Friday, November 11, 2011

Come Home—Because Home is Where the Family Is

(A sermon based on Matthew 12:46-50 preached at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia on Sunday, October 16, 2011)

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” said the poet Robert Frost. Another way to say that is to say that home is where your family is because, usually, your family will take you in even if and even when no one else will.

Our families care about us and care for us because of the ties that bind us together. Those ties might be common blood, common experiences, common heritage, or common history—or all of those at the same time. Jesus, like anyone else born into this world, had such a family. Mary was his mother and, while his true Father was in heaven, he was raised by Joseph the carpenter. Jesus also had brothers and sisters.

Ordinarily, our family members are interested in and concerned about us and so it was with the family of Jesus. So Matthew tells us that one day Jesus’ mother and brothers came wanting to speak to him; we’re not told why, although in Mark’s Gospel this story appears right after one in which Mark says that “his family…went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21). Perhaps, then, Jesus’ family was still trying to, from their point of view, help Jesus while, from his point of view, they were trying to interfere with his ministry.

As important as we consider family to be in our place and time, it may have been even more important in the place and time in which Jesus lived because in that first century Jewish culture family bonds were considered central to everything in life. So for Jesus to say what he said in response to his family’s request to speak with him would have been truly shocking to those who heard him. For he said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then he looked at his followers and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

One thing we learn from these words of Jesus is that to be followers of Jesus means to be members of his family. In other words, being followers of Jesus is what comes to define who we are; being members of Jesus’ family becomes even more important than being members of our own families.

That is not to say that our families become unimportant to us or that we are to stop caring about our families. Indeed, when we are filled with the love of Jesus we are empowered to love our families with a much greater and more appropriate love than we were before; having God come first in our lives and having our family commitments subsumed under our commitment to God protects us from turning our families into idols or from expecting more from them than they are able to bear.

It is to say, though, that our commitment to God comes ahead of our commitment to our family because our identification with the family of God comes ahead of our identification with our family of origin or our family of marriage. For proof of that truth we need look no farther than the place where Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38).

Think of it this way: I was a Ruffin before I was a Christian, but now that I follow Jesus, I am a Christian before I am a Ruffin. If you are a follower of Jesus, substitute your family name and you will tell the truth about yourself.

A second thing we learn from these words of Jesus is that to be members of Jesus’ family means that we belong to him and to each other. One cannot be family by oneself. A Bantu proverb puts it, “A person is a person because of other persons" [Anthony B. Robinson, Common Grace: How to Be a Person and Other Spiritual Matters (Seattle: Sasquatch, 2006), p. 84]. That is generally true but it is especially true in the Christian family where we are bound to each other by the Son of God, by the Spirit of God, by the grace of God, and by the love of God. God is our Father; Jesus is our Brother; and we are all sisters and brothers to one another. We do not become Christians to follow Jesus by ourselves; we become Christians to follow Jesus together as a family of faith. When we baptize people we baptize them into the community of faith; they become members of the Body of Christ.

The family ties between us as members of Jesus’ family are stronger than any other bonds we might have. It leads us to want to be together as a family. In a sense, every Sunday we have a family reunion and it should be our heart’s desire to be together every time we gather. Some extended families have a regular meal together each week or each month and everyone in the family makes a special effort to be present because everyone recognizes that it is important to be with the family. Well, it is even more important that the members of the family of Jesus get together to worship God, to pray, to read the Bible, to fellowship, and to serve. That’s how we grow together in our relationship with God and with each other.

A third thing we learn from Jesus’ words is that to be members of Jesus’ family means to do the will of God. Jesus said that whoever does the will of his Father in heaven is a member of his family. That realization is not surprising given that Jesus once said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34). In other words, to do the will of his Father was what gave sustenance and nourishment to the life of Jesus; indeed, to do the will of his Father was the life of Jesus. Here in the family of God we are about doing the will of God in our individual lives and in our life as a church. That is our food; that is our life. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—and we mean it! We want God’s will to be done in our lives and in the lives of other people.

This raises the question of how we go about knowing and doing the will of God.

The primary answer to that question is that we look to the life of Jesus our Lord. After all, he is the only one who got doing the Father’s will absolutely right. Jesus is the full revelation of God and of God’s will to us and so not only can we do no better but we can do no other than to look to him to find out who we are to be and what we are to do. That does not mean that we just try to copy Jesus’ life; that is impossible since no one can mimic any other person’s life. Besides, Jesus did God’s will by being who Jesus was supposed to be; we have to do God’s will be being who we are supposed to be. As the church father Irenaeus put it, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Every person has his or her vocation; every person has his or her family; every person has his or her hobbies; every person has his or her likes and dislikes.

To do the will of God together is not to walk in lock-step or to be clones of Jesus or of one another. It is to take seriously, though, the fact that we are the Body of Christ and that through the Holy Spirit the Christ who is our life lives in us.

To do the will of God like Jesus did it, though, is to be obedient to the Father’s will and way as it is revealed in Jesus. That is why it is so important that the family of God gets together to worship and to pray and to study the Bible and to fellowship and to serve; our worship keeps us open to the way of Jesus; our Bibles tell us of the way of Jesus, our prayers lead us into the way of Jesus, our fellowship encourages us in the way of Jesus, and our service trains us in the way of Jesus.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do to try to do the will of God in the way of Jesus is to try to do the will of God in the way of Jesus. And make no mistake about it—it is a way about which we are talking [Cf. Morris Ashcraft, The Will of God (Nashville: Broadman, 1980), pp. 132 ff.]. We will not often find exact instructions for how we are to handle a particular situation but what we will find is growth and maturity and progress in living as we continually and methodically and habitually and willingly walk in the way of Jesus as we participate in the Body of Christ which is his Church.

It sounds so basic but it is so important: we are, as best as we can discern it (and we will seldom know it for sure), to be obedient to God’s will for us. And so we close with a parable of Jesus:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’” (Matthew 21:28-30)

When it comes to doing what God wants us to do, have we been saying “Yes” but living “No”? Or have we been saying “No” but coming around to “Yes”? We can always be growing to the place where we say “Yes” and mean “Yes,” regardless of how challenging God’s will is—but we best do that as a family.

That’s why we need to Come home; that’s why we need each other.

How do you need to come home? How do you need to be with your family?

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