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Radical Inclusion (June 10, 2018)

This gospel reading is a hard one. I discovered that I never preached on this reading before. So here goes.

It’s hard for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it mentions “the unforgivable sin”. What is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness?

Secondly, Jesus has some harsh things to say about family. He disses his own family, and teaches a new understanding of family which challenges our thinking about family.

So let’s do something different today — we’ll do some group Bible Study to see what this hard reading has to say. I’ve printed the gospel reading in our bulletin. (printed at the end for those who are reading this)

First, let me set the context.

Mark 2 and 3 contain stories of conflict and confrontation. Jesus seems to spark that kind of conflict throughout his ministry, and the result is that the leaders decide to destroy him. He’s a troublemaker. He’s a threat. From the very beginning, Mark signals that this story won’t end happily.

Today’s reading comes at the end of chapter 3. Two stories are embedded in each other. The technical name for this technique is a “Markan sandwich”. I’ve printed it out with the two parts of the sandwich in different fonts. The “bread” is the conflict between Jesus and his family; the “meat” is the conflict with the scribes, the religious leaders of the day.

Let’s get to the meat first.

The scribes accuse Jesus of having an evil spirit. That’s how he does what he’s doing. He uses the power of evil to do his work. He is possessed by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons. He’s in league with the devil.

Can’t you just hear how much Jesus threatens the religious establishment? He’s breaking all the rules. He’s upsetting the status quo. Even more dangerous, he’s popular with the people, and there’s no telling where that might end.

He’s a threat. We have to do away with him. Step 1: accuse him of being in league with the devil.

Jesus denies their charge. He points out just how foolish their thinking is. “How is that even possible? How can I be in league with the devil? That’s like Satan fighting against Satan! That’s just plain nuts! A divided kingdom will fall. A family which is constantly squabbling will disintegrate. A house divided against itself simply can’t stand.”

In a more positive way, Jesus is saying that this is God’s way. He’s healing people. He’s showing how the kingdom of God is breaking in and overturning the kingdoms of the world. He lives fully within God’s love, and he’s inviting everyone to live that kind of abundant life.

That’s when those words about the unforgivable sin come. Notice that these words are part of Jesus’ answer to the leaders who accused him of being in league with the devil. That context is important. These words come in the middle of a controversy. It’s not a general rule for all people for all time.

And what Jesus says to them is, “If you believe that I’m in league with the devil, then you’ve put yourself in a place where you can no longer hear what’s really happening. You put yourselves beyond the reach of love.”

I think Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message is helpful [which is why I included it in brackets]: “you are sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting … you are severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.”

It’s a warning from Jesus. He’s not saying that there’s one particular sin which God cannot forgive, and we all better watch out just in case we commit it. Jesus is warning these leaders that even though they think they are on God’s side, they should be careful not to cut themselves off from what God is really doing.

When you cut yourself off from God, then there’s nowhere to turn. God is not going to force us to turn to God. We are free to disavow God — but when we do that, we disavow true, deep and abundant life. “So,” says Jesus, “stay connected with God … or run the danger of cutting yourself off from the Source of Life.

That’s the meat in this Markan sandwich. Jesus is in a controversy with the religious leaders, who are trying to get rid of him.

What about the bread?

The other story here is about a conflict with his family. Jesus has come home, and the crowd around him is so large that he can’t move. There’s not even enough room to eat. This is how popular Jesus was with the masses. That’s why he was such a threat.

Here’s Jesus inside the house with all these misfits, all these outsiders, the riff–raff. And outside are all the proper people.

His family come to restrain him. The word translated “restrain” is the word κρατέω (krateo). Mark uses the same word in the crucifixion story when the leaders came out to arrest him. Other translations use “take custody of him” or “lay hold of him”.

His family is not there to cheer Jesus on. Mary’s not out there saying, “That’s my boy. Y’all listen to him Now.” They’re not there to support him. They’re not there to be on his side. No, they’ve come to restrain him, to take Jesus home, because people were saying that he was crazy. Jesus has become an embarrassment to them, so his family has come to take him away. It seems they agree with these leaders.

That’s why Mark tells these two stories together. They’re about the same thing. They’re about the same kind of conflict. Like the leaders, the family are also on the outside. Like the leaders, Jesus’ own family doesn’t get it. These two stories interpret each other.

At the end of the reading, the second piece of bread in this sandwich, Jesus responds to them, and redefines what it means to be family. “This is what it means to be family,” says Jesus. “My family includes all those who do the will of God.”

It’s not about shared DNA. It’s about a shared commitment to the values of God.

It’s not about family values. It’s about God’s gospel values.

It’s not about being born into a particular group of people. It’s about sharing life with all those people who live within the kingdom of God.

“This is my family,” says Jesus. We are bound together not by blood, but by action and intention, by how we live and by how we share the good news of God’s love in all that we do. Family is not defined by birth, or by long relationships. God’s family is made up of those who live by God’s gospel values, who do God’s will, who seek to discern God’s purposes in our lives.

That’s hard for many of us to hear. Family is such an important thing. And it is! But Jesus says here that family is less important than God’s loving and compassionate reign among us.

Now comes the most important part of Bible study. So what? What does this have to do with us, with our lives, with how we live as God’s people in the world?

What happens when we redefine the family this way? We become a community of radical inclusion.

Think about it. When you’re part of a family, you’re part of a certain, closed group. You might marry into a family, but it’s not open to anyone else.

Jesus’ family, however, includes anyone who wants to be part of it. All we need to do is come with open hands and open hearts to receive the gift of God’s love, the gift of grace, the gift of joy. All we need to do is receive and act on God’s gracious invitation to be included.

We see that Christian faith is not at all about family values. Christian faith is about following Jesus in living God’s gospel values. As the church, we transcend all other relationships. We are a community where all of us are equally valued. We are all fully and deeply loved. We are all bound together in a community of radical inclusion.

A family is, by definition, a closed group. The family of Jesus, on the other hand, is wide open. Everyone is included. Everyone is equal. Everyone is loved. Everyone is valued.

To take it a step further, the family of Jesus works against the pervasive fear of the other that we are seeing in society these days. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby reminds us that “churches working together can help to break down the walls that others seek to build. The Church crosses boundaries and frontiers as if they did not exist. By being in Christ, I am made one by God in a family that stretches around the world and crosses cultural, linguistic and ecumenical frontiers, driven by the Spirit who breaks down all the walls that we seek to erect.”

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

This kind of family doesn’t build walls to keep the other out; we tear those walls down.

This kind of family doesn’t huddle in our gated communities; we reach out to invite and welcome.

That’s what it means to be the church.

Thanks be to God.


Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

June 10, 2018 (3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10)

Mark 3: 20–35

1 Samuel 8: 4–20

2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1


Mark 3: 20–35

Then Jesus went home, 20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’

22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

[28-30“Listen to this carefully. I’m warning you. There’s nothing done or said that can’t be forgiven. But if you persist in your slanders against God’s Holy Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives, sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.” He gave this warning because they were accusing him of being in league with Evil. — The Message]

31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ 33And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”