By Allison Zbicz Michael
There’s a church that I drove by somewhere not too long ago called Family Worship Center. That’s the whole name. Nothing else. I confess to you my sisters and brothers, I’m not too inclined to be charitable when I see that sign. I feel a little snarky instead, and am really tempted to knock on the door and ask them what’s so great about their family that they feel the need to worship it.
I know, that’s probably not exactly what they mean by calling their religious institution Family Worship Center, but it is rather a curious name, and I know enough about our culture to know that family worship is a real temptation in plenty of Christian communities. I remember a few years ago, a bunch of evangelical churches canceling worship services on a Christmas day that fell on a Sunday because it was a “family holiday.”
Who gets the first place in our lives on Christmas Day, on a Christmas Day that falls on the Sabbath, even?—Is it Jesus Christ? Or is it our families? Which is our true God? Do we act as if God is the one who gave us our families in the first place? Or do we treat God like a hired family servant we expect to answer our demands?
Our culture comes by that sort of family worship honestly. Many religions around the world elevate family ties to an almost divine status. Some religions honor the ancestors with altars in the family home, decorated with photographs and memorabilia. The ancestors are prayed to for help and encouragement. Many others, like our religious ancestor, Judaism, verge on the worship of offspring as the means of salvation and the continuity of the faith and family line.
The Jewish religion is not handed on through evangelism — it is handed on through blood ties, through the maternal lines. That’s why the Old Testament has such strict laws guarding family relationships. That’s also why God commands the people of Israel not to intermarry with pagans—and he even tells them to kill off the non-Israelites when they conquer the promised land.
These commands are about something crucially important: the relationship between God and Israel, which must continue through blood lines if salvation is to occur. And in a sense, salvation did come through blood lines. Jesus was and is a Jewish man. He had a Jewish mother. He spoke Hebrew and was bound in this tight-knit community that enjoyed special privilege from God.
But then Jesus, in today’s Gospel lesson, does some really strange things that, at best, don’t make sense to the people around him and, at worst, are blasphemy. He rejects the family-worship of his day. First, he doesn’t marry. In spite of Auntie Ruth’s best efforts to set him up with a nice Jewish girl, and in spite of all the times people certainly asked him why he wasn’t doing his Jewish duty and having lots of children, he chooses not to get hitched.
And then, to add insult to injury, he says to his mother, who cared for him and loved him: “Who are my mother and my brothers? And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
But to those listening, this is more than just rude: he’s saying “hereditary Judaism won’t save you.” The message I bring you is about more than just having the right blood lines. Your Jewish blood will not save you from the curse of Adam.
Okay, a pause: The first lesson today is that story of the first sin—you all know it so well. The passage ends with the first of the curses, the enmity between the man and the serpent. It ends with all the ways that this sin and its consequences will be passed on from one generation to another — the original warning against family worship.
But there is one thing you should notice: before the passage lists some of the ways that sin has now worked its way into the fabric of creation — before any of the curses are mentioned, we hear this phrase about Man: “a Man will strike your head.”
This isn’t just explaining why I have a vivid memory of my father hacking at a nest of Copperhead snakes in our wood pile when I was a child. This is about the Snake, Satan, being crushed by a man’s foot. Whatever curses are to follow, they are temporary, until such a time as Satan is bound, not through procreation, but through the one man Christ. This is the one we worship — not our ancestors, nor our charming children or spouse.
In the lesson from Mark, we get a hint of how Satan will be bound and captured: Jesus Christ will plunder hell. He will conquer the “strong man’s house.” How? By first tying up the “strong man,” that wily serpent, the Devil himself.
And he’ll tie up evil by a sort of trickery. As the Devil tricked Eve into eating the fruit and unleashing evil on the world, Jesus will trick the Devil into doing the very thing that will be his own demise. The Serpent may have tricked Adam and Eve, but Jesus will have the last laugh. There is a bit of humor in God’s confrontation with evil.
The Serpentine Devil will go to strike at Jesus’ heel, as we read in Genesis. That is part of the curse that Jesus inherits as one who is fully human. The Devil strikes at all our heels in one way or another, but he’ll strike at Jesus through Judas, Pilate, Roman Soldiers, and a bloodthirsty crowd. Satan will bind Jesus with ropes, and as he is taken down from the cross, his body will be bound in strips of cloth, tied tightly in death’s cold bands. All of the world’s suffering and pain and sin will be bound to Jesus, to God himself.
But when those things are bound to Jesus, they can no longer be bound to us. In his bondage, he breaks through the gates of Hell and ties up the strong man that rules the roost there. Adam ate fruit and opened a Pandora’s box, unleashing all manner of evils on the world, unbinding that which had been contained. Jesus was devoured by death, drawing all the world’s evils to himself, allowing himself to be their victim—and in so doing they stick to him, and in the grave he puts Satan and his evil back in the box, and slams it shut under lock and key. By his willingness to be bound by suffering and death, Jesus, the new Adam, has the last laugh.
The old-fashioned language for talking about sin and forgiveness is that language of binding and loosing. The Church is given the power both to bind and to loose — to leave those in sin who wish to remain in sin, and to free from sin those who desire that freedom.
That’s powerful language, and it is a bit of a shame that we don’t use it much anymore. Haven’t you ever had the feeling of being bound by your past? Of being bound by a bad decision? Of being bound by your sins or bad habits? Sin and evil stick to us, and no level of scrubbing or denial seems to get the filth off. Long-ago sins continue to taint our relationships, and weigh us down. We are bound. Or as we say in our confession each week: we are in bondage to sin. We are powerless to get rid of it on our own.
If we reject the Holy Spirit, we remain in that bondage, we continue to be bound by that past, by this body of death, by sin and sickness. If we blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, we again unleash the devil, as Adam did, but this time, we set evil free to especially prey on our own souls and bodies. When we reject the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we give an open invitation to the spirit of darkness.
But because Jesus has been bound, we can be set free. We can be loosed. Those terrible things that had worked their way so deeply into you that they almost became a part of you — you can be freed from those, too. Set free. I imagine what it must have felt like for condemned men and women and children in Nazi concentration camps to see the Allies come in—they had only expected death and misery at the hands of their tormentors. But they were set free. Those who desire it get a chance for a new start, a clean slate — set free from the things that imprison them, even when those things were brought upon themselves.
Jesus is the new Adam, undoing the old Adam’s sin. His heel crushes the serpent’s head. He has taken the venomous bite of the serpent upon himself, and all the Devil’s evils on his own back, and hands and side. He binds the strong man, Satan, forgives you, and sets you free to be a new person. Only Jesus can do that—nobody else. Worship the Lord, your God, and serve only him.
The Rev. Allison Zbicz Michael is assistant pastor for Christian formation and youth ministry at St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Md.