Family and faith
Ordinary Sunday 10, 10th of June, 2018
Colleen Clayton, Klingner Scholar and Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Mark 3: 20-35; Genesis 3: 8-15
There is a story about a young curate conducting pastoral visits in his parish. He knocked on the door of one house where he could hear someone inside. But no-one answered the door. He knocked again and waited, absolutely certain now that someone was inside and knew he was there. Still, no-one came. Eventually, he decided to give up and leave a card. Before slipping it under the door he wrote on it, Revelation 3: 20 — "Behold! I stand at the door and knock."
The following Sunday, at the end of the service he was surprised to find the card in the collection bowl. Underneath Revelation 3: 20, someone had written, Genesis 3:10. This was not a verse that immediately sprang to the young curate's mind so he picked up a Bible to look it up. As you might remember from our first reading this morning he found the following words; "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself."
This story from Genesis is not, of course, a historical account but a theological exploration of the state of humanity and society. It tells us that although God invites us into the intimacy of family, we turn away and set ourselves apart from love.
Today's story from Mark's Gospel further explores the relationships between human families and God's family. There is pain and, I imagine, confusion for Mary and Jesus' siblings when they try to bring him home to safety and he asserts that his true family are those who do the will of God.
The claims of God and the claims of family have been in tension from the beginning of Mark's Gospel. In the very first chapter Jesus calls his first disciples, two pairs of brothers, Andrew and Simon, James and John. They immediately leave their biological families to follow him. Imagine the bewilderment of Zebedee, standing in the boat with the hired men, watching his sons leave him to join with Jesus in a new familial relationship with God.
The Gospel of Mark in general is not the book to turn to for a positive picture of family life. Jesus' family struggle to grasp what he is doing and in their lack of understanding, they would prevent him from fulfilling his calling. In this reading, Mark compares their lack of comprehension and negativity with that of the scribes from Jerusalem. Ouch!
Perhaps Mark's negative portrayal of the family comes from the times in which he was writing. The church was experiencing persecution and it seems that this often took the form of the betrayal of Christian family members by those who did not accept this new way of believing. For Mark's Jesus, the claims of the human family, insofar as they distract from God's purpose, must be rejected in favour of the claims of God's family.
To belong to God's family! How lovely! Well, maybe not. This new family is likely to present us with even more challenges than our original families do! God always wants to include more people than we do and the only requirement for belonging to this new family is to do the will of God. That means, we are going to find ourselves in close relationship with people we would rather not know; people who are not like us, people we don't like or understand, people whose idea of what doing the will of God means is vastly different from our own!
But from Genesis through to Mark we can see that this is what we are made for. Each of us is to enter into the intimacy of belonging to God's family. We belong to God's family by doing God's will, so each of us must put aside anything that stands between us and God and discern God's purpose for our lives.
We are each called to share the habits and practices of God's family, pursuing God's will for us so that over time we develop our family likeness and it becomes obvious to whom we are related. Part of that will involve the daily choices we make as well as the big picture choices that direct our lives. This of course raises some questions; What if I'm not doing what God wants me to? Is it possible to irrevocably mess things up?
Today's passage from Mark's Gospel is helpful here. In verse 28 Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter." Of course we will get things wrong, but we will be forgiven. God, our father, loves us and is always more ready to forgive us than we are to repent.
Verse 29 however, is less comforting, "but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin". What does this mean?
In the passage just before our reading today, Jesus has been casting out evil spirits through the power of the Holy Spirit. The scribes from Jerusalem attribute Jesus' ability to do this to him calling on the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. In other words they equate the work of God's Holy Spirit with the work of the evil one. They refuse to see and accept what God is doing and worse than that, they say that the healing that Jesus is bringing about through the power of the Holy Spirit, is evil. This is what is unforgivable. By utterly rejecting the life-giving power of God's Spirit, the scribes put themselves outside the possibility of receiving the work of that Spirit in their lives. They cannot receive God's forgiveness. They cannot do God's will. They cannot be members of God's family.
To belong to God's family, we must believe that God has a will, a purpose, for our lives. That it is a purpose that draws us towards fullness of life and love as we seek to live it out. We don't have to live perfect lives. We can be fully and messily human, making mistakes, getting it wrong over and over again, just like Adam and Eve. God will continue to seek us out and forgive us. All we have to do is to keep seeking to do God's will, trusting that it is a will of love. That is what it means to belong to God's family. We commit ourselves to discerning God's will for our lives and to making daily decisions that conform to that will. And we commit ourselves to growing into who God calls each of us to be; a commitment to discovering our vocations.
In the wonderful book, Let Your Life Sing, the Quaker writer, teacher and activist, Parker Palmer speaks about vocation this way:
Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks — we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service ... [it is] "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need."
"The place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need."
There are all kinds of ways in which we might find that place. Sometimes we uncover it through the things to which we find ourselves naturally drawn. Sometimes, the people around us help us by seeing in us something that we may not have recognised in ourselves. Sometimes we find clues in the quietness of time spent in listening prayer as we sit, open before God. Sometimes we seem to fall into our vocation by the way life's circumstances unfold, only recognising later that we were led to that particular place.
Of course, discerning our vocation also involves active decision making about the things to which we will, or will not, commit ourselves. Several years ago TMA published an article by Hedley Beare. He proposed 10 tests to apply when making decisions. His intention was to help avoid excessive, unhealthy busy-ness. However, I think his tests, which he intended should be porayerfully applied, also provide a helpful and practical guide to seeking God's will. In closing, I offer you an abridged version of his 10 tests.
- The test of Bliss — does this, deep down, make me feel fulfilled and satisfied?
- The test of vocation — does this make appropriate use of my talents; am I suited to this?
- The test of uniqueness — Why me? Is this something for which I have unique competence?
- The test of coherence — does this fit with my current priorities?
- The test of networking — will this keep me in touch with significant people or activities?
- The test of the strategic — is this exercise important enough to warrant my time and energy?
- The test of the prophetic — will this allow me to make a break-through or develop the field? Does it make me bold?
- The test of remuneration — there is always a cost. Who is meeting it? Who will gain from this and what, precisely, will they gain?
- The test of opportunities foregone — will this prevent me from doing something else that is more important?
- The test of peace, Shalom — Will this bring or foster well-being, free growth to my soul, and ensure that God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven? This is the test of peace. Don't leave home without it!
- Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (Jossey-Bass, 2000) 16.
- A scan of the TMA article by Hedley Beare can be downloaded here.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.