Blood is thicker than water. You’ve probably heard this common proverb before. It means that family bonds are stronger than relationships we form for ourselves.
Jesus did not know the phrase, but he was certainly aware of the sentiment. In his day, family ties were in some ways stronger than they are today. Fulfilling the duties of family membership was a matter of honor, and in the Greco-Roman world to lose honor was a disgrace so great that suicide would become an attractive alternative.
But as he did for so many of the customs and practices of his day, Jesus received and then transformed his culture’s devotion to family. This is what the writer of Hebrews says in the following passage:
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. (Hebrews 5:10-11)
We are all a part of the family of God through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our membership in the family is a given. And yet, our membership in the family is also an achievement. What we make of the family we are given rests upon us, at least for the time being.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let’s take a few steps back and examine just how Jesus redefines the family.
We Are Family
Jesus himself was clearly devoted to his family of origin.
He followed in Joseph’s footsteps and became a carpenter.
After Joseph died, Jesus assumed the responsibility for his mother’s care. We know this because she is named among those who followed him during his earthly ministry. He didn’t just leave Mom behind.
And from the cross Jesus commends Mary to John’s care. (This may all seem a bit sexist today, but in the Greco-Roman world even a woman as clearly courageous and feisty as Mary had to have a male patron.)
And yet, Jesus would not stand for making the family an idol. Our earthly family gives us a worldly identity, but who we are in the most fundamental and enduring sense comes from elsewhere.
When Jesus was a preteen, his family visited Jerusalem. On the return trip home, Mary and Joseph realized that Jesus wasn’t with them. In a panic they scrambled around looking for him and eventually went back to Jerusalem only to find him teaching the elders in the Temple. His parents were furious and relieved to find him. And this is how he responded, “Didn’t you know that I had to be about my Father’s business?” His heavenly Father’s business, that is. He derives his sense of self from, and gives his fundamental allegiance is to, the Father.
After Joseph had died and Jesus had begun his earthly ministry, his mother and brothers got a little impatient with his teaching one night. Apparently he was going on a bit long and saying things that rocked the boat. Mary sent a message to him that it was time to wrap it up. Again, Jesus responded in a way that clarifies and redefines the role of family.
He said, “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters? Those who do the will of my Father.”
Jesus does not reject his family of origin. Instead, he expands our concept of family in a way that can include our parents and siblings and our extended family within a shockingly broad notion of kindred. People from every family, language, tribe, and nation can be our kinfolk.
If we do the Father’s will, we are family.
Doing the Father’s Will
Initially, this may sound as if the Family of God is a Moral Achievement Society. We achieve family membership status by presenting a favorable moral resume.
But there’s just one hitch. And it’s a really big hitch. None of us does the Father’s will with enough consistency and persistence to meet God’s infinite and perfect standard.
Here is what God demands. Since he is the one who created us and sustains us at every moment, we owe him nothing less than utter devotion. God does not demand that we follow a finite list of rules or give him a certain amount of our time or money or energy.
He wants nothing less than our total self. At every instant. And giving ourselves to him involves committing ourselves to the well being of all of his children, even to what we might perceive to be our own disadvantage. To withhold any part of ourselves for even an instant is to fall short of the glory of God.
And just look at our lives. Mostly we carve out a portion of time for God, some of our money for God, some of our thoughts for God. We make him one of the items on our overly full plate. And try as we might, this is about as close as we can get to the utter devotion to God that will make us one of his children.
Precisely because the Father knows this about us, he sent his Son Jesus. Jesus devoted himself utterly to his Father with every breath. With every beat of his heart. And he died on the cross to atone for our failure to do the same.
Through the blood of Jesus, we become part of God’s family. Jesus does the will of God on our behalf. We do the will of God by accepting that gift as a gift. We bring not our moral success but our moral failures to the cross and receive in turn Jesus’ perfect obedience to the Father’s will.
Acting Like Family
All of us who accept Jesus as our Savior are family. Our membership in the family is a gift. And yet, now it is also an achievement. Just because we are family does not mean that we will always act like it.
Take for instance the Owensby family. The evening family meal has been a big deal for us literally for decades. It is the time to gather, to break bread together, to renew our bonds of affection by sharing the day’s ups and downs, and to remember together God’s blessings. At supper we remind ourselves that we are family and reinforce our kinship by how we act.
At least, that’s what we aim to do. Sometimes sibling rivalry breaks out in senseless squabbles. Marital disagreements strain conversation or even lead to silence. Power struggles between parents and children spill over into the table talk.
It is not always so. This is not the rule. But we fall into this kind of discord with enough frequency to remind us that being family is a given but it is also an achievement. Family is a gift given with some assembly required.
And so it is with the Family of God. The Lord has organized us into congregations and denominations. When we act like the family of God, each of us will receive a sense of belonging and significance, acceptance and security.
The world outside will see that we have something that they want and that we are more than willing to share it. Our arms are open in welcome to every size and shape, color and accent, cultural style and political stance.
At times we don’t act like the family that we are. We squabble over differences that don’t need to divide us, because our unity is fundamental. We make small things big and forget who is really in charge.
But this is not the rule. Sincere worship, authentic spiritual practices, tender pastoral care, and compassionate outreach are the reliable marks of our congregations. We are the family of God. Our kinship is a gift, a gift that comes with some assembly required.
As it turns out, blood is thicker than water. Jesus binds us to him and to the Father through the bond of his atoning sacrifice. We are all of one blood. The blood of the Savior.
This sermon was preached at Grace, Lake Providence.