We spend a lot of time in church talking about Jesus. And rightfully so as we profess Jesus to be the head and cornerstone of the church. Especially around Christmas time, we also talk a fair amount about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and to a lesser extent, Joseph, the father of Jesus. But we rarely talk about the rest of the people in Jesus’ family. Which is fascinating to me because a lot of us talk about our family before and more than we talk about anything else in our lives.
I’ve had to do some research, but here is what I’ve discovered about the family of Jesus. The truth is that Jesus came from a big family, as was typical of many Jewish families in ancient times. In fact, this morning’s Scripture lesson informs us that there were at least five boys in the family. Jesus, James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. And right after we learn the names of the five boys, verse three in Mark’s sixth chapter tells us there were also unnamed sisters in the family. As in more than one sister.
If we do the math, it’s clear that Jesus had at least four brothers and at least two sisters. And those are the ones we can count and identify, even if we don’t know a whole lot about them.
Where it gets a little complicated is the fact that Jesus was different from his siblings. In a Protestant church like this one, we recognize Jesus as a blessed child, chosen and singled out as the Son of God. That fact alone would have made him unique in the family.
In the Roman Catholic Church, where Mary is venerated as the Virgin Mother who gave birth to God’s only begotten son, Jesus would have been set apart from his family even further. So much so that for generations the Roman Catholic Church argued that Jesus’ brothers and sisters in the Bible were actually cousins. It was a way, I presume, of preserving the sanctity and the purity of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic faith tradition.
In any case, the purpose of this morning’s sermon is not to delve into the biology or the theology of who Jesus was in relationship to his family. Rather, this morning’s sermon is a way of looking at Jesus through the lens of his siblings. And concluding with a word about Jesus’ brother, James, who we know more about than any of the other brothers or sisters mentioned in the Bible.
Before we get to James, however, some background about how ancient people perceived Jesus. If you spend some time looking, there are all kinds of legends and apocryphal tales about who Jesus was as a child. You can find stories about Jesus miraculously purifying contaminated water. There is a story about Jesus making a clay sparrow and then speaking life into that sparrow so that it flies away. There is an account of Jesus raising one of his playmates to life after he died and another account of Jesus healing a woodcutter’s injured limb.
There is an anecdote about a young Jesus surrounded by lions and leopards who bow down and worship him. When Jesus isn’t tall enough to reach the fruit in a tree, there’s a story about Jesus commanding the tree to bend down its branches so that Jesus can grab some of its fruit. And there’s a tale about Jesus lengthening a piece of wood in his father’s carpentry shop to make up for the fact that someone initially cut the piece of wood too short.
None of those narratives made their way into the Bible. As much as those tales highlight and play up how amazing Jesus was as a child, they were likely based in fanciful hyperbole.
At the same time, however, there are a few things we do know about Jesus in his younger years. In Luke’s Gospel it states that Jesus grew strong in spirit and was filled with the wisdom and grace of God. When he was twelve years old, Luke’s Gospel tells about a time Jesus learned from and actually taught a group of priests in the temple…a clear sign that Jesus understood his identity and his divine calling at a young age.
While I don’t think it does much good to debate how precocious Jesus was as a child, it is safe to conclude Jesus was special. To be more specific, he was unlike any other. Jesus didn’t lie. He didn’t have a bad attitude. He didn’t complain or entertain evil thoughts. He didn’t slander people or gossip about people. If there is any such thing as the Golden child, Jesus was it.
Now I don’t believe in favoritism when it comes to parenting, but I would have had a soft spot in my heart if Jesus was my son. Talk about a low-maintenance child. Mary and Joseph never had to raise their voices to reprimand Jesus. It’s not hard at all to imagine Mary and Joseph periodically resorting to the one expression every sibling hates to hear. “Why can’t you just be more like your brother?”
Can you blame Jesus’ brothers and sisters for resenting Jesus? For being envious of him? For not believing who he was or what he was doing in the world? Even if Jesus never provoked confrontation with his brothers and sisters, there had to be some measure of sibling rivalry in the house…frustrating and one-sided though it may have been.
And what about Jesus? It was one thing for people outside the family to reject Jesus and his teachings. But when Jesus’ siblings joined the chorus of naysayers and failed to step up and vouch for their older brother? I trust that was a tough pill for Jesus to swallow.
Maybe that rejection is why Jesus found companionship and loyalty and devotion from his twelve disciples. For some people, the family we choose is more supportive than the family we are born into…
Nevertheless, the whole family dynamic changed after the resurrection. After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to Mary and the other disciples. After he appeared on the beach and he appeared on the Road to Emmaus. If you jump ahead to the first chapter in the Book of Acts, just before the day of Pentecost, Jesus appeared to “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
The moment Jesus appeared to his siblings after the resurrection, they believed him. And they understood who he was because they saw him in a new way. No longer antagonistic towards their brother, their eyes were open and all the things they had witnessed and felt going back to their childhood suddenly made sense.
Think of the scene as a wonderful family reunion. Stunning, touching, emotional… instantly Jesus’ family experienced the gift of reconciliation. And the gift of redemption.
What happened with Jesus and his siblings after that post-resurrection appearance is largely unknown. Although the story is pretty good even if it ended right there in the beginning of the Book of Acts.
The only one in the family we hear more about is James. He was likely the second born son, right behind Jesus in the birth order. Like his brothers and sisters, as James grew older he went from being jealous of Jesus to resenting Jesus to being suspicious of Jesus to finally reuniting and believing in Jesus.
But the bond between Jesus and James, though it likely frayed at different points, was never broken. After Pentecost when the church was born, the twelve apostles scattered across the ancient world and began preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. Those apostles traveled to Judea and to Samaria and to the ends of the earth as they knew it.
Meanwhile someone had to stay behind in Jerusalem and be in charge of the church. Somebody had to lead the church and guide the church and pastor the church. And that person, who was the pillar of the very first Christian church, was none other than James, the brother of Jesus.
It’s hard to overestimate how important James was in those initial years after the resurrection. James was instrumental in shepherding this infant church as it grew out of its Jewish roots and began to shape and embrace a new identity for itself in Jesus Christ.
The James we read about in the Book of Acts was a man who had no contempt and no leftover resentment. Instead, he was a willing servant of his older brother, loyal and devoted all the way to the end of his own life. The kind of sibling any of us would hope for…
When all is said and done, Jesus and his brothers and sisters had a history together. A history that was complex and turbulent. And yet a history they overcame. Together, Jesus and his brothers and sisters serve as a reminder to all of us, perhaps, that there is room in a family for forgiveness and healing and grace and resolution.
Not to mention the fact that only a few people in the history of the world could claim Jesus as their brother. I’m pretty sure that didn’t turn out to be the worst thing ever either. Amen.