Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
“Not the Easy Way”
What interesting scripture readings we have to consider this morning! First we heard the story of Hagar and Ishmael. They are rejected and mistreated by Abraham and Sarah, sent out into the wilderness to die of thirst, but God takes care of them and protects them. God saves them and provides a future for them.
Next we heard from the psalmist who was struggling with some kind of trouble. In the midst of his situation he does not despair, but he calls on God for hope and help. He remembers that God has done wonderful things before. He remembers God’s power and might, and prays that God will help him once again.
Then we had a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Apostle has just finished explaining that our justification by faith through God’s boundless grace is a free gift from God. God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
And then, in today’s passage, Paul says that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death… we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In other words, following Jesus means following him into death and following him into life. It means dying to sin and selfishness and our old ways, and being raised to live a new life in Christ.
And finally, we heard a bunch of instructions for disciples of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew: A disciple should be like the teacher, not above him. And since the teacher (Jesus) was mistreated, disciples can expect to be mistreated also. But don’t be afraid. Keep on your mission, proclaiming the gospel from the housetops, telling the world about Jesus the Lord. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. God cares about you, and will be with you. God knows every hair on your head. You are more precious than many sparrows.
But there’s a part in today’s Gospel that many people don’t like. The Bible is full of many wise and wonderful passages, but I’ve never met anyone who said this was their favourite passage. 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. 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.”
I don’t think Jesus is necessarily instructing his followers to abandon their families or to intentionally cause conflict or division amongst their family members. At one point, Paul actually gives very clear advice to Christians who were married to non-Christians, and he tells them to stay married if they can. The difference in perspective and way of life may cause some issues, but the Christians are encouraged to remain faithful… both to their new lives in Christ, and to their spouses and families. The fact is, though, that the discipleship life causes trouble in the lives of the first Christians. It is such a radical change, such a drastic life choice that it undoubtedly affects every relationship they are in.
In our Lenten bible study earlier this year, we studied the theme of discipleship in the New Testament and we found that each of the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the Pastoral epistles, each have a slightly different concept of what it means to be a disciple. And Matthew’s idea of discipleship was definitely one of the most radical.
According to Matthew, true disciples reject lives of comfort and family to enter a radical egalitarian community of both Jews and Gentiles, living as simply as possible with no material possessions while attending to the basic needs of others, even when such behaviour would require tremendous pain and sacrifice.
You may remember another passage from Matthew 12, for example, where Jesus’ mother and his brothers show up looking for him while he is still speaking to a crowd inside a house. Someone tells Jesus that his family members are looking for him, and Jesus replies, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
And I imagine that a little later Jesus probably welcomed his biological family into the house, or maybe even went home to share a meal with them. But his mission did call him to go beyond his household, to forego the usual cultural pattern of marrying and having children, and to expand the concept of family from a household to a whole community of people who decided to make their lives about doing the will of God.
I can’t imagine that Jesus didn’t love his mother. According to John’s Gospel, even when Jesus was dying on the cross he was caring for his mother Mary, asking his beloved disciple to care for her, telling them that even if they are not biologically mother and son, that they must be family to each other nonetheless.
But Jesus loved God more than he loved his mother and his brothers. The mission God had given him was his first priority, so he was willing to leave his family and go out on the road. He was willing to preach boldly and courageously about the Kingdom of God. He was willing to put himself and his life at risk because he loved God and he loved all the children of God more than he loved his particular family.
Of course, Jesus’ torture and death would hurt Mary his mother, like a sword piercing her heart… but Jesus chose to follow that difficult way so that every mother and every brother and every one of us would know the height and the depth and the length and the breadth of God’s amazing, sacrificial love for us.
The New Testament readings today remind us that following the way of Jesus is not the easy way. It would certainly be easier to market our religion if it was. But the way of discipleship is a way of life that demands a great deal from us.
Coming to worship is a good place to start. You may come because you enjoy the music, or find the preaching interesting at times. You may come because you have friends here, or because it has become a habit in your life. But we need to come because it is our duty to glorify God and worship God alone.
Using our gifts in the ministries of the church is also important. We are called to offer our time, our talents, and even our tithes for the work of the church in this place and Christ’s mission in the world. If we fail to do this, then our church ceases to be what it is meant to be. Our ministry can only thrive when everyone participates in the work of the church… through preaching, teaching, administration, leadership, hospitality, service, evangelism, generosity, and encouragement… Discipleship is not just listening and learning, but it means following the way of Jesus and getting involved.
Discipleship also involves being a Christian in every sphere of our lives. It doesn’t mean thumping bibles or judging others… but it means asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” in this situation. It means considering our faith and our identity as Jesus’ followers when we decide how to vote, or what to spend our money on, or how to treat our employees or our co-workers, or what to do in our spare time.
And although Jesus says that we are to love him more than we love our families, we are also supposed to do our best to love our families as Jesus has loved us. We need to teach our children about God and model for them lives of faith and discipleship. We need to strive to love them without conditions, to forgive them, and to seek their forgiveness when we fail.
Oh, what a list of requirements! I must admit that I don’t enjoy writing sermons like this. I’d much rather be talking about God’s grace. I’d much prefer to be telling you about God’s forgiving love in Jesus Christ.
But I want you to know… and to tell your friends and your family… that following the way of Jesus is not something that you can tack onto your already full life. It’s not an extra, somewhat enjoyable, activity for Sunday mornings, or even just an occasional Sunday morning. Following Jesus is an “all or nothing” kind of decision. If you’re in, you’ve got to be all in. You’ve got to be willing to give up your old life, to lose your life for Jesus’ sake… and it’s then, and only then, that you will find your new life in Christ – a life full of meaning, and purpose, and very often joy as well.
Jesus does require a lot from his followers, and the early disciples discovered that when some of their family relationships broke down, when they were persecuted, arrested, and sometimes martyred. But Jesus told them not to be afraid: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Jesus told them that they were loved, and cared for, and precious to God: “And even the hairs of your head are all counted.”
We can have courage to jump into the discipleship life that Jesus has called us to because we worship a God of love who hears the prayers and cries of the psalmist who is in trouble. We believe in a God who takes care of those who have been rejected or abandoned like Hagar and Ishmael.
And when all is said and done… even if we have had to put up with troubles and trials, disappointments and sacrifices… we are assured by Paul that since “we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” May God give us the courage and the commitment to follow the way of Christ today and tomorrow, knowing that we are in God’s care both now and forever. Amen.