Trinity 2 ~
If you thought it was going to be easy, think again.
It’s human nature, we like to cherry pick the Scriptures that are easy to read and resonate with us because they have brought us comfort; they have remained with us through the ups and downs of life. But there are other Scriptures that are so disturbing we would really like never to read or hear them again. They disturb us because they do not fit with our understanding of Jesus and his kingdom and we find it much easier to try and forget about them than to wrestle with them.
The Gospel text this morning is, for me, an example of one of these awkward Scriptures: Who wants to read about Jesus as a warmonger? Who wants to live in fear? Who wants family breakdown to be the result of following Jesus? Instinctively we want to reject all of these and yet they are all there in Matthew 10 as some of the effects of following Jesus.
In last week’s reading, the disciples were described for the only time as apostles: sent out by Jesus with a specific task to accomplish. We too are disciples who are being sent out. A disciple is a follower or a pupil. We are not above our teacher. He is looking over us as he looks out for us and he uses shocking words to shake us out of our complacency and to prepare us for the demanding task we have.
But what do we make of Jesus’ assertions; they appear to be full of contradictions.
The first challenge we face is: what does it mean to be like Jesus? He is the master – the example – and we are the followers, the learners.
Remember the beautiful hymn by Charles Wesley:
“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.
Now, that’s the image of Jesus we want to treasure.
But it doesn’t all ring true and, whilst we wish that all of us would serve Christ all our happy days, we have to acknowledge that happiness does not always travel with us. Also, the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” image is a distortion of the full picture, which Matthew’s Gospel makes abundantly clear.
Here, Jesus emphatically rejects his role as an inoffensive do-gooder. He is bringing a sword instead of peace. He is cutting through the sentimentality that we can be tempted to focus on. Jesus was no nice guy who went around as everyone’s pal. They hated him so much that they accused him of being a servant of the devil. Why would you want to follow someone who threatened to wreck your family and how could a person who was offering a radical challenge to the old order of things end up being nailed on a cross?
These are all disturbing consequences from a disturbing person and the disciples then and us, his latest disciples, are being called to follow that person! If we are following faithfully then we must prepare ourselves to receive some similar abuse. If we walk through life together without a hint of bother then we need to ask ourselves who is it we are following.
The second point of challenge is about the issue of fear.
Is it, ‘Do not be afraid’ or ‘be very afraid?
Our fears can paralyse us into inactivity, even when the real threat is not immediately there. Part of overcoming the challenges we face, is to recognise the ability for our fear of what might happen, to stop us from dealing with the challenge. I wonder if the disciples were frozen in their fear.
Jesus told them not to be afraid. He spoke of the Father’s care for the two sparrows and how much more valuable were they than the birds? Yet, on the other hand, he told them that they had better fear him because he has the power of hell dangling before them. I would hate to bring stories of hell to God’s people as a stick to beat them with. But this is not the good news of the kingdom of God and there is no way in which a God who loves and cares for his children would want to frighten and intimidate them.
The kingdom of God is unfolding within the context of the new birth pains of God’s re-creation. All of this is ultimately good but it is not free of repercussions for God’s people and we need to find a way to live not fearing the threats around us but instead cultivating a healthy respect for a God who holds all in his hands. This is not easy.
The third point is probably the one, which confuses us most: what does Jesus have against families?
Families are under severe pressure in these strange times and we would hope to find reassurance and encouragement for the family from Jesus. But we don’t find it here. Jesus was no champion of family values. He was the champion of kingdom values. If the family unit is supportive of the kingdom then there is no clash of interests.
So would Jesus recommend that his disciples abandon their families to follow his lead? I don’t think so but I think he would recognize the terrible conflict that arises when those we love do not understand what motivates our lives.
Jesus will not let us sit easily with this. He makes it very uncomfortable for us to be in the place of contradiction but, in doing so, he forces us to face the situation and to try and find an answer to it – that’s practical Christianity: tough and testing.
We don’t like this Gospel reading much, do we?
But there it is, challenging us to think again, if we thought all of this was easy. May God help us as we try to take it on board and to live as true disciples of Jesus, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
The Rev'd Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 21/06/2020