June 22, 2008

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86
Romans 6:1-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Today’s Gospel passage from Matthew consists of some sayings and words of instruction and encouragement from Jesus to his inner circle of followers. In last week’s reading (the first part of chapter 10) Jesus summoned his twelve disciples, gave them power to cast out demons and cure diseases, and sent them out to the “lost sheep of Israel” to proclaim the good news, cure the sick, raise the dead, and generally to do the kinds of things Jesus himself was doing. So, keeping in mind the mission that Jesus had just given to these leaders in his group, let us examine the further instructions that he gives to them.

Our passage begins with a proverbial saying: “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” As students of Jesus, the disciples are being told that they will experience the same kinds of challenges and struggles that Jesus did. He was persecuted. So will they be. He was rejected by many. So will they experience rejection. Jesus points out that some people have called him “Beelzebul” (another name for the devil) and these people are not likely to treat Jesus’ followers any better.

As Jesus’ disciples went out to the towns of Israel, proclaiming the good news about the coming kingdom, and healing and helping people in Jesus’ name, they probably did experience some resistance to their message and their activities. The religious leaders and others in positions of influence didn’t appreciate what Jesus was doing, and they didn’t like the authority he was claiming. But it was near the end of Jesus’ ministry and in the years following his death and resurrection that the things got really dangerous for the followers of Jesus.

In fact, we should remember that this passage, like the rest of the Gospel accounts was written much later on, near the end of the 1st century. And we should take note of the fact that it is particularly composed to address the concerns of a late 1st century Christian community that was experiencing intense persecution because of their faith in Jesus. Today’s passage is a message of encouragement for a group of Christians whose lives were in peril. They were probably scared to go out and speak about Jesus because it could literally lead to their death.

The Gospel writer is telling these Christians that, despite the danger, they are called to go out to preach and heal in Jesus’ name just like the twelve went out, and just like Jesus himself went out. He’s telling them that discipleship involves becoming just like their teacher — doing the things that he did, and often receiving the responses that he did as well. And though many people responded positively to Jesus’ ministry along the way, these followers know that the ultimate response of their society to Jesus was to fear him, to reject him, and to crucify him. They shouldn’t be surprised, when they try to follow his way, that people aren’t treating them very well either.

But the Gospel writer does not allow these Christians to lose their resolve — to give up on their mission. He has Jesus tell them, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” They must continue their mission in spite of the risk, without worry of the danger.

Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…” And he encourages them to know that they are in God’s care, loved and cared for by God, saying, “Even the hairs on your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

So, what does this passage have to say to us? In a time and place where religious persecution is not really an issue, what are we to learn from this text? Well, the passage reminds me of the fact that being a Christian is hard. It involves risk. It demands sacrifice. It calls us to places and to situations where we might be rejected, where getting the message of Jesus across might not be easy. But we are sent out anyway. We are equipped, and encouraged, and sent out into the world to tell of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ in words and in actions.

Our passage continues with a promise and a warning from Jesus: “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

I wonder sometimes if we avoid the risk that those earlier disciples experienced because we only really talk about Jesus in church. We compartmentalize our lives quite a bit, keeping church in one compartment, family in another, work in another, and perhaps friends in one more.

I wonder whether our decision to follow the way of Jesus affects the decisions we make as families, and do our kids hear us saying that our faith makes a difference to how we live? When there are choices to be made at work, perhaps choices that affect the lives of others, does it matter that we are Christians? Are we able to embody the love and grace of God for our neighbours? Are we able to see the face of Christ in our colleagues, in our competitors, and even in our adversaries? And, I wonder, does anyone know that Christ is our way and our strength to do what is right?

As our passage continues, it gets more and more demanding of Jesus’ followers, and perhaps more confusing for Christians today trying to understand what this passage is telling us. We usually think of Jesus as a bringer of love and peace. But now Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

The reality for many Christians in the first century was that they had to choose between their faith and their family. Their lives were so radically changed, and the risks they took on in proclaiming their faith in Jesus were so great, that unbelieving relatives could not simply accept their Christianity as a minor change or a little quirk on the part of their spouse or son or daughter. Being a Christian was not an hour-long commitment on Sunday morning or even a few minutes of prayer and bible study each day.

Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or 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.”

It seems harsh, doesn’t it? — especially in a society where families are so strongly supported and valued. We may not agree on religion, but we can easily agree on families. “My family comes first!” I often hear people say, and no one disputes that.

But I think it’s interesting to note that Jesus never got married or had any children, as far as we know. Many of his first followers left families and occupations behind in order to follow him, to learn from him, and to participate in his mission. And even decades later, those who chose the way of Jesus often had to let go of family ties that kept them from fully embracing the ministry and mission that he was calling them to commit their lives to.

In the New Interpreters’ Commentary, the author writes, “Discipleship is represented [in this passage] not as adding on another worthy cause to one’s list of obligations, but a giving of self that is the ultimate self-fulfillment.” The call to follow Jesus’ way and to engage in Christ’s mission to the world must come first — before work, before family, before friends and hobbies and other activities.

And I don’t mean that we should all stop doing all those other things. I don’t mean that we should leave our families, cut off our friends, and stop doing anything other than church stuff. What I mean is what I think Jesus meant when he spoke about loving him more than our mothers and sons and the people most dear to us. I mean that our decision to follow the way of Jesus must inform every other choice and every decision we make in life.

It means that we love our children, and therefore we are called both to tell them about and to demonstrate the love of God to them. It means that our faith affects our choice of occupations, and how we interact with our colleagues, and how we do business, and how we treat customers or clients or patients, and how we spend the money that we earn. It means that we are determined not to let ourselves get so caught up in hobbies and activities and social commitments and even work, that time with God, time for worship, and time for mission and service get squeezed out of our daily and weekly schedules. It’s going to require some sacrifice to make sure that Jesus is our first love — to ensure that God has first priority in all that we do.

But Jesus says, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

I’m reminded of the family who decided several years ago to change their family celebration of Christmas. They used to do the kinds of things that most of us do for Christmas (Christians and non-Christians alike) — decorating a tree, opening presents, sharing a big meal, spending the day together as a family. And there was nothing wrong with that.

But one year, one of the kids noticed that not every family had the kind of celebration that they enjoyed every Christmas day, and every Thanksgiving day, and at New Year’s and Easter, and on birthdays too. So they decided together to change their tradition on Christmas day. They didn’t go their separate ways and make it a normal day like any other. Instead, they went together to the local soup kitchen for the day. They spent the day cooking and serving and sharing and celebrating with people who would not otherwise have a chance to celebrate. They gave up the Christmas they had always known and loved, and they experienced another Christmas — a Christmas day dedicated to embodying the unconditional love of God for those who are poor or in need. They put the mission of Jesus first — ahead of their family celebration — and the result was a family that grew together in love for one another and for their neighbours.

“Those who love their life for my sake will find it.”

I cannot help but think that this message is not only critical for us as individuals Christians and families, but it is also the key for our churches. As you likely know, many of the Presbyterian churches in Saskatoon and in other parts of the country are struggling. Parkview Church has already decided to close by October, and three other small churches in our city are being asked by presbytery to make significant changes in order to turn things around. With the assistance of a consultant, they are being asked to develop a plan for mission, outreach, and evangelism in their communities.

The immediate presenting reason for this request is that these congregations are shrinking and struggling. They need to grow in order to survive as church communities. But this focus on a concrete plan for outreach, mission, and evangelism is good advice for all our churches — and not simply because we want our churches to still be here in 5 or 10 or 50 years from now. It’s good advice because it’s exactly what Jesus was telling his first followers to do. It’s exactly what the Gospel writer was encouraging his Christian community to do.

Get your focus and your vision off yourselves, off your immediate family, off your neighbours in the pews (he might say to us), and start looking out. Start going out. Start reaching out and telling the world about me.

Don’t be afraid about how they will respond. Don’t be afraid about what they will think of you. And definitely don’t fail to enact the mission of Jesus because you’re too busy looking after each other, maintaining your nice little church communities.

I think that this church has many gifts and many strengths. We have some dedicated people working hard to do Christian education, pastoral care, worship, hospitality, and even mission and outreach. Our offerings support mission through our church, our presbytery, and around the world. But we still have lots of room to grow.

As individuals and as a church community, we are being called to be people of mission. We are being asked to make our identity synonymous with our mission in the community and in the world. We are being asked to become a church that reaches out — not just with a bit of money or a bit of time — but to be a church that exists for the sake of reaching out in mission and evangelism.

Jesus asked his followers to give their lives. Just as he gave his life to reconnect humanity to the God of the universe, Jesus asked his followers to give up their lives for his mission. And when they did give their lives, that’s when they found them as well — meaningful lives, full lives, lives without fear and with the promise of life forever with God.

There is a huge risk in that, I know, and a big sacrifice too. But that is the way of Jesus, and we are called to follow.

Jesus said, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Thanks be to God.