My favourite childhood uncle died last week. The combination of age (he was in his eighties), dementia and Parkinson’s disease finally became too much.
I had seen him only once in the last ten years, but my strongest memories of him will always be childhood ones. I remember him as a kind and trustworthy man. Even as a young girl I sensed that as his brother’s child I was genuinely important to him. I once was told he and his wife had begun their marriage with a mutual desire to bring as many children into the world as they could support. And they did so: three daughters and five sons, each one excitedly anticipated, welcomed and celebrated; each with his or her own unique place in the family; each cherished, nurtured and unconditionally loved.
I’m told all eight, adults now, plus many of their own children, gathered around his bedside in his final days, never leaving him alone for a minute. Four hundred people attended his funeral. In his lifetime my uncle was a son, a husband, a brother, a friend, an administrator, a respected community member, and chairman of a board. But the role that defined him above all, and for which he is now lovingly remembered most, was fatherhood. This man was a natural father, not only to his own children, but to others of us outside his immediate household. He was my ‘favourite uncle’ because his fathering heart was inclusive and warm. In his company, no matter how rarely you visited, you felt like you were family.
Jesus spoke often about His Father. I sometimes wonder what kind of friction that generated within His own natural family and whether his half brothers and sisters struggled with the knowledge that His Father was different to their father. Once, when He was teaching a large crowd, His mother and brothers stood outside wanting to see Him. When told, He pointed to His gathered disciples and said: “Look, these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!” (Matt. 12:46-50).
Hmmm…..not exactly a statement conducive to family harmony I would think.
As far as Jesus’ brothers and sisters were concerned of course, they were doing the will of God, and doing it well. They observed the Law and kept the Feasts (Luke 2:27, 2:41, Jn. 7:2-10). So where does older brother Jesus get off implying otherwise? And Jesus ‘difficult’ attitude wasn’t just a family misunderstanding. He meant what He said and demonstrated it even in His final agonising hours. Jewish custom required the next brother in line to take on the care of a widowed mother should the oldest male child die. But in a dramatic departure from tradition Jesus, from the Cross, pointedly entrusted the future care of his mother to His friend and disciple John (Jn. 19:26,27).
To Jesus, family was spiritually defined rather than naturally defined. His family ties were not to those clinging rigidly to the old traditions of law keeping and ritual. He identified ‘family’ as His disciples who included tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, widows, the poor, the disabled, and all those who normal Jewish society would have labelled misfits. His ‘family’ was anyone who knew their desperate spiritual condition and their need for a Saviour. The will of the Father they sought to obey was simply to receive His Son (Jn.1:12,13; 5:23; 6:45).
Jesus was passionate about expanding revelation of His Father beyond the fearful, thundering God who had handed down the Law to Moses (Exodus 19). He wanted ‘brothers and sisters’ who could begin to know His Father as He knew Him: a Father they could relate to intimately and who fervently desired to make Himself known to them. To Philip’s desperate demand: “Show us the Father!” Jesus had responded: “Don’t you yet understand, Philip, if You see Me, you have seen the Father! There is not a shadow of difference between Him and me!” (Jn. 14:8,9, paraphrase mine).
A father desires children, not acquaintances. A father wants a family, not ritual, ceremony and legalism. And a father wants unhindered daily intimate relationship with his children, not formality and protocol.
In the household of a father each child is individually known with their own chair at the table, their own space to rest their head, their own shelter under his arm. Each has their father’s ear to listen and his hand to guide. Each has his shoulders to climb onto when the world becomes too much. Each one’s voice is recognised and responded to appropriately. Each one inherently knows that in their father’s household their entitlement to ‘belong’ is unquestioned. In the Kingdom household of Father God, each child fits, including those of us who have not known or have not enjoyed a safe and fulfilling relationship with their natural father.
When Jesus pointed to the crowd around Him and called them His sisters and brothers and mother, He was not belittling His natural family. He was rejecting traditional, worldly ideas of loyalty to demonstrate the higher way of the Kingdom He’d come to announce. In the Kingdom, that which makes us brothers and sisters is not a common bloodline, but a common Father.
The shared purpose of this family of God’s children is to love and follow His Son Jesus Christ (Jn. 8:42). We will only recognise our Father in our spiritual brothers and sisters through the filter of personally beholding Christ.
A tradition has grown in some areas of organised Christianity of addressing others as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ as if it is our unconditional right to do so. In the Kingdom, however, we are not brothers and sisters through attending the same church, holding the same religious traditions, or being of the same skin colour, social class or political beliefs. Our spiritual brother and sisterhood are determined entirely by our response to our Father.
If we have chosen to seek first the Kingdom, more and more we are going to find ourselves misfits in this world, including in our jobs, our communities, our churches and possibly even among our relatives. We are walking in the footsteps of Christ. Jesus was, in many ways, the ‘black sheep’ among His natural kin. He was unacceptable in His home town because He didn’t conform to what was expected of ‘the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55,56). He was despised by the religious leaders of His nation because His message threatened the status quo. And for a while even His family seem to have rejected Him. (Where were His natural brothers and sisters during His crucifixion?)
In the Kingdom, however, there are no misfits, only beloved children – each one excitedly anticipated, welcomed and celebrated; each with his or her own unique place in the family; each cherished, nurtured and unconditionally loved. There is no limit to our Father’s desire for children or His ability to care for them.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. Jn. 1:12,13
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2014 Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.
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