Who Is My Mother?

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Matthew 12:46-50)
Mother’s Day is coming up – a day when traditionally we buy our mom’s cards, flowers, lunch and say nice things to them. It’s been a heavily observed holiday my whole life and I never really thought about the day and what it meant until my sister started trying to have a baby and couldn’t for two years. Until a friend from college found out that she had polycystic ovarian syndrome and would never be able to carry a child. Until I started hearing political language about women that reduced our value to our effectiveness at being bearers of children. And even though I am a mother, I now approach this day with some caution – caution because of the women in my life who mourn their barrenness, caution because of the women in my life whom happily choose to never have children, caution because while I find being a mother a vocation worth celebrating, I know that it is not the single most valuable thing that I, as a woman, can do. And I fear that this day has turned into that – a day when we tell women – “Be a Mother. This is what you are for.” I think Jesus would disagree.
In our scripture, Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowd that followed him when suddenly, his flesh-and-blood family approaches. And when Jesus is told of their arrival he does something shockingly cold – he seems to spurn his brothers and mother, rejecting them and raising up the disciples around him as his new family. This raises our eyebrows, but it would have thrown the people of his own time into shock as well – what Jesus does here is reinterpret the very value of relationships themselves and he re-grounds our value as people in something totally other than cultural trappings. Jesus teaches his disciples here, and elsewhere in our Bible, a startling truth: Who we are in Christ takes precedence over any other facet of our life.
Though the fact is glossed over in our reading of this text, it’s important to realize that Jesus’ family – his brothers, sisters and even mother – are not a part of the group of disciples that follow him. Even though they intimately know Christ, they are not with him. That can’t be our story. Knowing Christ is not enough - We must LIVE For Christ.
I love reading science fiction. And I’ve been reading it long enough that I get some basic concepts - when there is a discussion about string theory, or quantum physics, time dilation or relativity, I can follow along pretty well. I can even talk about these theories on simple levels - and to be honest, I feel pretty smart when I can do that. But then my sister married an astrophysicist and all of my pompous delight in being able to carry on conversations about string theory were DASHED. Because my brother-in-law LIVES for physics - he doesn’t just know about quantum theory, he writes papers on it. And the minute I start talking with him, we are both painfully aware of how little I actually know about the subject. He is too kind to rub it in, though. He’s a good man.
In our scripture this morning, we have two groups of people - those who know Christ from past experience - his mother, his brothers - and those who LIVE for Christ - his disciples. You would think that Jesus would be quick to welcome his family into the teaching moment, and cultural expectations say that he should. His disciples and the crowds that follow Jesus would expect that the moment Jesus’ family shows up is the moment that Jesus turns to them and makes them his focus. But in direct conflict with that expectation, Jesus does not turn his focus onto his family. Instead, he turns his focus even more directly upon his disciples and the truths of God’s kingdom that he has to teach them. His family has privileged knowledge of his past, but that doesn’t mean that they are actually his allies or friends. Their knowledge of him is not enough - to be in the circle of teaching, they must do more than know him, they must live for him and his teachings. And they haven’t. So they are excluded.
If you ran up to Christ with a question, how would he respond to you? Would he disavow your relationship or would he welcome you in as a brother or sister in Christ? Or to put it more simply: do you just know about Jesus or do you live for him? This is the difference between a cultural faith and a living faith. This is the difference between church as a chore and church as an encounter with the living God. This is the difference between God as an afterthought and God as your foundation. James and the brothers of Jesus grew up with him - but they were among the last to believe, not the first. Mary was visited by angels and had privileged information about who Jesus was - but that wasn’t enough to follow him. Maybe you’ve grown up in church, maybe you’ve always gone to worship, maybe you’ve read your Bible everyday - but that doesn’t mean you’re living for God. Knowing and being are not the same - and Jesus doesn’t need a bunch of people who can intellectually affirm him. He needs disciples who actually obey the word of God. Is that you?
To belong to Christ rather than just to know him, that is the beginning of our journey of faith. And I say beginning because there is much more to our life with Christ than just the beginning. This journey we are on is one that is deeply rooted in how we know ourselves. And the way we know ourselves now is not enough - We must be REDEFINED by Christ.
My sister and her family to a different country last year and that has been quite a change. The language is the same - sort of. But the humor is not, the TV commercials are not, the stores are not, the people are not, the weather is not. The move across the ocean was difficult enough on its own, but added to that was the difficulty in being separate from my parents before knowing if my dad was fully in remission from his cancer. She posted, though, on her Facebook a quote by T.S. Eliot that I found incredibly poignant - “Things don’t go away. They become you. There is no end, but addition.” My sister, her family, her life are being redefined by their experiences and time in another country. But she is not being made less by that redefinition - there is no end to her old life, but merely addition. Being redefined, being remade is not always about stripping away all the former, but sometimes it is about taking on something new in addition to.
As we dive deeper into our scripture, we see Jesus redefine what family is. When told of the arrival of his mother and brothers, he says something just a little bit offensive: “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers!” The disciple are probably just as shocked as Jesus’ blood family when Jesus says this. They have thought of themselves as his followers, his disciples, his students, his servants, his friends - but to think of themselves as actual brothers? And which one of them is the mom? Somehow, the truths of the kingdom that Jesus is teaching binds them more deeply and permanently than blood - this gospel that they are learning and living out is more than just theory, but the practice of being BORN into a totally different family. And that is subversive - Jesus unflinchingly teaches that when you belong to God, you belong to God and God’s family FIRST before you belong to any other family. That was probably tough to hear and hard to believe.
Redefinition is hard, and I won’t pretend otherwise. It was hard to go from single to married, from childless to parent, from student to minister. And you all have experienced similar transitions, similar re-definitions of who you were - parent to grandparent, working to retired or working to unemployed, healthy to sick, financially stable to financially dependent. When we become something new, even when that newness is expected, we struggle to understand who we are in a new context. But here’s the key - if we are letting Christ do the “re-defining” for us, then how we understand ourselves changes. Because if Christ is leading, I understand myself as HIS before all things. Before I am a mother, a wife, a child, a minister, I am Jesus of Nazareth’s disciple - his sister in the kingdom. The central most important aspect of who I am is wrapped up in Jesus Christ. In fact, the best thing that I can be, the most critical part of my life is no longer wrapped up in what the world thinks or expects - it is wrapped up in my obedience to a life in Christ Jesus. And that goes for you too. How long has it been since you lived your life with your identity in Christ as the most important part? How long has it been since you defined yourself by God’s values rather than the world’s?
And how long has it been since you defined and understood the people around you according to God’s values? When was the last time you met a stranger and thought “this is a child of God!” rather than “please don’t talk to me, I’m busy.” On this journey of faith, where we live for Christ, where we are redefined by God, it is not enough to see ourselves differently. We must also see the friends, family, strangers and enemies around us differently. The way we now know others is not enough - We must allow Christ to OPEN our EYES.
My maternal grandparents used to live in a house that was surrounded by a softwood “forest.” My cousins and I would spend hours and hours and hours out in the woods, building forts, climbing trees, getting poison ivy and chigger bites, making memories. One summer day when we were exploring parts of the woods we didn’t know very well, we came across rusting car parts. In fact, we came across an entire car, torn into pieces and crumbling into reddish-orange debris. Instead of asking what had happened, we came up with all sorts of imaginary tales including one that had to do with the mafia (in Arkansas?) and getting rid of evidence. When we finally got around to telling our parents what we’d found, my mom told me a story I will never forget: the car used to belong to my grandma. But one day the car had malfunctioned and crashed while my grandma was driving it. And my grandfather was so angry that his wife had been in danger, that he ripped the car into pieces and threw it into the woods. I will NEVER EVER look at my grandpa the same way again.
Jesus had a way of teaching, of telling stories, of speaking about God that was shocking and new. The minute his disciples thought they knew what was coming, Jesus would say something like “You have heard it said, but I say to you...” and then something unexpected happen. But what Jesus did best was teach his disciples a new way to see each other, to see their families, to see their enemies. The disciples grew up in a culture that de-valued women, but Christ opened their eyes to the radical kingdom of God by including women as his disciples. The disciples grew up in a culture that taught them to hate their Samaritan cousins, but Jesus opened their eyes by sharing the good news with a Samaritan woman. The disciples were expecting a military messiah, but Jesus opened their eyes to who he truly was by dying on a Roman cross. And when Jesus taught them “for whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother,” he was opening their eyes again - introducing them to a world full of people they had never seen before but with whom they would now be family with. Strangers who were just as valued by God as they.
Outside of the doors of your home and safe place, in churches down the street and in different cities and countries filled with people I don’t know and probably disagree with, are also my brothers and sisters. God is the one who sets the parameters for what this kingdom family looks like and that means we have got a lot of siblings that we don’t know and may not like. But that doesn’t matter - because Jesus binds us all together. Jesus looks you straight in the face and says - You are mine. We are family. And then he turns to a stranger and says - you are mine. We are family. And that’s how it is. And that family tie robs us of our pompous righteousness of being “chosen”; that family tie strips us of our inclination to hate the stranger among us; that family tie humbles us because we have all just been declared equal to each other - not because we’re all awesome parents or children; not because we’re all successful or rich; not because we are white or black or Asian or middle eastern or capitalist or socialist; not because of what we’ve done or what we can do or our educations or family background. Nothing we achieve unites us or gives us value - we are united and valued because of Christ. End of story. Or really....the beginning of the story.
Jesus redefined family and took a person’s value out of what society said was normal and expected. Instead, Jesus reminded his disciples that as a man or woman, the best and most righteous thing you could do was belong to God. That no matter the family you were born into first, when you walked with Christ, you were born into a new family. A bigger family. A better family. On Mother’s Day we celebrate and affirm the value of the women in our congregation and in our lives who are mothers. And while that’s nice, it’s also short sighted. Instead, we should turn to the women in our lives and say to them - whether you have children or not, whether you work at home or in an office, whether you make money or not, whether you are white, black, rich, poor, educated or self-taught, you have value because you are my sister in Christ. God chooses you, and so do I. That’s what Christ did. That’s what we should do. And why? Because, Who we are in Christ takes precedence over any other facet of our life.
Rev. Elizabeth Grasham-Reeves