The Upper Room Family

Sixth Sunday of Easter
(Mother's Day)
May 14, 2023

I read the other day that Mother’s Day is the one day of the entire year that has the least crime. Which is interesting. It means one of two things. Most likely is that even criminals are home spending time with their mothers on Mother’s Day. The other possibility, of course, is that it’s the mothers themselves who can’t go out and break the law because their kids have taken them out for a free meal. I guess if I had to choose one of those two possibilities, I’d go for the first one.

Mother’s Day is one of those days that has changed over the course of my ministry more than any other. It used to rank up there with Easter and Christmas Eve as far as attendance goes. But that’s no longer the case. Things are different in the 2020’s than they were in the 1980’s. The times are different. Priorities are different. And, let’s face it, families are different.

But the only constant is change, I guess. And there was never a time in history when families changed more than in the book of the Bible we’ve been looking at all during Eastertide this year—the one called the Acts of the Apostles. A lot is made in the gospels about the re-ordering of family life that Jesus taught. It’s a good example of why we shouldn’t take everything we read in the Bible literally. If we did, we’d be torn between the words of the Ten Commandments which tell us to honor our parents, and the words of Jesus which tell us to turn our backs on them.

But nothing could be clearer than the fact that these words have to be taken in context. Jesus doesn’t want us to hate anybody—certainly not our parents. When he told us to in Luke 14.26, he was speaking in hyperbole, that is, he was exaggerating and didn’t want to be taken literally. But nobody in the Bible honored his mother more than Jesus, and nobody in the Bible had a stronger family. Not only did Jesus and his mother stick together all the way to the cross and beyond, but his brothers were among his most loyal followers.

And it’s the family of Jesus that Luke reminds us of in the first chapter of Acts. Now, we’re not doing things in the proper order this week, because here in today’s passage, Jesus has already ascended into heaven, and that’s the reading we’ll hear next Sunday. But today, Jesus has left them on their own, and all his closest followers have retired to a room that’s become famous—the one called the upper room.

We don’t know exactly how many people were in the upper room, but the most prominent disciples named were the Eleven. They had once been the Twelve, but one of those had left the group. In addition, we’re told that “certain women” were there—and among them you know Mary Magdalene must’ve been there. The only woman named, though, was the other Mary, the more famous one, that is the mother of Jesus. And who was with her, but her other sons, Jesus’ brothers?

So what we find in the upper room during the ten days between Ascension Thursday and the Day of Pentecost is the core of what Christians mean by family. It consists of what has traditionally been thought of as family—some brothers, a mother and her sons—and what would come to mean family in the early church—everyone who has been chosen by God.

What comes after the little passage we’ve already heard is a story that gets almost no attention. I already mentioned that among those in the upper room were the Eleven—one shy of the Twelve Jesus intended. And so the next few verses of Acts 1—the section that follows today’s story—tells us of how Judas’s replacement was chosen.

There seem to be two groups: one staying in the upper room, and one outside. There were probably fewer than twenty people in the upper room, and there were 120 outside. So Peter (once again the spokesman for the whole group of disciples, who by this time were known as apostles) proposed two disciples from the outside who had apparently been with Jesus through all (or at least most) of his ministry. One was Joseph (who seems to have gone by at least two other names), and the other was Matthias. After saying a prayer for God to do the choosing, they drew lots, and the choice fell on Matthias, perhaps the least known of the apostles.

You’ve got to feel for Matthias. Whoever he was, his story reminds me of a book I just finished reading. It’s called The Door Within by Wayne Thomas Batson, and I didn’t realize for quite a while that it was a deeply Christian book. And I’m still not 100% behind its message, since it seems to be more otherworldly than I’d want it to be. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot about it to appreciate. And one of the best things I read in the book was when the main character—a boy named Aidan—was chosen by the king to be one of his twelve knights. The other knights couldn’t quite believe this nobody could possibly be their equal. He was young, he seemed to have no talent, he wasn’t one of them. But the respected champion among them stopped their complaining with a simple question: “Were any of us anything before the King called us?” he asked. And I, if I had any criticism The Door Within, had my own complaints dispatched with that one question. For all its faults, that little burst of brightness made reading it worthwhile.

Now, there’s no talk in Acts about criticism of the election of Matthias as the twelfth apostle. But if there had been, I could easily imagine Peter shutting them up with that very question: “Were any of us anything before the King called us?” They’d been fishermen and tax collectors and carpenters. They’d fled to the hills when Jesus got arrested—or out-and-out denied knowing him. They’d been frightened and faithless. But despite it all, they had been called by the Creator of the universe to start something new. They weren’t much beforehand, and they were yet to meet any of their potential. But when they received Matthias, they were family.

So Christianity is very much a family movement. By that I don’t mean that each nuclear family is its own little church. But that each church is a family. Yes, some people are related to each other. But the most important thing is that we have been called together by God to be family to one another whether we’re related or not.

In the Gospel According to John, as Jesus was dying, he looked down at the foot of the cross, and saw two people, unrelated to each other: his mother and the disciple whom he loved, probably John himself. And to the disciple he said, “This is your mother,” and to his mother he said, “This is your son.” Literally, with his dying breath, he gave us a pattern for the members of the church to be family to each other in a world where they might be without family.

And this is exactly what we see in the New Testament: Here and elsewhere in the Book of Acts, and also in Paul’s letters, where the main thing the church did when it gathered was to share a family meal. Without the proper context, Christianity has too often gone to one extreme or another—either trying to destroy the family so that the church is more important, or over-emphasizing the family, as though it’s the church’s job to serve families. But what we see in the life of Jesus and the life of the earliest Christians is that families often became part of the church together, and that the church itself became a family, welcoming all without distinction. No matter who people were or where they were on life’s journey, they were welcome. And if anyone questioned or challenged them, it was as though the whole church rose up together and asked, Were any of us anything before the King called us?
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.