In the light of the recent Irish referendum on Same Sex Marriage, the deep divisions which marked the conversations in the Church of Scotland over gay marriage (“Kirk in chaos over Gay Ministers” – The Times – Scotland, 22 May 2015) and our own General Assembly recalled to consider this important issue at the end of the month can this week’s gospel reading on family life shed any light on these important yet controversial issues? (Mark 3: 20-35, Pentecost 2: 7th June 2015).
As general rule of thumb if you’re looking for snapshots of happy parent-child/family relationships from the ancient world, the Bible probably shouldn’t be on your short list of sources. The New Testament texts, it would appear, do not speak with one voice on or provide a blueprint for the conduct of families and family life. Consider Jesus’ family, for example. The New Testament preserves evidence to suggest that Jesus’ relationship with his mother was rather strained. Similar tensions appear to have existed between him and his siblings, as well. An important source is today’s gospel Mark 3:2, says: “When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, ‘He’s out of his mind!'” (CEB). The text then does not provide us with normative and regulating principles or guidelines for determining the content and structure of “traditional” family life of for that matter “traditional” family values.
The story, seen in a wider context, sets Jesus’ family in comparison to influential religious leaders (legal scholars based in Jerusalem). Both family members and leaders express an inability to understand who Jesus really is. The religious authorities conclude he is possessed by Satan. His family assumes he has lost his sanity. In an ancient setting, these diagnoses were roughly equivalent to each other.
I was taken by surprise then when I read the text afresh for my sermon next Sunday. I wonder whether Jesus is attempting to redefine the criteria for who constitutes his true family. When the crowd says that his family is summoning him from outside the crowded building, Jesus answers with a shocking statement: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? … Look, here, these people seated around me are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister and mother.”
Naturally, it’s good news for those inside the house, who seek to identify with Jesus and his message. It’s also good news for Mark’s earliest readers who found themselves estranged from their biological families. But it was bad news, however, for his relatives on the outside, and for others with high regard for customary notions of honour and social stability.
What I think Jesus is getting at here in these statements is to suggest that the focus on an idealised family concept can become an excuse for not considering the bigger picture of human relationships in society in a morally sensitive way. The strong insistence on traditional family values that ostensibly claims its sanction from the Bible, and which I grew up with, now seems inappropriate, possibly theologically dangerous, but also morally restrictive, closing down on other possibilities for Christian living.
You may then ask what’s a “family” supposed to consist of now – in today’s society and culture? Traditional family value perhaps ? For Jesus, family — at least, one type of family – might be defined as a community of people joined as an expression of their commitment to discover and manifest God’s will.
Whilst Mark 3:20-35 is not the first biblical text I would appeal to in a conversation about why I will vote in favour of Same Sex Marriage in our churches at the reconvened General Assembly in Birmingham the text today, nevertheless, should inform how Christians think about the issue.
And what is “the issue”? It’s multifaceted, obviously. The proposal touches on many things, not solely approval or disapproval of homosexuality in general. For one thing, it’s about families — real families.
Jesus’ words prompt us to consider the relationship between a family and what it means to know and do God’s will. Can only certain kinds of families reflect or promote God’s will, as Jesus articulated it in terms of mercy, love, justice, protection, holiness and well-being? Can only certain families express the belonging and solidarity that God desires to share with humanity?
Obviously, Christians have not found consensus on these topics, as discussions of sexuality and marriage have polarized many communities. Yet the discussions, impelled by the cultural urgency surrounding today’s issues, have also brought many into deeper understandings about what kind of living, what kind of family life might be consistent with Jesus’ life and message.
For some there will be those in our church who see family life and the marriage of same-sex couples as consistent with the life and message of Jesus as he has redefined it in this passage, and there will be those who will not. The best way for us to stick together as a denomination is by respecting all such views just as we have done with regard to blessing couples who have had a civil partnership. No-one has been forced to bless such couples. Some people have blessed such couples. It is very similar indeed to the case of couples where at least one party has been married before. There are some clergy who will not conduct such ceremonies but there are plenty of us who do and there is a thoughtful pastoral process to enable such weddings to take place. Thus there is already divergent practise over both blessings and marriage. The world has not ended by that diversity and our unity in Christ remains unbroken.
Minister of St Andrew’s Dawson Street, Crook
Genesis 2 8-15
2 Corithians 4 13-5:1
Mark 3 20-35