This is the second in a sermon series devised by Veronica. The sermon titles move progressively outward, in concentric circles, starting with “peace in the soul” 5 weeks ago and then looking in turn at Peace in the home/family (today!), Peace in the church/es, Peace in the workplace, Peace in the local community, Peace in the nation and Peace between nations. Peace is a key Mennonite concern and this structure helps us to remember that peace begins at home – or even closer to the core of our being than that.
I found it hard to know what to say about peace in the soul because I felt so ill-qualified by my own life to talk about the subject. That applies today as well. But it’s also hard because I’m just not sure there is a clear biblical message on peace in the family. The bible is full of not very peaceful or functional families. Jesus’ teaching and throwaway comments on family are far from straightforward.
Let’s start with the first issue, and here I’m going to ask you to do some of the work. I’d like the people on this side of the room (you can work in pairs or small groups) to come up with some suggestions of families in the bible where there is not much peace, preferably the least peaceful families you can think of in the bible. And I’d like people on this side of the room – and I think your task may be harder! - to come up with some suggestions of families in the bible which do seem to have peace, preferably the most peaceful families. I’ll ask both groups to report back in a few minutes, not just with names but also telling us what made you put them in your category.
So, we have an interesting pattern here…
In our founding stories, there is a rich mixture of family experience, including plenty of very troubled relationships. Maybe that prompts us to turn away from the stories in search of greater clarity in instructions and commands about family.
But here too it’s a bit of a mixed picture.
18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard." 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.
Now of course our prime example and teacher is Jesus, who conveniently both is part of a family and comments on his own family and families in general. So let’s have a look at how he behaved in his birth family and what he had to say about his own family and families in general.
Artists over the centuries have painted countless pictures of the “holy family”, usually looking calm & contented if not busy fleeing into Egypt. Christmas carols tell us that Jesus slept perfectly as a baby, never cried on waking and grew up mild, obedient and good… But then in Luke 2 we find him lingering in the temple chatting while his parents go half-crazy with worry at having lost him. At best you might describe this as teenage lack of awareness of others, at worst as thoughtlessness & disobedience. And he doesn’t seem to put his immediate family before all other concerns. Let’s hear Mark 3:31-35.
31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." 33 And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."
Not exactly a recipe for a smooth relationship with his family (or indeed the stuff of “family values” rhetoric). And in Luke 14 it gets worse.
25 Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. … 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
And Matthew 10 is no better:
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household. 37 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; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Hardly peace in the family… It seems that to follow Jesus we have to “hate” our closest family members, and that it’s fully Jesus intention that following him will bring conflict and disagreement in the family.
I think this a helpful corrective to what CS Lewis has described as a kind of idolatry of the family. But it isn’t the whole story. I think in its context this instruction to hate our family is not about hating – just as we don’t have to hate our time, money and possessions in order to be willing to give them up as necessary. Rather we have to give them their proper place in our priorities and passions, not letting them displace God, and we are called to be ready to part with them or give them away generously when necessary.
Of course there are settings – the early church, the early days of the Anabaptist movement - where these choices would have been stark. For us it may be less obvious how to give proper weight to these words of Jesus. Perhaps they’re a warning against selfish choices ostensibly made for our family’s sake because they actually appeal more to us. It may suit us very well, to take a rather crass example, to say that we have to earn lots of money and live somewhere comfortable & affluent because that is what our family needs. Or perhaps it cautions us not to be so determined to do the best for our families that we are willing to sacrifice everyone and everything else to that cause. Some of you here have made choices about what is the right way for our communities to work in general that have had implications for your family life in particular, for instance where your children grew up, what privileges they did or didn’t have, and I think this may be one way of living in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching
But, as usual, there’s a balance to be struck. Let’s hear Mark 7:9-13
9Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, "Honour your father and your mother'; and, "Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, "Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God )— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this."
So while we need to be careful not to idolise family or let keeping the peace in the family become an excuse for acting selfishly, it’s still important to work at relationships that are peaceful and show that flow of respect from children to parents that we talked about earlier. This passage is partly about the hypocrisy of a religious establishment giving permission for people to give lots of money to the temple instead of to their parents. But here Jesus also emphasises the need for children to take actual care of their parents, not just fulfil some other civic or religious duty instead. We can’t say, “oh, I have a peaceful and generous relationship with God and with my church and Jesus says we may have to hate our family so it’s OK for me to ignore or mistreat or fight with my family”.
These two apparently opposite strands come together in Jesus’ words on the cross in John 19:25-27.
25b Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." 27 Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
On the one hand, in letting his mother lose her son and his brothers lose their brother, Jesus is prioritising the call of the God and the bringing in of the kingdom of God over the preferences and needs of his family. On the other hand, he’s remembering an apparently contradictory call to honour his mother and to cherish and care for her in her old age, and making sure that someone else can do this in his place. (And in an interesting twist the person who will do this is not another relative but Jesus’ close friend, a reminder again that in the kingdom of God it’s not only family that count and not only the nuclear family that can be family.)
So, just as I feared when I started preparing this sermon, it’s a mixed picture. In a way I find that comforting. Our families can be where we feel most safe and treasured or where we suffer the most pain, partly because there is often the most at stake. Or both at different times. Or both at once.
So if things are not always plain sailing, if we don’t always seem to make a good job of maintaining peace with our family members, if we make a mess of conversations in our families that in any other setting we would sail through with wisdom, maturity and gracious generosity – then maybe it’s reassuring to think that there is not one simple biblical model or command that we are wilfully ignoring or failing to live up to, but that families can just be quite difficult…
And maybe the best we can do here is remember Romans 12:17 – 18. “17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It’s both wildly ambitious – live peaceably with all – and recognises that sometimes in a family there is more going on under the surface and in others than we can hope to deal with. So all we are called to do is what we can do, as far as it depends on us to “live peaceably with all”.