As we continue our series, Cross Words, I invite you to open your Bible to John 19:25-27.
Family devotions. Something most every Christian parent wants to do but finds a bit elusive. Author Larry Crabb encouraged creativity when his kids were young. Sometimes their devotions took the form of one of the children impersonating a biblical character. The rest of the family had to guess the character’s identity.
When their son Ken was about eight, he stormed into the living room in character. “I hate having him for a brother,” he complained. “Mother never blames him for anything. If we get into a fight, mom always knows it’s my fault. The other day I stole a dollar off Dad’s dresser. Dad didn’t suspect my brother. He came straight to me and asked if I took it. ‘No,’ I lied, ‘but I saw my brother take it.'”
“You know he would never do that” Dad said. “You’re not telling the truth. You must have stolen it.”
Crabb said the family had no clue who Ken was playing—Cain maybe, Esau perhaps, one of Joseph’s jealous brothers. “We give up,” they said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Jesus’ brother.”
In these Sundays on the way to Good Friday and Easter, we’re lingering at the cross of Jesus, listening to the things he says as he suffers there. Today’s word is a family word. Hear the word of Jesus from the cross … (read the text).
A family word. Jesus takes note of his mother at the foot of the cross and puts her in the care of the disciple he loved (most likely John). In the midst of excruciating suffering, Jesus tends to family business.
It’s tempting to sentimentalize this word. “Awww, isn’t Jesus a fine young man to look after his mama.” But we can’t coopt Jesus to sentimentalize family. There’s nothing in this scene nor in his ministry that confirms that. In fact, just the opposite.
Twelve-year-old Jesus is with his family at the Passover festival in Jerusalem. When the clan packs up and heads back to Nazareth, Jesus is a no-show. Nobody notices until they make camp that evening. Why would they? He’s twelve not four. He knew the schedule and is old enough to be where he’s supposed to be. But he’s not in the caravan. His parents freak—how would you like to lose the Son of God? They race back to Jerusalem. They don’t find him for three days. When they find him, he’s in the temple. No apology from Jesus either. Instead this: “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I needed to be in my Father’s house” (Lk. 2:49).
And then there’s that time early in Jesus’ ministry when Jesus’ mother and brothers come to see him. Jesus is busy teaching a crowd. The family sends word to him, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are here to see you?” Instead of saying, “Class dismissed! My family’s surprised me with a visit. I must go to them immediately,” Jesus ignored them, asking, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3:31-35).
And then there’s that time when Jesus was calling people to follow him. “I’ll follow,” said one fellow. “Let me bury my dad and I’ll be ready to go.” No sympathy from Jesus. Instead this: “Follow me and let the dead bury the dead” (Mt. 8:21-22).
Think that’s harsh, listen to these words Jesus said in Matthew 10:34-35:
Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother … and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.
What about Jesus’ teaching and actions say, “Family first”? And there are many places in the world where a decision for Christ means that the family disowns the new convert. And by disown, I don’t mean that they seldom speak or quit sending birthday cards. I mean they shut out the new convert altogether. There are cultures where new converts risk death at the hands of their family if they convert to Christ. And we’re not just talking about Muslim cultures either. A missionary from South America told me about a 14-year-old boy who converted to Christ against the will of his family. They didn’t just send him to his room; they threw him out of the house. He ended up moving in with the missionary family. That young man is now a pastor. “Who are my mother and my brothers,” Jesus asked. “Those that do the will of God.”
We’re tempted to sentimentalize this word from the cross. Don’t do it. There’s nothing gushy or schmaltzy here at all. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary has a certain star quality about her. But here in John’s Gospel, John gives her short shrift. He only mentions her twice. He never mentions her name, referring to her as Jesus’ “mother.” And while John uses the word mother to name her, Jesus never does. Jesus calls her “woman.” Catholic scholar Raymond Brown points out: Woman was a term of respect in Jesus’ culture, but not a term that a son used to address his mother. Jesus loves his mother, and in providing for her future care, Jesus shows compassion. But for those of you want to sweep your hand through the Gospels and gather the precious jewels of “family first” or “family values,” all you’ll gather is a handful of sand. And for those of you who want to make Jesus’ family life into a Hallmark card, Hallmark’s going to reject your card. As Fleming Rutledge put it: “Good Friday is not the first Mother’s Day.” Nothing sentimental here. This word from the cross is not about being nice to your mother.
Something else is going on: Jesus is enlarging the meaning of family. This word is about the new family that is formed through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
That doesn’t mean that Jesus loses sight of the traditional family unit. Jesus understood the importance of family and appreciated family. Family was his Father’s idea. And when the Father sent Jesus, he placed him in a family. But while Jesus had regard for the institution of family, his commitment to his Father and his mission came first. And by this word to his mother from the cross, Jesus made provision for a new kind of family in his kingdom.
Jesus had brothers and sisters. Jesus was the oldest sibling in the family. Why didn’t Jesus put his mother into the care of his next oldest brother? Is it as simple as the fact that his brother probably wasn’t at the cross, and John was, standing at Mary’s side? No, there were larger considerations. So far as we know, when Jesus was on the cross, none of his brothers were believers. They did not view Jesus as Messiah. His siblings were not following Jesus. John was. So Jesus put his mother in the care of John. John was a disciple. John was a believer. John was church. Jesus’ brothers were not believers just yet. They were not church. At this point in the story when the faith of those who followed Jesus was rocky enough already, Jesus wanted his mother in the care of those who were at least trying to believe.
What Mary didn’t need in her grief was the input of unbelieving biological children saying, “Mom, we told you not to get all wrapped up in Jesus. We told you it was going to end badly. We told you he was going to embarrass our family. We told you he was a few slices short of a loaf. Now come on back to Nazareth, spend time with your grandkids, and try to put Jesus out of your mind.” If Mary followed that counsel, she’d have missed the resurrection.
Even the disciples’ faith was shaky at this point, but Jesus new it was better for Mary to be with them than with those who poo-pooed Jesus altogether. Thus, this word from the cross: “Woman, here is you son.” And to John, “Here is your mother.” Mary’s family just got a lot bigger. In John’s Gospel, there is always more than meets the eye. So John and Jesus’ mother are not just two individuals. John doesn’t use proper names like Mary and John; he chooses broader words like woman and disciple. Mary and John are at the foot of the cross, but “they represent the way family ties are transcended in the church by the ties of the Spirit.”
All of us who come to the foot of the cross are family. Aren’t you glad? Will Willimon observes that through our common faith in Jesus we are rescued from our family. “Our families, as good as they are, are too narrow, too restricted. So in baptism we are adopted into a family large enough to make our lives more interesting.”
Church family makes life more interesting all right. Different personalities. Different politics. Different backgrounds and life-experiences. Not everybody in this family looks like us or shares the same gene pool. And Jesus teaches us to love them like brothers and sisters. That makes life interesting. Many are people we would never think to associate with if we weren’t thrown together in the church. If we took one of our black members, one of our Hispanic members, one of our white members, and added one of our wealthiest and one of our poorest members, stood them side by side in front of Walmart, and asked passersby how they would describe that little group, nobody outside the church would guess “family.” But in Christ, they are … we are. Brothers and sisters, you’ve got a bigger family than you know.
And it’s a family that can make us better disciples. Church family gives us opportunity to love the stranger, the eccentric, the folks on the margins, and those who are so very different from ourselves. Church family makes God bigger for us and his love and his reach wider for us. Church family gets us ready for heaven when people from every nation, tribe, tongue, race, culture, and class will be gathered together around the throne of God in full equality as family. You’ve got a bigger family than you know.
That can be a great encouragement to people whose birth family is fouled up beyond all recognition. The church family can become a haven and a help. I’ve lived it.
- When my mother stroked out and was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. My dad had to work, so you know who took care of us boys? We stayed with our pastor’s family in their home a good bit of that time.
- When my mother got the courage to leave my dad and moved us into her mother’s house in Branson, nobody could drive. Neither my grandmother nor her aunt who lived with her had a car or a driver’s license. My mom had a license but no car, and due to her stroke disabilities, she couldn’t drive if she wanted to. You know who took her to the psychiatrist in Springfield and made sure our family was cared for? Our new church family in Branson.
- And even in my adult years, the church family has been there for us. At every crisis in our lives, the church family has been there for us. One example: when my mother died, a handful of cousins showed up for the funeral, but a whole busload of church family gave a day to come from Hot Springs to Branson just to be with us in our time of grief. The church family has been there to encourage us, to kick us in the tail when we needed that, to pray for us, to support us in any number of ways. I realize I’m the pastor, and my family may get a little special treatment because of that, but I could parade person after person from the congregation up here who would tell you a similar story. You’ve got a bigger family than you know.
Go on a mission trip and you’ll find brothers and sisters all over the world who speak a different language but love the same Savior. You’ll get acquainted with brothers and sisters who live in a very different culture but who follow the same Jesus. You’ve got a bigger family than you know.
And that family includes people like Abraham and Moses and David and John and Mary and Paul and Peter and the Ethiopian eunuch and Polycarp and Augustine and Luther and Calvin and Spurgeon and Wesley and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billy Graham. These are our ancestors, our grandmothers and grandfathers in the faith—people we will get to know better on the other side. You’ve got a bigger family than you know.
Sure, a church family, just like your blood family, can disappoint you and break your heart. Most of us who have been in a church family for any length of time have been there now and then. I’ve been both the heart-breaker and the heart-broken myself. But that just teaches us to love like Jesus loved. We don’t always get family right in the church. But the downside will be small compared to the upside of being part of a church family.
The church family is called to care for her people when they’re sick and help her people when they’re down. The church family is called to set her people straight when they go astray, to forgive her people when they sin, and to pray for her people day in and day out. The church family can become surrogate brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, mothers, fathers, and grandparents for those who need such relationships. Some of you have counseled me like a wise parent. Some of our kids’ youth leaders are still like aunts and uncles to them. Our little nuclear family has been made a thousand times larger and more interesting because of church family. In fact, it’s not unusual to feel closer to some in your church family than to your own flesh and blood. And church family is called to stand with us, by us, and for us no matter what. The church family calls us to faithful discipleship and welcomes prodigals home. Even when our birth family forsakes us, church family will be there. Everybody needs a family like that. Whether your birth family is a healthy family or a dysfunctional mess, everybody needs a church family—a “new birth” family, so to speak.
Jesus knew this. He knew the cost of following him would cost some of his followers their family. He knew that would be a difficult sacrifice to make. So he made provision for a whole new family. Listen to his words to his disciples in Matthew 19:29 – ‘And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields because of my name will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life.” You’ve got a bigger family than you know.
A teenage boy was sitting in an opening day assembly at his first day in a new school in a new town. He had moved into town early that summer, but it was his first day at school. The school had an opening assembly so the Principal could introduce the teachers. With several new students and several new teachers, the Principal thought everybody needed to meet everybody. Some teachers were more popular than others. When Miss Simpson was introduced the kids cheered, “Yea, Miss Simpson. Go, Miss Simpson. We love Miss Simpson.” But when Mr. Newport, a teacher known for demanding the best from his students, was introduced, several of the kids jeered: “Boo, Mr. Newport. Go home, Mr. Newport. Hiss, Mr. Newport.” The new kid at school couldn’t stand this. He knew Mr. Newport from his church. Mr. Newport had been his Sunday School teacher all summer and had taken a special interest in him. So in the midst of the jeers, the new kid stood and said, “Shut up, Mr. Newport’s my father.” Oops. The kids quieted down as the message passed among them, “Cool it, Newport’s kid is here. I didn’t even know Newport had a kid.”
When the boy got home his dad asked, “How was your first day at school?”
Feeling guilty, the boy confessed, “Dad, I told a lie at school today.”
“What’s that, son?”
The boy explained the situation and said, “So I told them to shut up because Mr. Newport was my father.” What’s a parent to do in a situation like that? His dad was wise, “Son, all you did was get your relationships mixed up. He’s not your father, he’s your brother. But in the assembly, Mr. Newport needed a son, and you were just the son he needed.”
Jesus looked down from the cross on which he was suffering and dying for our sins. He saw family and he saw church, and he put them together: “Woman, here is you son.” To his disciple, “Here is your mother.”
Look around for a moment at this hodge-podge of disciples gathered at the foot of the cross. Some you hardly know, with some you share so little in common. Pray that God will give you grace to see these strangers as siblings. Pray that God will give them grace to see you the same way. Because he who had no conventional family, he who never married and had no children of his own, is busy forming the largest family the world has ever known.
Preached: February 11, 2018
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II