On this Mother’s Day I’d like to talk with you about families, especially the importance of families for those who follow Jesus. Most families begin with a wedding. I can’t tell you how many weddings I’ve officiated at over the last 40 years, but presiding at a wedding is one of the more gratifying things about being a pastor. I still get a lump in my throat as I stand by the groom and watch the bride walk down the aisle. Standing there I sometimes think back to my own wedding, and what a happy day that was. I remember the weddings of my son and my daughter, and and what a mixture of nostalgia and joy I felt. But it’s more than sentiment that makes a wedding special. Two perfectly competent adults, doing very well on their own, stand before God, their family and friends and make a pledge to serve and to sacrifice. They promise to give themselves freely to each other, to stand by each other in joy and in sorrow, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death do they part. There’s no better example of the kind of love God showed us in Christ than the love that sustains marriage.
When two people embark on a Christian marriage, they start a family. Whether it includes children or it’s just the two of them, they’re creating a place where they’ll practice what Jesus proclaims. A Christian family is a model of what Jesus intends for the church. It’s a place where relationships are based on what you give, not what you get, on how you can serve rather than how you can be served.
I came across a good example of that. A while back I learned about stage coaches in the 19th century Texas. In the days of the stagecoach there were three classes of fare. They didn’t have to do with where you sat, because there wasn’t much room in a stagecoach. The fare you paid determined what you did in case of an emergency. In those days the roads weren’t paved, and it was all two strong horses could do to pull a stagecoach on a flat smooth road. Your class of ticket had to do with what you did when the coach got stuck. If you had a first class ticket and the stagecoach got bogged down in mud or faced a steep incline, you got to stay on board while the drivers pushed and strained to free the coach. If you paid the second-class fare, you would get out of the coach and walk around the mud and wait until the coach was dislodged. If you paid third-class fare, you got into the mud and helped the driver push until the coach was free.
Jesus stood first-class on its head. In God’s realm it’s the first-class passengers who get out and serve. It’s the third-class folks who are the ones who stay in the coach. Jesus demonstrated that when he gathered with his disciples on the night he was arrested. Before he talked to them about loving one another, he showed them what he meant. They had arrived at the upper room at the end of a long day. The streets of Jerusalem weren’t paved. They had been walking around in sandals so their feet were hot, tired and covered with dirt. The common practice in those days was for dinner guests to remove their sandals when they arrived at the home of their host. The servant of the host would wash their feet. It was a menial task – touching someone’s feet, washing them with water, and drying them with a towel. We rarely practice it in churches today because most of us feel uncomfortable with it. But Jesus, in the role of the servant, washed his disciples’ feet as they arrived for dinner. Peter protested. He said he would never let his master wash his feet. But Jesus said that if Peter wanted to have anything to do with Jesus, he must let him wash his feet.
Look what Jesus’ serving got him. Judas, one of his disciples, left the room to go betray him to the authorities who later that night arrested him, humiliated him, and the next day had him executed. It couldn’t get any lower than that. But what does Jesus say about his impending humiliation? After Judas leaves to set in motion the betrayal and the death, Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”
It’s in serving and giving himself that Jesus glorified God because that is the essence of who God is. You can know something of God by observing God’s power and might. You can see God’s handiwork in the glorious spring sunshine, the majestic panoply of the stars and the night sky, but you don’t really know God until you know God’s character in Jesus. The nature of God is love, love that gives and serves. God’s love is what we see in the life, death, resurrection and glory of Jesus. You know people belong to Jesus when they practice that kind of love. He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And what better place to practice God’s love than a family? Sometimes there’s no more challenging place to love.
Jesus told his disciples to love all kinds of people. He told them to love their neighbors as themselves. He told them to love their enemies. Those are hard instructions. But in his last instructions to his disciples, he told them to love one another. These people had been living with each other for three years. They’d eaten together, slept together, scraped out a living together. They had quarreled with each other. On their way to Jerusalem, some of them had been fussing about who would be the greatest when Jesus brought in his kingdom.
Our enemies and our neighbors we can love from a distance. We can help them but we don’t really have to know them. But we know our family, warts and all. What they can hide from others, we see. We know when their guard is let down. We don’t have much say in who belongs to our family. You can choose your spouse. That’s the only member of your family you can choose, and even then you’re in for some surprises. You can’t choose your parents. You can’t choose whom your siblings are going to marry. If you have children, you can’t choose their character or their personality. You can influence and guide them, but you can’t determine what they’ll be like. In a family, we’re supposed to love someone the better we get to know them, whether we like them or not.
In all those ways Jesus’ followers are like a family. “You did not choose me,” he once told them, “but I chose you.” That’s one thing that makes the church different from any other organization to which we belong. We don’t choose who belongs, God does. We don’t have the privilege of being with only people we like or agree with. God brings the church together, like a family, to practice being like Christ. We practice forgiveness, encouragement, unconditional love for each other, and love for the world.
That’s why, for so many, their mothers are their primary teachers about God. God is very much like a mother. Think of all the things a mother knows about her child. Yes, she knows how bright and sweet and beautiful he is. But she also knows about his dirty diapers, his illnesses, his tantrums. She knows the mistakes he’s made and the ways he’s taken her for granted. Yet who loves someone more than his mother? Who is always going to be there, always ready to do anything for her child at a moment’s notice, even one of the greatest acts of love, let him go, share him with the world, and let him pursue the life God has in store for him? That’s the way God loves us. And that’s how God wants us to love one another.
But that love isn’t just for us and our well-being. There’s another way Jesus wants his followers to love as he loves us. Early in his ministry he told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” God came to us in Jesus because God loves the world. The love we have for each other shows God’s love to the world. God forms this community of love called the church for the sake of the world. He told his disciples to love one another so the world would know they belong to him.
And that’s true of Christian families too. When two people are married in a service of worship, they’re affirming that, before they belong to each other, they belong to Christ. When we belong to Christ, we participate in his mission of showing the world God’s love. A Christian family is a place that prepares and equips its members to serve others in the name of Christ. It’s not just a shelter from life’s difficulties. It’s a place where its members practice Christian love so they can love the world as Christ loves it.
Last week Jean Vanier died. He was a Canadian who after serving in the navy earned his PhD and taught in university. In 1963 he was in France and visited an institution for mentally disabled men. It was a dark, depressing and violent place, but Vanier also found something there that was beautiful and mysterious. The men asked if he would visit again. “Behind those words,” he said, “I sensed a great cry: Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not with my brothers and sisters, who are married and living in nice houses? Do you love me?”
Vanier bought a house in a small town outside Paris and invited two men to live with him. One had meningitis as a child, and could only speak about 20 words. The other, who had encephalitis, talked over and over about the same things. Both were physically disabled.
By living with them, Vanier began to understand what it meant to be human. “Before meeting them, my life had been governed from my head and my sense of duty,” he said. “They brought out the child in me. I began to live from my heart.”
Vanier went on to form l’Arche, which is French for the ark, a network of homes where people with mental disabilities lived side by side with fully abled people to form communities of care and support. Today there are 154 communities in 38 countries. Another network of homes, Faith and Light, has 1500 homes. Henri Nouwen, the prolific Christian author, lived his final years in a l’Arche home and wrote about how powerfully he saw God’s Spirit at work there.
That’s the kind of love our families should nurture in us, a love that reaches out beyond itself for others. God has many ways of creating family. We care for each other in our families so we can have the strength, the faith, the support to follow Jesus out into the world he died for. We love each other so we help each other achieve our highest calling, to take our place in the family of Jesus.
Jesus said, “By
this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” And family is where we practice.
 John Claypool, “First Class Jesus Style,” 30 Good Minutes, Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Program #3919, February 11, 1996 (www.csec.org).