Friday, June 27, 2014

Being Christian When Being Christian Isn't Easy (An Exposition of Matthew 10:24-39: Second Sunday After Pentecost)

In order to appropriate this passage appropriately it’s important to note that this passage is set in a larger context of persecution and end-time expectation where Jesus sends out his disciples as sheep among wolves to proclaim the imminent fulfillment of the kingdom of God. The early disciples believed that Jesus would most likely come  within their lifetime to bring an end to this present age and usher in God’s future kingdom. They also believed that the time leading up to that decisive moment would be marked by great suffering and tribulation, particularly from powers opposed to the kingdom. The early Christians inherited this apocalyptic outlook from Palestinian Judaism. They reworked it, of course, in light of their belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

Of course, looking back from our point in history we know they were mistaken about the apocalyptic schematics. Still, some of us haven’t learned much from it, because we still cook up these prophetic timetables, even more elaborate than the ones that were popular in Judaism around the time of Jesus. “The Left Behind” books were hugely successful selling in the millions, and a significant number of people who read them actually believe that the books reflect what is going to happen according to Bible prophecy.

With regard to the persecution this biblical text speaks of, it is important to remind ourselves that people in other times encountered persecution and today Christians in other places and countries are indeed encountering persecution, sometimes in great severity. Not as a prelude to the end, but it’s real and intense nonetheless.  

And though we live in a country where we do not fear anything that resembles the kind of persecution reflected in our text, there are times when we have to swim against the current with some consequence.

Whether one is facing opposition or not, there are some things we can all glean from this passage. The overriding theme here is that being a Christian means imitating Christ. This theme – of imitating Christ – pervades the Gospel of Matthew. According to Matthew, a Christian is someone who aspires to be like Jesus; a Christian walks in the way of Jesus and obeys his teaching.

Jesus says, “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher . . . If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.”

None of us should be surprised that when we stand up for the things Jesus stood for - when we champion the causes that Jesus championed, when we pursue the liberation of the oppressed, when we identify with those Jesus identified with - we can expect some opposition. It’s par for the course.  

And whenever we encounter opposition, Matthew’s Gospel assures us that we need not fear, because the presence of God is with us to sustain us and strengthen us.

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The admonition not to fear is an admonition not to harbor fear; initial fear is simply a reaction to a perceived threat and sometimes can be helpful.

There is a story that I hope is true about a man working the four to midnight shift every night. He walked home and his route passed a cemetery. One night he was in a particular hurry, and since the moon was full, he decided to take a short-cut through the middle of the cemetery. The route lopped five minutes off his walk, so he decided to make it his regular path. One night, however, when it was particularly dark, without any moon or stars, he had the unfortunate mishap of falling into a freshly dug grave. He wasn’t hurt but the grave was so deep he was unable to get out. He began to yell, but nobody heard him. Finally, he resigned to wait for morning, when his plight would be discovered. So he pulled his coat up around his neck and huddled in a corner to try to sleep.

He was awakened in an hour or so by the noise of a falling body. A second unfortunate man had stumbled into this same grave. Sleepily, the first man watched his companion frantically try to crawl out. After a few minutes, he felt obliged to comment, “Hey buddy, you’ll never get out that way.” Well – he did!

Sometimes fear helps us discover powers we did not know we had. If fear causes us run for cover to get out of harms way, that is a good thing. But perpetual fear, demobilizing and debilitating fear is not; that kind of fear is life diminishing.

Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Hell is used metaphorically for that which destroys. The point here is that God is the only one who can destroy a person completely, soul and body. The powers that be can kill, they can end one’s physical life, but not one’s eternal, conscious existence. Only God can do that. But that does not mean God “will” do it.

Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

The argument seems to be: God is the only one who can completely destroy soul and body, but we don’t have to worry about that, because God cares so deeply for us. The God of Jesus even cares for a little sparrow that that is hurt and injured and falls to the ground. Is this hyperbole? Maybe. But the point is that the God who can destroy us would never destroy us, because God loves us. God even takes note of the number of hairs on our head – which is a poetic way of saying that we all extremely valued and special to God.

Think of how we value and care for our own children and grandchildren. That’s just another way we reflect God’s image. That’s how God cares for every human being.

It’s not always easy to confront and face our fears, but followers of Christ can count on God’s love and vindication – as Jesus says in the text: “for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

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The words about confessing and denying Jesus in this passage also need to be understood in the larger context that envisions persecution. However, these words, too, can speak to us in our present day context

In Matthew’s Gospel, confession is never just about saying words. As part of the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21).

Confessing Jesus means standing with Jesus in what Jesus stood for. It means identifying with Jesus – being passionate about the things Jesus was passionate about. It’s about imitating Jesus. And that can be costly.

Imitating Jesus demands a high level of commitment and in the context of Matthew’s church it had a way of dividing loyalties. Jesus called for a commitment that took precedent over everything else. The peace Jesus wanted to bring called for a radical kind of commitment to the ways of peace. It meant laying down one’s weapons. It meant walking away from situations that would evoke violence.

In Matthew 12 we are told that after Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath the Pharisees conspired and plotted “how they might destroy him.” Jesus’ actions provoked animosity. Matthew says, “When Jesus became aware of this, he departed.” Jesus withdrew to avoid any violence.

Jesus taught nonviolent resistance to the political and religious powers. He told his disciples to love their enemies – to pray for them and do good by them.

It’s not hard to imagine how such teaching would divide families in a time of intense persecution. Think about how divided we are today in our own context with regard to gun violence. We can’t even get common sense gun legislation passed that would demand background checks. Even in this great country of ours we seem to be committed to a culture of violence.

On display in St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin hangs an ancient door with a rough hewn, rectangular opening hacked out in the center. Roy Honeycutt, who for many years was president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when that school was still a credible institution, told this story.

In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormands and Kildares were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormand, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in.

As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare came to the conclusion that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families, worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and pledged on his honour to end the conflict.   

Afraid, as the inscription reads, of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his weapon and punched a hole in the door, and in a daring act of peacemaking thrust his hand through. It could have been cut off, but instead it was grasped by another hand inside. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture came the expression, “chancing one’s arm.” 

Imitating Christ calls for no less than “chancing one’s arm.” And yet Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

* * * * * * * *

The final verses of our text contain both warning and promise: “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

What this text is saying is that if one cannot remain faithful to the values, principles, and cause of God that Jesus embodied, the things that Jesus lived and died for, then one is not worthy to be called a disciple of Jesus.

I certainly don’t think this means that the person who is unfaithful is forever lost or has no chance of redemption. When Jesus says, “whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven,” he is not talking about total rejection or abandonment. Just think of Peter and the rest of the Twelve. They denied Jesus and abandoned him, but Jesus did not abandon them did he?

Those who try to preserve their life in this world end up losing it, says Jesus, they miss out on what real life is. But those who give up their lives for the things Jesus lived and died for, discover what real life is. And that is true now as well as later.

The emphasis in this passage on imitating Christ, which is an emphasis all through the Gospel of Matthew, is about imitating Christ in the present. We are called to imitate Christ now. Salvation is now before it is later. There is “more” to come, much more, an abundance of “more” whatever the more may be. The adventure of faith goes on after death, but it starts right now as we take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Our passage today ends and my sermon ends on this affirmation: That when we live as disciples of Jesus, when we imitate his way of life, when we give ourselves to the principles and values that Jesus gave himself to, when we live as Christians when being Christian isn’t easy, we can expect a kind of richness of life that is not measured in dollars or possessions or popularity or good fortune. Rather, it’s measured in our faithfulness to love as Jesus loved and in our commitment to what is just and good and right.

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Gracious God, grant us the courage and instill within us the commitment to be imitators of Jesus, to be faithful to the values and principles he gave his life for, to be willing to cut against the grain if necessary in order to do your will and be a faithful follower of the Christ. May we not be afraid of what the powers that be can do to us, but let us find strength and boldness and endurance in the value and worth you place on each one of us. As we lose our lives for the sake of your kingdom, may we discover how spiritually rich life can actually be. Amen.

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