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Text: Matthew 10:24-39

Rev. Jay Rowland.  Sunday June 25, 2017.  First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.


Discipleship Matters


“The trouble with deep belief is that it costs something. And there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, and if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them. It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything. And it isn’t cool.”             — Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

I have to admit I wrestled with the inclination to edit the number of verses from this gospel reading.  There’s just so much there.  But something (thank you Holy Spirit) convinced me to defer to a far more reliable Source—thank you Holy Spirit—who will help you retain whatever is most essential for you.

Matthew gathers a number of different sayings from Jesus as instructions given to the twelve disciples before he sends them into an often dangerous and hostile world.  The world has clearly changed a great deal since then, but it remains every bit as dangerous.

This collection of instructions and wisdom from Jesus in Matthew is set before a church living a generation or so later than the original twelve disciples, a church struggling to make sense of a world in desperate need of good news, but also a world in which following Jesus was dangerous.

One of my favorite contemporary preachers and theologians, Quinn Caldwell, hears Jesus in this passage calling us to demand that our leaders see every person the way God sees every person, but to also expect that leaders who are grinding people to dust are going to react.  “Show up as the Prince of Peace,” Caldwell notes, “and the lords of war are going to scramble their Jets.” In a world hell-bent on violence, Caldwell hears “Jesus’ hard words teach us that our only choice, really, is between living with the violence that already is, and living with the violence that comes (as a direct result of) trying to change it.” [parentheses mine]

We know about Christian martyrs who endured violence and were killed for the living the gospel.  We may overlook the throngs of everyday ordinary Christians like us whose commitment to following Jesus Christ cost them their family, their occupation, their place in society, their reputations, etc. Jesus challenged the status quo of all human institutions including the family.

The love of family universally understood.  So it sounds foolish to say that we don’t fully understand just how critical family was-and still is-in that region and culture.  Family offered protection and security that existed nowhere else.  The disruption caused by converting to Christianity meant more than awkward family gatherings, it could be the difference between living in security or in poverty.  To be expelled from your family for following Jesus Christ would leave you socially isolated and ostracized, and vulnerable to a myriad of dangers and predators you’d be otherwise effectively shielded from through family.

Disciples of every generation can expect to face strong, even violent, opposition just as Jesus himself did. The church to which the Gospel of Matthew first speaks is experiencing this and needed support. Because also Jesus experienced the stress and anxiety of family conflict, his startling words about family, about bringing not peace but the sword (v34-36) helped reassure them.  He has the credibility to tell disciples to decide to stop being afraid (a persistent refrain throughout all of scripture) and instead recognize their adoption into a new family, one with more powerful loyalty and support with God as the head of their household

Living in the 21st Century in the Western world, our faith in Jesus Christ does not disrupt our family or community.  Actually, the opposite is now true.  Much of the dissension and division and even “persecution” we experience these days—especially in the past six or so months—actually comes from other Christians including family members with whom we do not agree politically or theologically.

Fred Craddock wisely notes that Jesus calls for loyalty not from the weakest claims upon us but from the strongest. There is perhaps no stronger claim upon us that that which comes from our family.  “Jesus never offered himself as an alternative to the worst but to the best in society,” Craddock writes (Preaching through the Christian Year A).  The gravitational-like pull of family upon us Jesus compares to a deeper, pre-existing pull upon us in the love of God and the demands of our faith in that loving God.

Thankfully, unlike our Christian ancestors we are not being persecuted by an oppressive State or regime.  However, following Jesus Christ inevitably compels us to make choices that put us at odds with other expected loyalties.  Jesus was never politically or culturally “neutral” in a world where the Roman Empire (and Emperors) dictated the terms of “peace” and well-being.[1] Our choices always have implications and consequences.

Jesus was not the Savior of those who wielded earthly authority.  Those who were ignored, marginalized, neglected and abused are the ones who in every generation recognize the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.  And so, in every generation—and for us the present time—the gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to take a stand, to hold our elected leaders accountable for the impact and the consequences of their words, their agendas and their actions.

Which is what Jesus means (v27) when he says that what he shares with his disciples privately, and therefore in safety, will need to be proclaimed publicly and therefore dangerously.  Jesus warns his followers that they will inevitably stand before people who have the authority to destroy them.  Disciples experience intense pressure to ignore or deny Jesus Christ. To proclaim the Lordship of Christ in those moments powerfully reverberates all the way to the very throne of God, Jesus promises. Whenever we stand with him, Jesus says, we are also standing before a God whose power is not of this world, yet clearly in the shadow of those whose power is felt in and of this world.  (Craddock)

At a time when fear was rampant among Matthew’s church, Jesus proclaims the ultimate importance and value of all that he alone offers, and the ever-present care and concern of God. Jesus shares the much-loved image of the tiny sparrow being known to God to show us our essential value in God’s eyes.  We may face persecution, rejection, criticism, hatred, even violence for the sake of Jesus, but this will be nothing that Jesus did not face himself.  Which is why Jesus can say don’t be intimidated by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to you (your core being as a child of God). In The Message translation Jesus calls us to a large work by urging us to start small, for even the smallest action for the sake of Jesus Christ is felt by God.  Whatever it may cost, however intimidating the bullies may appear, remember, Jesus promises, you won’t lose anything that God cannot restore to you.

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is neither easy, nor comfortable, nor “safe”.  It is not, therefore, something that I or anyone has any right to demand of you.  However, it is something that will cause us to wrestle with God—like Jacob wrested with God.  Mine has led me to see discipleship as caring for the least and the lost—of this city, of this nation, this world; anyone whose voice, whose life is ignored or silenced.  This puts me at odds with organizations like the NRA, with leaders like Donald Trump, with a myriad of other concerns particularly police brutality in the black community.

Your understanding of discipleship may put you at odds with me. But please understand that my understanding of discipleship also means that I care about you whether or not you agree with my theology and no matter how you vote. Wherever we are on the spectrum of difference, you and I share something far more important in common, something that, even though we may disagree, compels us to stay connected.

Liddy Barlow articulates this beautifully.  She notes that in ancient marketplace, “sparrows were the meat of the poor, the ground chuck of the first century. Yet even their lives—their deaths—are not beneath God’s attention and care.

There is nothing, not even the smallest thing that is outside the circle of God’s care. And if God cares about these little details, the sparrows of our lives, then how much more God cares about the greater shape of each life, and all of our lives in community.  Community, after all, is essential to our value. [Which is why] Jesus speaks to the disciples as a group, using the plural forms of ‘you.’ We cannot understand our own value without understanding that the person next door and the person across the world have the same value. God’s care is not for me alone, nor only for people like me, but for all of us”[2]

The life of Jesus Christ, the death of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of Jesus Christ–the Love of Jesus Christ proves that every life matters to God

In God’s sight, there are no unimportant lives

Black lives matter

Blue lives matter

Camouflage lives matter

Every life matters

Which is why discipleship matters.

[1] William Neil writes in The Difficult Sayings of Jesus: “There are some kinds of peace that are not worth having … peace that perpetuates injustice, peace that exists under tyranny. Europe and the world could have had peace under Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, with concentration camps and gas chambers for those who criticized the regime. Christ certainly came to bring peace, as every page of the New Testament confirms. But he stood for real peace and not a bogus peace. … The gospel is a gospel of peace through strife, not peace through apathy or evasion of responsibility.  Peace at home, the office, the factory, and in society at large is not achieved by everyone agreeing with everyone else, but by everyone standing up for what s/he believes to be true and right. …” (p.16-17)
[2] “When we feel secure in God’s deep attention, knowledge, and care for us—in other words, when we know that God loves us—then we are able to go forth without fear into a dangerous world. Then we can declare out loud the lessons we’ve heard whispered in darkened rooms. Then we can stop being afraid of those who wish to do us harm. When we are assured that our Creator loves us, we can remain steadfast even when our human families turn against us. We can be faithful even when our very lives are at risk. We can pick up our crosses, no matter the cost.”  Liddy Barlow in The Christian Century June 7, 2017, “Reflections on the Lectionary” (emphases mine).