Photograph by Morgan Woodard
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 12:46-50
Generally speaking, most clichés have a kernel of truth to them… at least within their context of origin. We have all, no doubt, heard the cliché “blood is thicker than water.” It traces back to the Scottish author Allen Ramsay. It is found in his Collected Scots Proverbs published in 1737[i] and asserts that, no matter how challenging familial relationships may be they evoke an inherent loyalty that exceeds extra-familial relationships. That cliché is also scientifically accurate since water has a viscosity of 1 millipascal while plasma has a viscosity of around 1.5 millipascals.[ii]
But, there is absolutely no theological or biblical truth to that cliché “blood is thicker than water.” In fact, the opposite is true. It is water – baptismal water to be precise – which is thicker than blood according to our New Testament scriptures and that is the focus of this morning’s message. It is one of the most significant and distinctive early Church beliefs; a belief that, unfortunately – to a large degree – has been overlooked in subsequent centuries. It is a phenomenon that sociologists refer to as “fictive kinship.” Fictive kinship refers to relational bonds not grounded in blood or genetic material.
Familial terms are abundant in early Christian writings.[i] The gospel of John opens with a prologue that summarizes the identity of Jesus as God’s Word made flesh and the role of that Word, saying “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.[ii] That statement is a perfect explanation of Christian fictive kinship. It’s not grounded in flesh and blood, but birthed through relationship. It is grounded in relational loyalty of a non-genetic sort; a trust in who Jesus is and his ability to graft us into a new family, the family of God.
Now while we often think of the gospel of John as being most focused on this idea, it is also abundantly present in the gospel of Matthew. This morning’s scripture from Matthew comes midway through the gospel and what proceeds and follows it, lends even greater power and meaning to the words spoken by Jesus in this morning’s gospel passage.
Jesus’ most significant chunk of teaching material – or “disciplining instruction” – comes in what we refer to as The Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew, chapters 5-7). In that sermon, in those three short chapters, Jesus speaks of God as “your” or “our” Father sixteen times, including his instruction that – when we pray – we are to address God as “Our Father in heaven…”[iii]
Matthew’s gospel concludes with what we often refer to as The Great Commission; the resurrected Jesus – just before returning to heaven – joins his disciples on a mountain and speaks these final words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”[iv]
Now, you may not realize that Matthew is our only biblical gospel where we find the word “church” (the Greek word ekklesia). Our other gospels speak of disciples and followers; but never using the word “Church.” And, interestingly enough, Matthew’s first reference to “church” comes at the point where Peter announces Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of God and in response, Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you… for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”[v]
I mean; boom: drop the mic. Now, I know that’s a lot of scripture I’ve just bombarded you with; but here’s what it communicates in a nutshell. Flesh and blood are not what make for a family. Flesh and blood doesn’t do us much good when it comes to the most important stuff; the eternal stuff. We need relationships that are grounded in more than flesh and blood. We need a family with God as our heavenly parent and Jesus as our brother. Within that family, it is not flesh and blood that shape and form our identity. Rather, our identity is birthed through the waters of baptism and formed over the years (through faith formation) as we learn from Jesus how to live according to God, the heavenly Father’s, will and purposes.
In fact, in chapters 8 and 10 of Matthew, Jesus speaks strongly and firmly to oppose loyalty to biological, genetic family if and when that family stands in the way of our following Jesus.[vi] So, while those with whom we share genetic material may be family, it is not a given for followers of Jesus. What truly defines family – where our deepest bonds and affections and strongest loyalties lie – is among those who have been brought by Jesus into the family of God. So again; it’s not about flesh and blood. God is our heavenly parent. Jesus is our brother. Our identity is birthed in the waters of baptism and takes shape over time as we learn from Jesus how to live according to God’s will and purposes; as we learn to obey what Jesus taught. Friends: the blood that contains our genetic markers is NOT thicker (not as sticky, not as binding) as the holy waters of baptism. It is the holy waters of baptism which ties us together as family.
Over the past few months, I have spoken frequently of how baptism defines us. I have posed that question, “who tells you who you are?” Where do we find our identity? How do we find our identity? Where and how do we find a sense of family; relational bonds that are strong and reliable? We find it in the Church. It is grown and cultivated as together we seek to learn from Jesus how to live according to the good and gracious will of our heavenly parent. I cannot possibly over-emphasize how important it is for us to live as family within the Church, caring for one another, demonstrating loyalty and devotion to one another, being willing to sacrifice for the well-being of one another.
This morning’s Lenten artwork is a photograph by Morgan Woodward. It is a photograph of a family; a bi-racial family; a family that has endured prejudice and abuse…something which is inevitable when our understanding of “family” gets reduced to things like genetics, ethnicity, nationality, economics, etc.
But New Testament scripture tells a different story. We are not family because our skin is the same color and our DNA matches. We are not family because we look alike. The beauty of Church is that family is defined quite differently. Church family is open to all who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus regardless of genetic material; without concern for race, ethnicity, sexual identity, shape, size, country of origin, income, or any other status or category.
But there is one defining factor that Jesus names in this morning’s scripture. Perhaps it surprised you that Jesus defines family as doers: “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother,” says Jesus. But what, we might ask, what about grace? Isn’t Christianity all about grace? Jesus’ statement isn’t about “works righteousness” or earning our way into heaven. Rather, it reminds us, that it matters how seriously we take the teaching of Jesus. Following Jesus isn’t just something to study or talk about. It is a way of life; a chosen way of living on a day to day basis. Jesus calls us to live according to God’s will, God’s purposes, God’s priorities; lifestyle priorities such as those Jesus names in that Sermon on the Mount when he declares “blessed are the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart;” those who seek God’s way above all else even when it’s difficult and painful. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”[vii] Jesus names his disciples (members of his family) as those who seek God’s will and God’s way even when it’s hard.
Friends, church is a place where we are called to love one another deeply, with loyalty, with a willingness to sacrifice for one another. Family is important and we are family to one another. The primary biblical metaphor for church is family. Ours are family ties; we are joined together in fictive kinship. Church isn’t some club; it’s a family.
Legendary preacher Fred Craddock shares this story from his own life:
My mother took us to church and Sunday School;
my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late
when she came home. Sometimes the preacher would call,
and my Father would say, “I know what the church wants.
Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name,
another pledge, another name, another pledge. Right?
Isn’t that… it? Another name, another pledge.”
That’s what he always said. Sometimes we’d have a revival.
Pastor would bring the evangelist… and my father would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen,
always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers… And always
my father said, “The church doesn’t care about me.
The church wants another name and another pledge.”
I guess I heard it a thousand times, [writes Craddock].
[But] one time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital,
and he was down to seventy-three pounds.
They’d taken out his throat, and said, “It’s too late.”
They put in a metal tube, and X-rays burned him to pieces.
I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat.
I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all
the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed.
And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat,
on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed,
every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups
from the church. He saw me read a card. He could not speak,
so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line
from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you
this story. He wrote: “In this harsh world,
draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”
I said, “What is your story, Daddy?”
And he wrote, “I was wrong.”[viii]
[ii] John 1:12-13. NRSV
[iii] Matthew 6:9.
[iv] Matthew 28:19-20.
[v] Matthew 16:16-17
[vi] See Matthew 8:21-22; Matthew 10:34-39
[vii] Matthew 5:11
[viii] Craddock Stories by Fred Craddock; ed. Graves and Ward. Chalice Press. 2001; p. 14
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