Jesus talked a lot about children..
In fact, I think it is fascinating to notice just how often He did talk about children. He talked about children when they were hungry and clamoring for bread or for fish. He talked about children and their rapidly-changing moods when they were playing their games. He talked about disturbing a family at night after the children had gone to bed. When He was asked who was the greatest on earth, He took a child and put that child in the midst of the disciples. He identified Himself and His ministry with children. He said: “Whosoever receives a little child, receives me.” He blessed the children by placing His hands upon them. When His disciples tried to keep the children away, He instead let the children scramble up into His lap and said: “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” And when on Palm Sunday, the children cried out: “Hosanna! Hosanna!,” Jesus said: “Out of the mouths of babes my Father has brought forth praise.”
Yes, Jesus loved children and He talked a lot about them. Yet that should not come as any great surprise to us, for after all, He was the oldest son in a family with at least six brothers and sisters. We know the names of brothers: James and Joses and Judas and Simon. We do not know the names of His sisters, but we do know that there were at least two of them. We know that because in Mark 6 we are told that Jesus returned to His hometown and the people said: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon and are not His sisters here with us?” We can assume from this passage that Joseph must have died early, because Jesus is referred to in Scripture as “The son of Mary,” and that was never done unless the father had been deceased for many years. So for the first 30 years of Jesus’ life, He, as the oldest son, sisters and brothers. I believe it was those years and that responsibility which gave Jesus His deep love for children. And that is why today I would like for us to think for a time about the sisters of Jesus…
When I think about the sisters of Jesus, I think first, of how His sisters led Jesus to lift the status of women.
You see, the virtual invisibility of His sisters speaks to us of the position which women occupied in the first century. Notice in this passage that the brothers are very specifically named, but the sisters are simply added on, almost as an “et cetera,” an afterthought. That was typical of that day. If you look, for example, at the sermons recorded for us in the Book of Acts or in other parts of the New Testament, though they were always delivered to mixed multitudes of people, they were always addressed to men: “Men of Israel…” or “Fathers and brothers…” or “You men of Athens…” You see, in the first century, the value of a woman was measured only in terms of her usefulness to a man. Women were not considered to be persons in their own right. The first century world was a man’s world.
One of the things that makes Jesus so remarkable is that He was the first great discoverer of women. He lifted them to the place of worth and value and dignity which they deserved, and I don’t think we fully appreciate just how revolutionary that was in the first century. Think how often He singled them out for special ministry, something unheard of in that time: how He ministered to the widow of Nane, how He cared for the woman who came to Him in the house of Simon the Tanner, how He spoke of spiritual matters with Mary and Martha, how He healed the woman with the issue of blood, how He set free the woman caught in adultery, how He praised and complimented the faith of the Canaanite woman.
Jesus is the only teacher or leader in the ancient world who is described as having both male and female followers. In Luke 8, it tells us that there was a group of women who followed Him throughout His ministry, and who, as a matter of fact, paid most of the expenses. The names of several of those women are given: Mary Magdalene; Joanna, the wife of Chuza; and Susanna. Luke notes also that there were “many others.” Mentioning women in historical accounts and according them, that kind of importance simply was not done in those days. Jesus broke completely with the tradition of the oriental world.
Jesus exalted women as no one else has. If you read the Scriptures with any care at all, you cannot miss that truth. I know that there are those, even in our time, who say that women ought not to be in positions of leadership in the church because the disciples were all male. Well, that’s about as logical as saying that because there were no Gentiles among the twelve, so no Gentiles ought to be leaders in the church. It reminds me of that one-liner which says that if God had wanted us to use the metric system, He would have called ten disciples, not twelve! Please, my beloved, don’t let that kind of faulty thinking keep you from seeing what is true: Jesus lifted women to a position of extraordinary prominence in the Kingdom of God. It was a woman who was first at his manger; it was women who were first at Him tomb; and it was women who first and foremost made His ministry possible.
And once Jesus shattered that barrier, look at what happened. In the early church we read about women like Priscilla and Lydia. In the medieval church, we study about women like Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. In the modern church we celebrate the work of women like Dorothy Sayers and Mother Teresa. It is no wonder that sensitive, committed Christian women are still ready to wash the Lord’s feet with their tears and dry them with their hair.
Of course, the sisters of Jesus came before all of this and never knew anything about them. Do you wonder, as I do, if when they were young they would run in and out of His workshop, not because they had anything to say, but just because they wanted to be near Him? Do you think He lovingly teased them the way big brothers invariably tease little sisters? Do you think they would come to Him with broken toys or dolls and He would fix them and send them out again laughing with girlish glee? I think so. And I think it was that tender bond He enjoyed with His sisters which led Him later on to lift women to the place they deserved in the world.
And when I think of the sisters of Jesus, I think, next, of how His sisters must have lifted the spirit of their brother.
In fact, I believe that within the heart of every woman there is something that is sisterly, something that lifts the spirits of others. St. Gilbert of Senspringham in England lived nearly a thousand year ago, but he put his finger on a truth which has long since survived him. He said that all women have four hearts: the heart of a child, the heart of a bride, the heart of a sister, and the heart of a mother. He didn’t mean that all women are all of these things, just that all women have within them the capacity for all of these things.
I think that’s beautiful, and I like the thought that there is a bit of the sister in the heart of every noble woman. It is no accident, you know, that in both the Protestant and in the Roman Catholic traditions, and then in virtually every country of the world where there are hospitals and orphanages, women who give themselves to the loving, caring service of others are regularly called “sisters,” and I suppose that’s why I’ve always envied people who had sisters in their family. For there is a certain staunchness, a certain steadiness, a certain security in the love of a sister.
There are great sisters mentioned in Scripture. Think about Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. She is the first woman we meet in the Bible who worked outside the home and who was single. She gave herself totally to the service of the Lord through her brothers. Or think about Mary and Martha in the New Testament. It was because of their faith and persistence in seeking Jesus that He brought their brother, Lazarus, back from death. And think, too, of how they made for Jesus a home where He could go for rest and refreshment, even amidst the pressures of the last week of His life. As I read the Bible, I find that to be a sister is to be one who wishes to pour the warmth of her soul into the chilliness of the world.
I think the most remarkable example of this is the family of Patrick. Patrick was the vicar of a small church in England. His wife presented him with three daughters and a son. Then, tragically, she died leaving Patrick to raise the children alone. The young son—his name was Branwell—showed early on some artistic ability. The whole family devoted themselves to bringing Branwell to full flower. His sisters went to work and everything they made they saved for Branwell’s education. Eventually they saved enough to send him to the Royal Academy of Art. Within a short time, he flunked out. That did not discourage them. Evidently this had been the wrong trail. The sisters kept working in order to serve Branwell. They met his every need. They found him a job as a tutor in a titled family. They felt it would be a good stepping stone. It wasn’t. He lost his job. He then gave himself to alcohol and even drug abuse. His life wound up being a total failure. No one today remembers any picture painted by Branwell or any words that he wrote or spoke. But his sisters were a different story. You see, they gladly and lovingly served their brother. But every night, when they had finished their work, they would go to their own rooms. There, on plain tables with a candle and a pen and paper, each one of them would sit and write. And, oh, what they wrote! His sister Anne wrote Agnes Grey. His sister Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre. His sister Emily wrote Wuthering Heights. They were, of course, the Bronte sisters.
Now when you think of that story, there is an element of terrible tragedy within it—that those three sisters so sacrificed themselves for the sake of a worthless brother. Yet at the same time, the story is a magnificent illustration of the sisterliness which dwells in the hearts of some women, perhaps even all women. You know how it is. In most families when mother is ill, who takes care of the family? Sister. When parents grow old and require someone to tend to them, who most often does that? Sister. So today, as we think about how the sisters of Jesus must have lifted His spirits with their love, I want to publicly salute the sisterliness which resides in the hearts of all good and faithful women, the sisterliness which lifts the spirits of so many people in this world.
But when I think of the sisters of Jesus, I think, finally, of how His sisters did not lift Him up as Savior.
You see, there is no evidence that any of Jesus’ sisters ever became a disciple, a follower of His. There is no doubt that He was a superb brother, and there is little doubt that His sisters loved Him as a brother. But there is no suggestion that they ever accepted Him as something more than a brother, that they ever accepted Him as Lord and Savior. That’s rather astonishing when you stop to think about it. They were not beside Him at the cross. They were not beside Him at the tomb. They were not beside Him after the resurrection. Why? Well, I think it was probably because they were so close to Him in family life.
As the old saying has it, sometimes “familiarity breeds contempt,” but frankly, I think more often familiarity breeds indifference. There are people who live in Orlando who have never been to Disney World. There are people who live in the mountains who never lift up their eyes to the hills. Familiarity breeds not so much contempt as indifference. So I would suggest that Jesus “came to His own and His own received Him not” simply because He was so familiar to them. It is possible, you see, to be so intimate with holy things, so involved with Christian people, so enmeshed in the work of the church, so accustomed to hearing the truths of the Gospel, that you never surrender yourself completely to the Jesus who is the Gospel. It is possible to be so entrapped by the belief that salvation comes from going to church and saying your prayers and helping the needy, that you never lift your eyes above these things to the Lord who demands your soul, your life, your all.
I see too many people today who believe that the essence of Christianity is its doctrine, a profession of faith; or that the essence of Christianity is its ritual, a procession of faith. But the fact is that Christianity is not profession or procession, but rather possession! The essence of faith is to be possessed by Jesus Christ. It is opening one’s heart completely to the Lord. It is surrounding one’s life to the daily control of Jesus Christ. It is bringing one’s words and actions into harmony with God’s word and God’s will. It is…well, it is what the sisters of Jesus never did. They were so close to Him, so familiar with Him, so comfortable with Him, so casual about Him that they never recognized Him as Savior and Lord. They were so near, and yet so far.
Those are my thoughts when I think about the sisters of Jesus. And here are my thoughts when I think about us. I hope and pray that we shall never make the mistake His sisters made. I hope and pray that we shall never be lulled into casualness by our familiarity with Jesus Christ. I hope and pray that instead we shall allow ourselves to be claimed by Him. And I hope and pray that God will bless this simple witness which I offer in His name…