Spiritual Family and Thanksgiving


Family is something everyone talks about this week, and keeps talking about as we get closer to Christmas. Many of us gathered around tables with family members and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving together and eat all. the. things.

People traveled to be with families. Social media feeds were full of family photos and Christmas cards start showing up in the mail. Movies and advertising are full of images of families gathered around tables and Christmas trees.  It seems like the idea of family is everywhere at this time of year. #family #blessed

Don’t get me wrong – family can be pretty awesome. Sometimes the people who have known you since you were tiny are the ones really are the best people in your life.  

But sometimes they are . . . not.

Family isn’t easy for everyone. Here’s how I know: Alongside of the images of happy families with perfect turkeys this week online were articles with titles like these:

  • 10 Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving with a Dysfunctional Family
  • How to Survive Thanksgiving Drama with this Smart Conflict-Management Strategy
  • How to Avoid a Family Disaster at Thanksgiving: Plan for a Holiday that is just “so-so”
  • Everyone at Thanksgiving Doing Chore to Get Away from Rest of Family

So being around a table with family isn’t easy for everyone. 

Families can be difficult. Disagreements and past hurts come up. Members of the family may not feel loved or accepted. Too much turkey (and in some cases too much wine) can fuel heated debates over pie.  If you heard those article titles and thought that might have been helpful to read, or realized you actually read one of them preparing for your Thanksgiving this year: take heart. Because today’s teaching might surprise you.

When we say we are going to talk about family in church, we often associate Christian teachings with perfect, happy, nuclear families. We think all the church has to say about family is a specific idea of what family looks like, and how wonderful that is. But it turns out, even Jesus had some family trouble of his own.

Today we are going to read a passage from the gospel of Mark, specifically chapter 3, verses 31-35. But first, we need to back up a few verses to where this whole situation all starts. In Mark 3 verse 20, our story about Jesus begins today with:

“Then he went home.”

He went home. That’s where family gatherings start for many of us. We go home. Back to the place where people knew us when we were young. Back to the memories and people who have been a part of our lives for a long time. We go back home. Now think about how wonderful and yet very complicated that can be for any of us to “go home.”

Now imagine you are Jesus. A man who is doing miracles and helping lepers and letting on that he is in fact the Messiah. Now he has to go home and see the people who have known him since he was a kid. People who think of him as that carpenter’s kid.

Jesus goes back home, and Mark goes on to tell us that a crowd forms around Jesus and his followers, which usually happens when Jesus is around, but then Mark says this:

 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

There’s a lot in this verse we could talk about. Because two startling things are said in one sentence. First, that his family went out to “restrain him” and second that people thought Jesus was crazy. Some translations don’t say people. Some translations say his family were the ones saying he was crazy. I hate to open up a can of worms about the possibility that Jesus’ family said he might be crazy and move on. But I’m going to. Because today we are focusing on the next part of the passage. But this lead up context is important because we go into Jesus’ next teaching knowing that he had a family. Just like we do. We don’t often think about the reality that Jesus had siblings. And it seems his family gatherings may be just as complicated as some of ours are today. Arguably being Jesus makes family gatherings pretty difficult sometimes.

Now, let’s look at  Mark 3:31-35:

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”

The language here is interesting to notice. His mother and brothers are outside. The crowd of others are inside, closer to Jesus.

And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

All right. This is where the text takes a turn we aren’t always comfortable with. It seems like Jesus is discounting his family. This is hard for us to hear, with our emphasis on families, and imagine hearing it in Jesus’ time. Scandalous. But we know that Jesus does care about his mother and his family. Even in his last moments on earth, he makes sure his mother is cared for. So it’s not a complete dismissal of them. But there is something going on here. The story continues in the next verse:

 And looking at those who sat around him,

Before we read the last part, think about who these people are around him. The people around him were people following Jesus. They were people who had heard his teachings, and started following him as their teacher. And there were a lot of people who didn’t like what Jesus was saying and doing. He was spending most of his time with people who were considered unclean and untouchable. He defended the poor. He did miracles on the sabbath. He seemed to defy the laws for purity and righteousness that the religious establishment held in highest regard. He was turning society on its head. This means for many, if not all, of his followers, following Jesus meant being ostracized by the rest of their relatives. They would be the ones the family whispered about, the ones no longer invited to Thanksgiving because they went off with that strange prophet from Nazareth. Following Jesus meant giving up everything. They were alone. So when Jesus’ family shows up, they are listening carefully to see where that leaves them. Jesus says this:

he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!

Here are mother and brothers.  In one sentence, just 6 words, Jesus makes this crowd of orphans, this group ostracized and alone, his family. He calls them his mother and brothers. Even more, he makes this family open to anyone else who wants to be a part of it.

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus goes on to say that whoever does the will of God can be in Jesus’ family. Jesus opens up the invitation to anyone who wants to join. His family includes anyone who wants to follow God.  So what does this tell us about family, today? That for Jesus, family isn’t only something we are born into. It isn’t something we are passively included into.  It’s something we do.

Family is something we do.

That is something we can apply to all of us, no matter what our family looks like. Some of you have strong families, where people love one another, stand by one another, love Jesus together. That is a gift. Maybe for you your family is the one who always has your back, who loves you just as you are, builds into your faith, who would go to the ends of the earth to help you. For you this idea of family being something you “do” is obvious. Because family has always involved doing things for one another, sacrificing for one another, loving one another, pointing one another to God, even when it’s difficult.

If that’s you, be thankful. It’s easy to get caught up in the little stuff. But if you have a family that does life with you in a powerful and faithful way, be thankful. Thank God for that gift in your life. Thank them for what they mean to you. And let that foundation send you all out to be family for others. Go love other people like Jesus loved them. Find ways to broaden what family means the way Jesus did, to include other people in your care for one another.

But there are others of you that resonate with the crowds around Jesus who feel like they can’t go home.  Maybe you can physically go home, but you might not want to. Family gatherings for you might be difficult. Relationships are strained. Maybe you don’t feel accepted for who you are. Maybe there are past hurts that come up every time you cross that threshold back home. Or maybe you don’t have a family to go home to. (Or maybe it was something much much worse.)

Jesus says to you what he said to the followers around him. You are not alone.  Jesus invites you to be a part of his family. A family that isn’t something that happened to you by the origin of your birth but instead a family that is chosen, that is formed by doing family, together. That is united in serving God, together. Jesus calls you his brother, his sister. And all that he asks is that you seek the will of God in your life. Whether you are in that first group, where family is a blessing, or in the second, where family is difficult, you are a part of a bigger family.

Church is a family too.

Church is the kind of family Jesus was talking about. A family of brothers and sisters in Christ, seeking the will of God together. This is your family. It doesn’t mean we will always be perfect. We are going to disagree sometimes, or maybe accidentally hurt one another’s feelings. We are going to mess it up, and have to come back together.  But simply by being the church, together, trying to do the will of God, we are brothers and sisters. This can be where you do family.

We “do” family by loving like Jesus: by forgiving one another, by sacrificing for one another, by caring for one another.

We do family by being there for one another when things are awesome. When you baptize your kids and grandkids. When you get married. When you celebrate anniversaries and birthdays and remissions and healing.

We do family when life falls apart. When you are sick. When you relapse. When your spouse or your parent or even your child dies.

That’s the thing about Jesus’ family. From the beginning, it’s about doing life, together. It’s about loving Jesus, together. It’s about loving like Jesus, together.

About the Author

Megan Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find her on Twitter @pastormegan


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