by David Baer, August 2, 2015
Text: Hebrews 2:10-18
There’s a story in my family about a certain little girl who had a younger brother. Now, as older siblings tend to do, she could be a little domineering with him. Sometimes she and her friends excluded him from their games, and sometimes she’d push him around. They used to walk to their grade school together, and the girl didn’t always like having her kid brother tag along. But one day as they were on their way to school, she looked and saw that a bigger kid had knocked her brother’s books out of his hands and shoved him onto the ground. The girl ran over to her brother, and then she knocked the big kid over. She sat on him and wouldn’t get up until he apologized. He got the message: don’t mess with my brother.
Some of you know I’m careful about using family language to talk about the kind of community we have here at church. I know for some of you calling church a family captures the sense of belonging and the closeness and solidarity you feel for the people who are here, and if that’s the case for you, I am so glad for you. I can totally understand why you would want to think of the church as your family. If I’m cautious about using that language, it’s because I’m aware that some folks—particularly those most in need of the good news—may come out of far more troubled experiences of family, and they may not understand the same things that I do when I hear that word. That, and at church we want to be able to open our doors and welcome the stranger in a way that families don’t generally do. The only way to get into a family is to marry in or be adopted. So if I’m cautious about family language, that’s why.
Nevertheless, family is one image we find in scripture to describe the relationship that those who put their trust in Jesus have with each other. It’s not the only image, but it’s one of them. It probably starts with the way Jesus invited us all to address God in our prayers as “Our Father…” If we belong to a God who loves us, who protects us, who provides for us, who will one day make a home with us for all time, and who calls us children, then we’re not indifferent to each other. We are brothers and sisters. And we see hints in the gospels that many of the first followers of Jesus were alienated from the families that raised them, and this probably strengthened their this new community of believers had become their new family. I may have been kicked out of my house, I may have been rejected by my parents and my brothers and sisters, but here I am loved, I am accepted, I am cared for, I am home.
Today’s scripture lesson talks about what it means to be Jesus’ family. We’ve started reading the letter to the Hebrews this summer, and I said a couple of weeks ago that this is a pep talk. It’s a kind of halftime speech to a team of believers that are discouraged and worn down and falling away from the central story that makes them who they are. What I’d like us to do is to listen to how this text puts Jesus and his story at the center of what it means to be a family, to belong to each other. Before we belong to each other, we belong to Jesus. If we belong to one another it’s through him. If we love one another, it’s because he loved us. In what way does Jesus create a family? How is it that we’re able to call him our brother? And what does it mean for the kind of relationships we have with one another and with others?
Jesus makes himself our brother by identifying with us. He becomes like us “in every respect.” This is the meaning of his incarnation. The Son of God steps into human life—every part of it. The scriptures tell us that he was hungry and thirsty, that he felt sadness and anger and disappointment, that he was tempted, that he felt pain, that he died. And they also tell us that he was inspired by others’ faith, that his heart was moved with compassion, that he gathered with others to celebrate a wedding. What interests the author of Hebrews most is that Jesus suffered as a human being. For him it’s the final item on the checklist of what it means to be human. To undergo not just the physical torture of crucifixion, but abandonment by his friends, and even godforsakenness, Jesus shared in the very worst things human beings can experience. What’s more, Jesus is “not ashamed” to call us his brothers and sisters. Peter may denied Jesus, but Jesus does not deny Peter, or us. Just like the little girl who ran to help her little brother, Jesus takes our side against the power of death. Jesus makes himself our brother by not holding himself apart from our hurts and struggles, and by not hesitating to identify with us. He’s with me, she’s with me, Jesus says. I’m their brother.
And he does it without losing who he is. When you have empathy for someone, there’s always a risk that you’ll forget where they end and you begin. An anthropologist doing field work with an isolated tribe, or a reporter embedded with a military unit, or a reporter listening to a crime victim’s story all run the risk of forgetting that their values, and their hopes and fears, and their aims are different from those of the people whose story they are telling. We do it too. Sometimes we lose our distinct identity within our families or other close relationships. If you find yourself getting exhausted and resentful over all you do to accommodate other people in your life, if you’re always stopping yourself from saying what you believe or feel, if you’re always denying yourself opportunities to do things that are central to the person God created you to be, then it might be because you’ve lost yourself and become fused with others.
Jesus makes himself our brother, but he never stops being God’s Son as well. The author of Hebrews calls him the “pioneer” of our salvation, the one who leads the way homeward toward God. It calls him a “merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God,” who makes “a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” We’ll talk more about this image over the next few weeks. What’s important for today is that Jesus doesn’t forget who he is and what he is about. He is able to identify with us completely. He’s not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. But he never ceases putting God at the center of his life, his story, his identity. And that’s why he’s able to help us.
With one hand Jesus reaches up in love and faithful service toward God, his Father. With the other he reaches out in love and compassion to us, his brothers and sisters. “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested,” says our scripture reading. Because on the one hand he identifies with us and shares our struggles, and because on the other hand he never forgets who he is as God’s Son, Jesus is able to help us. He helps bridge the gap between a good and holy God and hoping and hurting human beings.
This scripture calls Jesus a “pioneer.” He’s someone who leads the way, someone who blazes a trail that others will follow. What if we took Jesus as our model of the kind of relationship that connects people to God? What might that look like?
In college I lived in a house with four other people as part of an intentional Christian community for two years. One other student that lived there both years was a deeply sensitive and thoughtful guy on the inside, but on the outside he was often moody, cantankerous, and profane. In any other setting, I probably just would have kept my distance, but living in that house I struggled to be present, to listen to his rants, to push back when he was being unfair to me or others, and to let him challenge me when I was in the wrong. Years later, in a video recorded for the anniversary of the campus ministry, he reflected on our time together, all of us living in the house, and said, “It was there that I grew up.” We became a family for him and one another—not losing our individual selves, but hanging in there through academic struggles, heartbreak, and young adult angst.
And that’s what it takes to be church. It means being quick to identify as a brother or sister with someone who’s in trouble. It means holding on to the self God created, to the story God wrote that is you, even as you open yourself to hearing and feeling the hurts and struggles of those around you. Jesus led the way, and it’s his hand we hold onto as he brings us homeward toward God. We look to him as our source of hope and help. We meet his gentleness, his compassion, and his strength with love. And in return we extend a hand to new brothers and sisters, who maybe don’t yet know they belong to such a big family, a family with a big brother who struggles with us, who is proud to call us family, who loves us out of his infinite divine store of patience and compassion and generosity, whose love leaves us with love to spare. Thanks be to God. Amen.