June 6, 2021
What an exciting day it is at Grace. After almost exactly fifteen months of live-streamed or recorded worship, some of us are back in person. Others are still joining us online—and as I’ve said before, I assume that we will continue to offer some form of online worship for the foreseeable future. Some of us aren’t able to join us in person; others will choose to join us from home or while traveling because of convenience. It’s a new adventure for us all and we will have to do the hard work of thinking how to incorporate everyone into our congregation.
What an exciting day, too, for Brandon and Kate. They’ve been waiting almost six months to have their daughter Mia baptized. We originally planned for a private baptism in November, but as COVID cases spiked we decided to delay it until a time when we could all feel more comfortable with it. This way, members of their family can be present
It’s lovely that we have a baptism today, on our first Sunday back for in-person worship. Not only does it bear witness to the newness of life in these difficult times, it is also a reminder to us of what we are about as God’s people, bringing into the body of Christ new members, witnessing to God’s love, and proclaiming our faith in the risen Christ. Our baptismal liturgy includes in it an opportunity for us to renew our own baptismal vows, to commit ourselves to each other as members of Christ’s body, and to renew our promises to grow more deeply as followers of Jesus.
There’s a creative tension at the heart of our understanding of baptism, especially infant baptism. On the one hand, it is a profoundly, intimately family celebration and event, linking families across generations with beloved and familiar traditions. That understanding was especially prominent in earlier generations when most baptisms were private. In the Episcopal Church, they were often conducted with only the immediate family and the priest present, often after Sunday services had taken place.
On the other hand, baptism is the full initiation of individuals into the body of Christ. It is a rite that brings us into fellowship and relationship with Jesus Christ and other members of Christ’s body. That aspect of it is emphasized when we all promise to help the one being baptized grow in the Christian faith. That’s why we now conduct baptisms usually at the principal Sunday service of Holy Eucharist, although we do make provisions as needed and to accommodate individual circumstances.
We see something of that same tension in today’s gospel reading. This is the first time we’re reading from the Gospel of Mark since Easter and after all those weeks in John’s gospel, we jump back into Mark’s very different story with a jolt that may wake us up.
We’re back fairly early in the gospel—chapter 3 to be precise. In the preceding chapters, Jesus has been on a preaching tour through the towns of Galilee, beginning with Capernaum. He has healed many people of their illnesses, cast out evil spirits, and called several of his disciples. His fame has spread far and wide and the crowds are becoming impressive. He has also aroused conflict around his interpretation of the law.
We see the effects of his healing ministry and the conflict he has already elicited here in this story. It’s an enigmatic story, full of drama, and leaving us with many questions as we listen to it. But I want to focus on the internal drama—or perhaps better put, the internal conflict between Jesus and his family members. A bit of that drama is downplayed in our reading because we pick up the story in verse 20. It’s not really clear to us that Jesus has come home, literally, to his house. That’s where the crowd presses in, so urgently that they are not able to eat. But, and this is important for what comes next, he and the disciples are not in the house, because his family comes out and wants to restrain him. They fear he has gone mad. To top it off, the religious experts have come down from Jerusalem to assert that he is not a messenger from God, but a servant of Satan.
That all this takes place around the house is significant. We have already seen that the private home is a place of refuge. Jesus went to his disciple Peter’s house after his initial public preaching and healing in the synagogue in Capernaum. But there too, he was beset by the crowds who wanted him to heal the sick. Later on in the gospel, we will see Jesus gathered with his disciples, but also with tax collectors and sinners, in people’s homes sharing table fellowship. Here, the house is a refuge, but it is occupied by family members who question his sanity.
Coming back to the end of the reading, Jesus is in the house, and his family members are outside. Being made aware of their presence outside, Jesus asks:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
We have been outside of this place these many months, clamoring to enter, wanting to return. For many of us, to be back inside this sacred building is a coming home. It is a sanctuary from the troubles and dangers of the world, a place where we connect with our deepest selves, with God, and with our fellow Christians. Yet many of us are still standing outside—for whatever reasons reluctant to return to services because of anxiety, vaccination status, or medical conditions that limit our freedom.
Others stand outside because of their alienation from God, because of the pain they have suffered at the hands of the Church, because they are not sure they are welcome here. Some may not feel welcome because they are different from us, racially or ethnically, socioeconomically, because of their sexuality or gender.
Even as Jesus embraces the household, the home, as a place of refuge, for himself and his followers, at the same time, he reinvents or reimagines the nature of the community that occupies the house. No longer is it a fellowship united by ties of blood; anyone “who does the will of my father” is a part of this new community, new family brought together by shared commitment to Jesus.
In fact, it may be misleading even to call what is being brought together by Jesus a “family.” Especially in our culture where the notion of “family” is contested and full of symbolic meaning, weaponized for political purposes and cultural warfare, when we call the church a “family” we risk setting up the same sort of barriers between “inside” and “outside” that are created by the walls of a church, or a house. When one’s experience of family is full of trauma, scars, and abuse, to be called into a new family of the faithful may be a barrier to hard to cross.
Still, we are a new community, created by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are a new community that welcomes into its midst through baptism and confession of faith anyone who comes to us. We are a new community that is meant to model what it means to follow Jesus in the world. We are a community called by Christ, calling others to Christ.
As we reaffirm our baptismal vows today, as we bring into this fellowship a new member, as we gather, for the first time in many months in this place, face to face, and as we after a long fast, once again taste and see that the Lord is good, share in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, may the bonds that unite us together be strengthened, that we may go from this place, to love and serve the Lord.