“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” These are the words of poet, priest and Anglican divine John Donne in his Meditation XVII. While the meditation itself is on death, it is also conversely about life. We are not islands entire unto ourselves. All of us are part of a larger main: part of larger systems of work, school, church, and community. But our initial and formational experience of being a member of something larger than self happens within our family of origin.

Every one of us has a family from whence we come. Now families are very diverse in their constructs and in how they function. Families range from the ideal family where each member has the freedom to be authentic, transparent and completely loved, supported and accepted to … well … toxic families where anxiety is high, roles are rigid, freedom is absent, and love, if it is expressed, is always conditional. No family really lives at either end of this spectrum: all families live somewhere on this continuum and can move back and forth on it largely in response to stress.

Within each of these family structures, we each have certain roles we play and often those roles are passed down to us over many generations. Largely, these roles develop organically and are we don’t generally reflect upon them critically but they do impact how we see ourselves and how we function in other areas of our lives. You’ve heard about some of these roles. There’s the birth order role: the eldest child (the de facto “standard bearer” of the family), the youngest child (the darling baby of the family who always seems to get away with much more than the eldest child ever did), or the middle child (sandwiched between the eldest and youngest who at times feels lost in the middle). Admittedly, these are broad brush charicatures, but there are some truths within the generalities.

Other family roles are more functional to the emotional system in the family: the peacemaker who brokers the conflicts in the family; the comedian who keeps us laughing; the handy one who can fix anything; the nurturer who heals our skinned knees and broken hearts. Some family roles, though, have a much darker and destructive side: the authoritarian who is to be obeyed without question … or else, the enabler who hides the family’s dark secrets, and the scapegoat upon whom the sins of the family are laid and who always takes the blame – even when the blame belongs elsewhere. Family emotional systems are a complex mixed bag of roles and functions – some of which are life affirming and others which are death dealing.

Today we hear about Jesus’ family of origin and how the family system is reacting against his new identity of spiritual leader as he preaches to the people in his home town. There is very little in the Bible about Jesus’ family of origin – we only get a glimpse of it now and then. Our own image of the Holy Family is shaped by the pictures on Christmas cards showing Mary and Joseph gazing down adoringly at the baby Jesus in the manger. But today we hear that Jesus’ family of origin operated much like our own families full of roles and expectations – and Jesus isn’t doing what the family expects of him!

We know from other gospel accounts that Jesus was the eldest son and as such he had a very particular role to play in the family. He was expected to learn the family’s trade and take over whatever business his own father had built once his father died or could no longer work. He would receive the double portion of inheritance once his parents were not able to work so that he would provide for them in their advancing years – a sort of first century social security program. He would be the elder of the family clan to whom the extended family looked for guidance and support. And he would be the one most responsible for protecting and defending the family's honor. Oh yes … Jesus had family expectations placed upon him and he was not living up to their expectations! So the family decides to restrain him because the word in the street is that Jesus has lost his mind. It seems that Jesus’ own household is divided against itself and the family is poised and ready to pull him back into line!

The pull of the family and its expectations is very, very powerful. Rabbi Edwin Friedman noted in his book Generation to Generation that families have a set of organizing principals or core beliefs about themselves which are often unspoken and unreflected. And the family system will do whatever it takes to defend those organizing principals – whether they are healthy principals or not. Two of the major organizing principals in the families of first century Palestine were the expected role of the eldest son and the importance of protecting the family honor – or in other words, not shaming your family. Stepping away from those organizing principals and doing something different is called self-differentiation. And when someone in the family begins to self-differentiate, it upsets the homeostasis, the balance, of the family. The natural reaction of the family is to bring the one who is self-differentiating back into line – to protect and preserve the family’s organizing principals. This is why we see families who appear to be locked in destructive behaviors repeat this pattern over and over again through multiple generations.

Jesus embodies the self-differentiated person and he is having no part of being dragged back into the roles and expectations of his family system and culture. He knows what his heavenly Father has called him to do and to be and he knows it doesn’t match what his family and culture expect from him. When the crowd tells Jesus his mother, sisters and brothers are asking for him, Jesus turns the tables on the family system: “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

Jesus redefines and liberates himself and in turn liberates us from the narrow, finite and even destructive expectations of culture and family. In the Kingdom of God, our relationships are not defined by family roles and expectations. Instead they are defined by whether or not we are doing the will of God. This creates a wholly different kind of relational system than what we learn through our families. It is a relational system which St. Paul would ingeniously call the Body of Christ. It is characterized by relationships of mutuality and interdependence among its members instead of enmeshed co-dependence. As members of the Body of Christ we find the freedom to be authentic, transparent, broken and in desperate need of healing, yet loved in spite of it all. It is a new kind of relational system which liberates us from the rigidity of expected roles and instead allows us to be transformed so that our gifts and graces may be given freely for God’s glory and the welfare of all creation.

At our baptism, we are drawn into membership in the mystical Body of Christ. Through it, we are liberated from the roles and expectations of our own culture and family just as Jesus himself was liberated from his. We are not our roles, we are not the expectations heaped upon us by others, and we are not our failures to meet those expectations. We are the Body of Christ – children of God, beloved of God, called to do the will of God – thanks be to God.


Woodie Tingle
06/11/2012 6:56pm

GLAD I was sitting down for this . . . Hairs standing up on the back of my neck while reading your sermon is a little disconcerting? Scary? God "speaking" to me? Oh, Lord, how to sort this all out . . .

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