3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 25 2017
Jeremiah 20.7-13; Psalm 67.7-18; Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39
Rev Anita Venter, Bethlehem Bible College
Have you ever thought that with God on your side, you will slide through life with no problems – that having a relationship with God will make your life easier?
Our lectionary readings will burst the bubble of that fancy dream.
In the Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah speaks out against God, using words on the edge of blasphemy. He has been out doing what God asked him to do, but it has not turned out as he expected. He complains about becoming a laughingstock as everyone mocks him and even his close friends watch for him to stumble.
The psalm offers no comfort either as it wails:
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. (Psalm 69.1-3)
The gospel reading is also not helpful as Jesus tells his apostles about the cost of discipleship. “Christianity is just not an easy life”, he seems to say.
In fact, aside from having to face afflictions such as sickness, the death of loved ones, destruction due to natural disasters, oppression and injustices, in taking a stand for Christ you may be mocked, betrayed by your family, and maybe even persecuted because of the very name of Jesus.
Longing for peace in our world, Jesus actually bowls us out when he tells us that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword that will divide.
This is strong stuff. It flies in the face of what we believe about the mild and gentle Jesus who loves kids and welcomes everybody. But this divisiveness is close to the heart of the Gospel.
Jesus manages to get himself killed for what he says and does. He challenges and offends powerful factions among his people. Roman authorities treat him as a threat to public order. Nobody gets crucified for gentleness. Something else is going on with Jesus. He ends up on a cross, and when he tells us that the disciples are not above their teacher, in essence what he offers us is a cross like his own.
At first glance it indeed appears that Jesus encourages violence and calls his disciples to practice it, presumably righteous violence. But appearances can be deceiving. As an old saying goes, a text without a context often becomes a pretext. Once this verse is read in its historical and literary contexts, the meaning changes.
If you remember Peter, in his zeal and effort to defend Jesus, he used a sword, yet Jesus commanded him to put his sword away. Peter then learned at Pentecost that the sword of the Lord does a much better job on the ears and hearts of men than his own.
The physical sword pierces the flesh and bone, but the Word of God pierces and heals the human heart. The physical sword is a taker of life; the spiritual sword is a giver of life.
Which do you prefer?
The sword of Jesus divides between good and evil. It divides the world into two camps, those who follow him, and those who do not, those in the light, and those in the dark. However, he never tells his followers to wage war on everyone else, and certainly not on one’s family.
The sword that Jesus brings, divides the soul from the spirit challenging us to follow in his ways.
It causes division between
- those who build walls, and those who oppose them
- those who refuse and deport refugees and those who welcome them
- those who want to save the world from destruction at the hands of humanity, and those who destroy it for the sake of wealth and power
It divides those who believe in retaliation from those who walk in forgiveness and love. The sword of God brings division in our families, communities, cities and countries.
When your faith leads you to make public stands that are not popular, opposition will come. Problems will arise and then … certainly fear will step onto the stage.
Have you heard about the slogan “No fear”? We see this slogan everywhere – on caps, coffee mugs, sports shoes, phone-covers and T-shirt, even pencil cases and handbags. What was meant to be an advertising gimmick has caught on with a generation that lives on the edge. Thrill seekers who surf the waves of the oceans while sharks get ready for breakfast, jump off bridges attached to a mere bungie cord, and dive into the sky buckled to a snowboard. Danger generates an inner rush. Overcoming a great peril brings a sense of gratification.
However, this slogan holds a strange bit of irony. While advertisers attempt to project a fearless attitude, we live in a world that is plagued with fear. Security businesses are the fastest growing industries. We spend vast amounts to install security alarms, motion detectors, and gadgets to protect us from the luring dangers in our world. From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us. We are taught to fear the stranger, not to love but fear those with a different skin colour or follow a different religion. Sometimes we even fear those who are closest to us. We are haunted by phobias such as Islamophobia and Christophobia, causing us to build walls, avoid, or even kill our neighbours, shut our country borders, and look the other way when we see injustice.
Jesus recognized fear to be the driving force that would paralyze and cause the failure of discipleship. Just as with his disciples, he knew that we were to undertake our mission in complete vulnerability and dependence on God, knowing that we would go as “sheep in the midst of wolves” to face arrests, deportations, violence and opposition even from family members, that we would face hatred and persecution also in our current world and eventually we would know and ultimately bow before the power of fear. Jesus knew that our faithful practice of the gospel proclaiming the good news would put us on a collision course with the powers of this world.
Facing ISIS, the threat of death may be the most powerful form of fear. Jesus addresses this fear directly, admitting that humans exercise this power, but notes that they have power only to kill the body but not the soul. God alone can destroy both soul and body and therefore he is the only one that we should fear.
For the sake of humanity the gospel must be proclaimed in the light and from the rooftops, for the gospel proclaimed and lived is the most powerful tool at the our disposal against the authorities of this world.
So, as Jesus prepares us for our mission to be his ambassadors he is starkly realistic about the threats we will face. At the same time he builds the case for why we should not let this fear master us or hinder our witness.
Jesus highlights the persecution that we may face as a first step in freeing us from the tenacious grip of fear. Although the call not to fear is the dominant and recurrent message, the most important element of reassurance lies in the integral relationship that is affirmed between us and Jesus.
We are reassured of Christ’s love as he tells us that he is aware of every sparrow worth half a cent, that falls to the ground and that we are more valuable than these sparrows. He strengthens his case telling us that even the hairs on our heads are counted. Having worked our way through Easter, the crucifixion and resurrection we know that because of his love, he died for us, is risen, sent his Holy Spirit as our helper and now sits at the right hand of God making intercession for us.
So as we look into the Word of God, there is something peculiar about the motivation of early Christians like Steven, Peter and the apostle Paul who faced persecution in every possible form. In 2 Corinthians 5.14 Paul shares their secret, and motivates us too, when he tells us that Christ’s love compels us. Their understanding of the love of Christ became a dramatic, powerful motivation, and so it should become ours too.
The love Paul speaks of is born of a strength and resilience that challenges us to live for others, even for those too weak and feeble to give anything back to us.
It is a love that compels us to proclaim the good news and lead the lost into God’s kingdom. To bring hope to those in despair, feed the hungry, care for the refugee, stand up for the oppressed, the poor, the orphans and widows. It drives us to speak on behalf of those who have no voice and fight for justice and righteousness, even in the face of severe opposition.
It is a love that challenges us to follow God himself and to imitate his sacrifice as we serve others on his behalf.