Who Do You Say That I Am?
Proverbs 1: 20-33 & Mark 8: 27-38
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 14th September 2003
© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
This morning we kick-off a new church program year at Catonsville Presbyterian Church! The choir is back. We’re back to our regular worship time. Church school got off to a rousing start this morning. Adult education resumed at 9 a.m. This morning, in worship and education, we introduce our theme for the upcoming year: The Whole Family of God. We’re excited about exploring what this means for this congregation. On this morning with a lot going on during and after worship, I thought it would be good to offer some preliminary remarks on the biblical understanding of family.
These days, it’s a loaded term and not easy to define. We hear a lot of talk about the family. But what exactly is the family? Sometimes it’s politically charged with many different types of meaning. Some will define it as the nuclear family unit – mother, father and children. But as you know, there are all kinds of household arrangements today defining themselves as a family. Indeed, many arrangements are represented in this congregation. In the press we read about the crisis of the American family (understood as the nuclear family), even though divorce levels are starting to come down. In some segments of our society people love to talk about “family values.” Indeed, for some to be a Christian means to be pro-family, to fight for family values. The problem with this approach is that there’s no such thing as “family values” in scripture, at least not the same values that we uphold in 21st century America. Let me show you what I mean.
Listen to the mission statement of one of the most influential Christian voices in our society, Charles Dobson’s “Focus on the Family.” With a listening audience of millions, with more than 3,000 radio facilities broadcasting in twelve language, in more than ninety-five countries, “Focus on the Family” has quite an influence upon the Christian community.  Listen to their mission statement: “Focus on the Family attempts to ‘turn hearts toward home’ by reasonable, biblical and empirical insights so people will be able to discover the founder of homes and the creator of families – Jesus Christ."
Now listen to the words of this same Jesus Christ as recorded by Luke, “If anyone comes to me and can not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brother and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14: 25-26)” So much for family values. This is not to say their ministry is suspect. They do a lot of good and many families have benefited from Dobson’s ministry. But it cannot be received uncritically.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was organizing a family reunion and wanted to read some verses of scripture for the occasion. He asked me for a few suggestions. It was difficult, because, more than we might suspect, there is no uniform biblical view of the family. And when the Bible does talk about family we cannot assume its authors are describing what we define as family. Where I grew up, if you talked about the family you better watched what you were saying and who was listening. The family meant the family, as in Tony Soprano’s understanding of family (if you know what I mean), as in Mafioso!
All of this is not to say that the family wasn’t important in scripture, because it was. Religious identity was rooted in family identity. One of the chief obligations of the Jewish father was to teach the faith to his children and ensure that his entire household observed Torah (the Law). But the family in the Old Testament and even in the First Century couldn’t be more different than our own. In Greek, Roman, and Jewish culture the family consisted of an entire household, which included extended relatives and even slaves. These households were entities unto themselves. A Roman household could not be intermarried with a Greek household. In Jesus’ time, a Jewish household had to be kept pure, with no intermarrying allowed. The households were patriarchal if not misogynist. Women were not equal partners, but possessions of the chief male. Women were just a little higher than slaves. And children, children didn’t fare much better. It is against the terrible state of the family or household that Jesus offered his biting words or judgment. It is against the oppressive and destructive familial system that Paul offered a new vision of the family for Christians. In fact, a good case can be made that Jesus and Paul are almost anti-family, as it was understood. If we had time, I could take you through all their sayings.
What Jesus wants for us is something even better, a different kind of family, a different arrangement, and a different way of being. In fact, Jesus offers an even more startling image of the family. When people follow him and become part of his body, a new kind of family is formed. The early Christians who encountered the Risen Christ became a part of a community that actually separated them from their natural, biological family. Your blood ties were not as important as the ties made through baptism. The biological, natural, nuclear family is never celebrated as an ideal. We find this throughout the gospels and other historical sources. Even Jesus negates his own family in order to forge a new community, a new family grounded in divine love.
In the Epistle to Romans, this is precisely Paul’s understanding of what God was doing through Jesus. Here we have God’s purpose visible for all to see. God’s plan for the universe is to create a “Christ-shaped family – a renewed human race modeled on the Son.” The resurrected Christ is the first member of a wide, broad, extended family whose members are numbered like the stars (Genesis 15: 1-6), a family to which we who take the name of Christ have been engrafted, adopted as children. To be a Christian means we are part of a new family – the church. The church was and is and will forever be a wonderful amalgamation of widely different people who all come together for one reason – Jesus Christ. This is what was so radical and remains so radical about true Christianity. Greeks, Romans, Jews never associated with each other in a personal way. But because of Christ, these divisions were broken down. The stranger became a brother; the Gentile becomes a sister and friend. God’s people came together through Christ and through Christ forged a new family. The people who were ordinarily marginalized and excluded by race, creed, behavior and ethnicity all found a place at the table of the Lord. This is the way it was – I’m not making this up!
This table actually forms us into new people, into a family grounded and rooted in Christ. This table is not ours, but the Lord’s, who invites all people to come and taste and see that God is so very good. We become different kinds of people when we celebrate this meal together. Calvin wanted communion served every week in his church in Geneva. This table makes us into a new family, a family (I would like to believe)
known for its capacity to love,
known for its capacity to suffer and care for those in need,
known for its capacity to find a place for everyone who wants to follow Christ,
known for it’s capacity to be hospitable,
where we treat one another with mutual respect and care,
where widely divergent people can come together to
live together and work together,
eat together and play together,
dwell together in unity and purpose,
committed to Christ and committed to one another.
This is what it means to be the family of Christ.
 See their website: www.family.org.
 For a fascinating history of the role of family in the Christian tradition, see Rosemary Radford Ruether, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), pp. 13ff.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), p. 601.
 Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin, “. . . we find[in the Christian movement] . . . the sense of the church as a ‘new family.’ . . . This new family breaks down old kinship relations and separations. People whom the kinship rules of the Greeks, Romans, and Jews were designed to distinguish one from another, and prevent from intermarrying or eating at table together, now share a common table and spiritual kinship. In this new family in Christ, Jew and Greek, . . . Scythian and barbarian, slave and free become brothers and sisters to each other.” Ruether, p. 28. See Colossians 3: 9-11 & Galatians 3: 28.