The lectionary gospel text for this week is Mark 3:20-35, which as often happens in the gospel readings picks up right in the middle of the story. Jesus has called the first disciples, healed multitudes, preached around Galilee and challenged the Pharisees. And all of this landed him hungry and in trouble. The trouble begins with the crowd, who would not leave him alone. “They could not even eat,” Mark tells us. The trouble continues with his family, “who went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” The trouble deepens with the scribes who came down from Jerusalem to accuse him of collusion with Satan. From a preaching perspective, any of these three characters in the story provides an entry point for a sermon that leads the congregation into missional formation.
Some preachers may choose to focus on the radical hospitality and compassion of Jesus toward the crowds, the story of which is told in the first three chapters of Mark. Jesus’ ministry was full of grace and power and difficult truth-telling that unsettled the status quo and made religious leaders and Jesus’ family uncomfortable. For the crowds Jesus was literally a God-send: healing their diseases, casting out demons that kept people in mental, emotional, and social bondage, and challenging false and self-serving religion and religious leaders. We read in 3:21, “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.‘”* And the scribes were on the way to challenge and accuse him.
It’s important to note that in the verses immediately preceding this text, Jesus commissions the disciples to be apostles and indeed to do the very things that have landed Jesus in trouble. The apostles too are sent to proclaim the message and cast out demons. And so are we. The sent church is the apostolic church, and we are invited to participate in Jesus’ disruptive, compassionate, “out-of-your-mind” ministry. And how are we doing with that?
Other preachers may speak to the blindness of the scribes, who heard of this radical new thing and attributed to evil what was indeed good. In their religious blindness the scribes could not see what Jesus made so logically obvious: his work was of God. The scribes began with the assumption that what Jesus was doing was evil rather than good. They could have assumed it was good until proven evil, but they didn’t and that was their blindness. Rather, their assumption led them to attribute to Satan what belonged to God; in Jesus’ words, to “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.”
One consistent theme of missional and emerging theology is that the church must partner with God in what God is doing through others. The church doesn’t have to “own” everything, but should look for where God is already working in the world. To join in new partnerships, though, the church will need to avoid the scribal trap. To partner with God where God is already working, we will have to assume at the beginning that “it is good” and God is working outside of us and in the other. This requires trust, something that is not easily given within institutional or denominational structures. It requires trust that God is working beyond our ecclesial structures and approved processes, and it requires courage to join God in faith.
Finally, the preacher may focus on the character of the family. My attention has been drawn to how Jesus defines his family as anyone who does the will of God. Most churches that are small to mid-size consider themselves “like one big extended family.” In it’s best sense, this means that everyone knows one another, they share a common history and common values, they care for one another, they grow up and grow old together. In it’s worst sense, it can mean that there’s a lot of drama and only people “like us” are welcome. But what if vs. 35 of this text could help us go deeper in our ecclesial identity as a family? What if our deepest family connection, instead of longevity or relational history, is that we seek together to do the will of God?
In the story, Jesus’ family came to “arrest” him. Perhaps because they were concerned for him, perhaps because they too thought he was out of his mind.** Whatever the reason, they find themselves “on the outside” of the crowd gathered around Jesus. The crowd reported, “Your mother and brother and sisters are outside asking for you.” Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then with a searching look at the crowd sitting around him, he said: “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
In this one line, Jesus redefines his family as open-ended and dynamic, and radically different from our typical understanding of family. The brothers and sisters of Jesus are defined by action and intention, not birth or long relationships. They are defined by doing of the will of God, and the family includes anyone who wants to bend, or be bent, toward the will of God. To understand Jesus’ family like this might at first be unsettling to us who are comfortable in the family as we know it. But when we embrace Jesus dynamic family structure, we might discover we have sisters and brothers we never knew we had!
*In the Greek, the word for restrained is also the word used for arrested. Jesus’ family did not understand his ministry any more than the soldiers who arrest him Mark 14:46.
**It’s unclear whether Jesus’ family thought he was out of his mind or not. The Greek elegon is translated by the NRSV “people were saying,” but this could include the family or not.