, 1978. unpaginated.