Preached at Croydon Minster on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday). Readings Colossians 3.12-17; John 19.25b-27
And from that hour the disciple took [Mary] into his own home. John 19.27b
One particular family has been very much in the news these past few days.
The pain, misunderstanding and hurt within the Royal Family has led the news bulletins and been the subject of a tremendous amount of speculation, misinformation and judgement.
I do not propose to add to that. Like all of us, I am not on the inside and cannot judge different claims to the truth being articulated. What we can all do is pray for those at the heart of this very public storm, whether we associate ourselves with one side or the other.
On this Mothering Sunday we might usefully reflect on the nature of family, not just the royals, and also a word that sounded quite old-fashioned until the last twelve months and that is ‘household’.
The New Testament has a word that can be translated as ‘family’ or as ‘household’ depending on the context. The Greek word is οἶκος (oikos). From that comes the word οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), from which we get the word ‘ecumenical’, which is about life in the global household or family of the church.
So let’s look at the two words.
Talk of family can sound quite nostalgic. For some it evokes warm feelings of comfort, safety and belonging where one is most free to be oneself; for others, it evokes feelings of fear, abuse or trauma where one is totally trapped.
That means if we talk about the church ‘family’ it will trigger in different people different associations. For some to know the church as family is profoundly reassuring, and for others profoundly frightening and potentially excluding.
The model of family that the church offers to us is as a place of mutual love, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, united in prayer and service of one another.
This is a generous vision; and it is a challenge! The Christian family, at all levels, is a community where children and adults are nurtured in the ways of faith, hope and love.
And that can be hard as personalities grow and assert themselves. How that is handled is what family life is about, and doing it well shapes the wider community.
The word ‘household’ has come back into more widespread use in the pandemic, when rules have been applied about what ‘households’ can and can’t do. I realise I rarely used the word before the pandemic, except perhaps in reference to ‘The Royal Household’, which sounds very grand.
That said, in the Ordinal, the form of service to ordain priests the person to be ordained priest is asked, ‘Will you endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people?
A household implies a gathering of people who may, or may not, be related biologically, but share a life in common and almost certainly at the heart of it eat together as companions.
In that way the church is also well described as the ‘household of faith’ (Galatians 6.10); people drawn together to live a life in common, as family or community of prayer and breaking bread together.
Just read the letters to the young churches in the New Testament and all the time the likes of St Paul are sometimes encouraging, sometimes cajoling, them to be households of reconciliation, mutual love and service. As St Paul puts it to the Colossians in our first reading today,
Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3.12-13)
That is what the Christian οἶκος is all about. This is the vision Christian families and households, churches and communities draw from. Sometimes we get it all spectacularly wrong; and sometimes gloriously right.
This began with the formation of an οἶκος by Jesus himself from the cross. His blessed Mother Mary and the Beloved Disciple were not blood relatives or biologically connected, but they are invited into a relationship that forms the first οἶκος of faith. Their life comes from the water and blood flowing from the side of Christ.
To Mary he says, ‘here is your son’ and to the Beloved Disciple he says ‘here is the mother’ (cf Greek text Ἴδε ἡ μήτηρ σου). Mary becomes the mother of the Christian family, the Christian household, to shape us as servants of the will of God as she is. And today we give thanks and pray for mothers who mirror that life of Mary in Nazareth and later with the Beloved Disciple shaping a household and family of faith.
The Christian οἶκος is most itself when it stands patiently with each other, brothers and sisters, at the foot of the Cross of Christ. It is best revealed when people of every tribe, language and nation stand together and dwell together within the same household, the household of faith, into which we are baptised.
May our life together, as the household of faith in this place, be an example of reconciling love, mutual trust, ‘devoted to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’. (cf Acts 2.42)