It is sometimes easy to think we’ve got Jesus all figured out, his defining statement being, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” He’s the endlessly merciful one, who welcomes the most broken of people to break bread with him; the good shepherd who seeks out that one lost lamb; the prince of peace who blesses the ones who dare to be peacemakers. It is all there, of course, written in black ink on the white pages of our bibles. And then you get this: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
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;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
And this on the day that Jase Falk will stand to be baptized, supported and upheld by the members of his family. Couldn’t we have read some more duly pastoral and encouraging words from Jesus? Sure, we could have… but that’s the value of following a lectionary. It doesn’t let you just pick and preach the favourite passages, but instead demands we contend more deeply with the figure of Jesus in his challenging fullness.
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“Blood is thicker than water,” or so goes the popular proverb. Family ties and family allegiances are assumed to be the real ties that bind, the ties that bring out the deepest of loyalties. And yet here Jesus appears to be challenging that assumption in a fairly foundational way, saying that there will be times when being a member of his company of followers could well cost you those very loyalties. He’s pressing his listeners—and by extension us too—to effectively flip the proverb, and to affirm that the water of baptism is thicker than blood, and that our primary identity is now as members of the Body of Christ. After Jase is baptized in that water, I will anoint his forehead with oil and speak to him the following words: “I sign you with the cross, and mark you as Christ’s own forever.” They’re strong words, made even stronger with this gospel reading in view. This is your primary identity.
There’s a scene quite early in the Gospel according to Mark, in which Jesus is in a house teaching, and word is brought to him that his mother and brothers are outside, looking to take him home. They clearly don’t understand what he’s up to, and are probably getting worried that he’s soon going to catch the attention of the authorities and wind up in a good deal of trouble. And what is the message he sends back out to his family?
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
It is another instance of his utter redefinition of assumed loyalties, in this case including a redefinition of family itself. Who is my family? The ones all around me, who are joining in with this new way of seeking the Source of all of life and light, and if my mother and my brothers can’t yet see that—if they’re wanting to take me home to try to protect me from myself—well… I’m not going. He’s challenging a whole set of established cultural and religious claims around the primacy of blood ties, in other words. It is why when we baptize someone we use only their given names, and not the surname. Jase will not now have to forsake the good name of Falk, but it is now to be seen in a different light.
And it is not that Jesus is pulling apart family ties for the sake of creating some “new world order,” the way that totalitarian regimes have been known to do—think of China during the so-called “cultural revolution” or of Stalin’s Soviet Union. He’s simply describing a reality, much as he does when he speaks of how he has “not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Paradoxically, that sword will be revealed as an executioner’s cross, for although what he brings will be received like fresh, cool water by many, it will be received as a threat by those deeply invested in the way things are. “The very act of peacemaking,” comments the biblical scholar Stanley Saunders, “generates violence, for healing, restoration, and the conquest of death threaten the foundations of all human assertions of power in defiance of God.”
And you do know that his mother and brothers actually continue to figure in the story, and are very much visible within his movement—part of the Body—in the Book of Acts. I suspect that this was a source of considerable delight and comfort to Jesus, that his blood family was very much a part of his “water” family, his baptismal family, his Body.
As those of you who have been witnesses to baptisms here before will know, when we move to the font at the back of the church, I will ask Jase to make three strong renunciations and three equally strong affirmations. This all comes from the baptismal liturgies of the ancient church, which means that in a sense his voice will be one with the ancients; his identity made one with those who have gone before. The three renunciations basically ask that he commit himself to setting aside that which corrupts, destroys, and distorts, and the three affirmations call him to turn and embrace that which gives life; to embrace Jesus Christ.
“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour?” is the first of those affirmations, and the wording might imply that Jase is doing this for the very first time; that Jesus is someone brand new to him. Frankly, that’s not the case. Jase has been a part of saint benedict’s table for over ten years, ever since his family first walked through the doors of our former location at St Alban’s Church. He’s already been a part of things here—as a scripture reader, a participant in music leadership, and as a visible presence in our midst. He’s been shaped and formed here, as well as through his family and their network of relationships and friendships. And he’s already been sorting out how his life will be lived—what he values, what he stands for, what he believes, what he is passionate about, what his gifts are. It isn’t as if starting today he will suddenly set aside the things that distort or corrupt, because he’s been working that out for as long as he’s been alive. It isn’t as if prior to this day Jesus had no idea as to who Jase was, and it certainly isn’t as if Jase is suddenly going to become flawless or without the deep questions and real struggles that go with finding your way in this world. And yet to stand with the support of your church, your friends, and (yes…) your family, and to publically speak those renunciations and affirmations; it is no small thing. And for us to bear witness and pledge our support and solidarity with you, Jase, is to say that you belong. You are one with us, one of us, and there will always be room for you here. Even in the hardest times, even when you’re struggling to sort out the distinctions between what truly gives life and what brings only distortion, even when you’re not sure about things, there’s room. I might be the one who marks your forehead and names you as “Christ’s own forever,” but it is all of us in the Body who are claiming for you a place with us, today and always.
One of the baptismal images Paul draws on in his Epistle to the Romans is that of dying and living: “[W]e have been buried with Christ by baptism into death,” he writes, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” I like that image of walking in newness of life, because walking implies movement. Newness of life today, yet equally new tomorrow and next week and next year, after you’ve walked further along that road. May you walk the road boldly, Jase, with an inquiring and discerning heart,and the gift of joy and wonder at what God is always and ever bringing anew in your life and in the world.