Midweek Musing. On the kin-dom of God.
Reflection on Mark 3:20–35 and 2 Cor 4:13–5:1
Wesley Uniting Church 10 June 2018
He turns his back on her. His mother. In a culture in which life revolves around family. But in any culture, turning your back against your mother – that is profound.
Who is my family?, he asks. And for all those rejected, marginalized, folk with withered hands and darkened sight, begging to be seen on the edges of society, his sweeping embrace of all who follow God’s way as his kin must have felt like a warm shower after playing netball in the rain.
But he turns away from his mother and his siblings. For some commentators, that they are outside the house in which Jesus is teaching his disciples suggests they are not considered by the narrator or his audience to be disciples, are outside Jesus’ redefinition of family.
But I don’t see them as outside the invitation. They are not excluded from the possibility of being family.
In the story, though, Jesus’ family are letting fear determine their actions. They are afraid of the dangers facing Jesus: they worry he has lost his mind or his proper observation of their religion. Perhaps they worry that he is reckless with regard to the danger posed by the authorities: there is the shadow of threat to Jesus’ life over the whole story Mark tells. Perhaps they are not considered disciples, and are therefore outside the definition of family, because they let these fears lead them to suggest a turning away from the path on which God has set Jesus?
Underneath the story of dispute between Jesus and the religious leaders is the question: who is Jesus, and will he lead us to God or a different power all together?
The religious leaders suggest Jesus is in league with Beelzebul, or the devil, or Satan. Jesus responds with a rant about divided houses that is supposed to suggest that if he is with the devil, casting out the devil, that would represent a house divided, and makes no sense.
So who is Jesus? He is an opponent of the power of evil. He warns them not to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. Or, another translation might render it, the Holy Breath: the breath that breathes through Jesus, that breathed in the Word to create all that is. Jesus is infused with the Holy Breath, and he will not turn his face from God.
All who follow the ways of God are my kin, he says. All who refuse to turn their face from God are my kin, Jesus says. Jesus is our brother, our kin, the extender of the invitation into the kingdom of God.
Or perhaps we might say, the Kin-dom of God. This is language I picked up from Bruce Sanguin, whose prayers I use in our gathered worship from time to time.
Why might the poet have chosen to change this language that is such a feature of the stories we tell about Jesus? What is it about ‘kingdom’ that may be thought unhelpful in the prayerful life of Christians today? To answer that, we need to consider why it was helpful language in its original context.
The language of kingdom was current in the time, and particularly for Jesus’ audience, referred to the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. He uses the language of kingdom to describe the realm being brought about by God to draw a direct contrast between that realm and the realm of the Empire. As in his parables, Jesus uses current language and images and ways of life and turns them on their heads: because the kingdom of God will turn their understanding and experience upside down.
In holy week we remembered Jesus as a radically different kind of ‘king’ to the expectation of many looking for a rescue from their current experience. He came on donkeys and used peaceful resistance; he was much more servant than ‘king’. In the next chapters Jesus uses parables to paint pictures of the kingdom of God: the profligate sower, a lamp not to be hidden, the tiny mustard seed that will grow into a bush that will shelter all who seek shade, food, home.
Jesus promises a new realm, of just relationships and welcome for all; of healing and kindness and love. This is not the experience of the people in Jerusalem and Judea subsumed into the realm of the Roman empire. A realm in which only a few are ‘in’, and most are ‘out’, downtrodden.
This kingdom of God is not going to overthrow the Emperor with a war, or even a political coup, however. This kingdom is going to gently but firmly, radically and not very quietly, affirm the dignity of all humans.
This kingdom will invite all who choose to live lives of radical love and kindness to consider themselves at home in God’s house; to consider themselves part of the family. Regardless of whatever dividers and boundaries we humans might think to construct between us.
This kingdom is, in fact, a kin-dom. It is all about restored, life-giving relationship.
the language of kin-dom maintains an aural link to the kingdom language we have inherited. But where kingdom language can take on the militarism it is actually intended to invert (I’m sure many have experienced this), kin-dom language reconnects us with the essence of that kingdom as radical love, like that of a family.
Kinship infuses Paul’s writings on the community life of Jesus-followers. And more, for Sanguin notes Paul’s ‘intuition of a Christ who is cosmic in scope and sovereignty.’ Perhaps we ought to regard all that is Divinely created as our kin? For now, we might consider Paul’s greetings in Romans 16, the longest list of names in his letters, which is replete with the language of kin-ship as a feature of Christian communities of mutual care and respect. Sanguin’s poetic transformation of language captures a fundamental feature of God’s realm as introduced in the New Testament as one of deep family ties and renewal of human relationships with each other. A feature he foregrounds with this change, seeming to observe a greater resonance for this time with kin-ship than with king-ship.
In the ancient world from and for which the writer of Mark’s gospel composes tells the story, kinship probably meant different things than it does today. I think we may still understand the concept enough. In healthy families there is a bond, loyalty, mutual care and affection which Jesus extends beyond the genetic ties of family to a family united in their love of and devotion to the Holy.
The kingdom, or kin-dom, of God is the family of God. Sanguin’s language helpfully recovers the essence of the realm of God described by Jesus and Paul, and experienced by those early disciples: an essence of radical kinship. It is radical, for it turns Jesus’ face from his biological mother and siblings towards those inside the commitment to this coming realm of God he announces, while his mother and siblings are outside.
There are interpretations and applications of this story of Jesus’ turning from his mother that lean towards a radicalisation evident in various sects that cut their members off from their families in order to force loyalty. That’s not what is going on here. Jesus does not speak so as to cut his family off: rather he speaks in a way that acknowledges the present reality. His biological family have situated themselves outside the family of disciples of the way. He extends the idea of kinship, but the invitation does not exclude those who have not yet joined this way, does not exclude his mother and brother and sister. His mother is at the foot of the cross and at his tomb; his brother James becomes the leader of the movement in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Clearly, at some point they accepted the invitation to join this new kind of family.
The challenge offered to the church today is to offer they loyalty, mutual care, love, and kindness we find in healthy families to each other in this kin-dom, this family, of God. Not only for the sake of our own home, but for the sake of the world. For this kingdom – this kin-dom – breaks into the world through our living of it, and if we can’t get mutual love and kindness right between ourselves, we are no good to the world.
We are a witness in and to the world, a witness of radical love, a witness to the Holy source of love, kindness, welcome. We, together, as part of the kin-dom of God bear witness to the restorative movement of God.
Inevitably, we will disagree with each other from time to time, divisions may creep in, and the Uniting Church as a whole is facing a difficult and potentially divisive challenge as we discern what our stance on same-gender marriage will be, as a church, together.
As Jesus notes the dangers of a divided house in his rant in this story, we would do well to heed a warning there for our own house.
Paul was constantly addressing churches divided over one issue or another, was he not? But we hear in his letter to the Corinthian churches an encouragement: the house in which we reside as the family of God is built by God, is eternal and situated within the eternal realm of God. So we can take heart, for we do not build the house of God. We live here, invited by the Divine; we love here, beloved of the Holy; we are held together here, united by the one Spirit-Breath.
But that is why we must not speak against the Breath, the Holy. For it is there that we reside, are home, are whole. We will do well to heed Jesus’ warning not to speak against our very source of life. It would be worse than turning our back on our own mother.