5 th Sunday after Pentecost, 19. June 2005
Matthew 10:24 "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26 "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 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; 36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household. 37 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; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
The Perils of Discipleship
Those who put together the suggested readings for each Sunday of the Church Year are either oblivious to the secular calendar from Hallmark that hangs in my kitchen, or they have a cruel sense of irony. On this day, Father’s Day in the USA, we have a text that records Jesus saying, “I have come to set a man against his father....” Happy Father’s day to you too. I expect for this, and many other reasons, not a few preachers will find their hearts and thoughts wandering to another of the appointed texts for today, pretending for the moment that their congregations will not hear or need explanation for the jarring words of Jesus. And they are jarring, no question about that.
Of course this world of Jesus and the disciples is far from the experience of most Christians since Constantine. When Christianity ascended to the official “faith of the realm” it lost much of its counter-cultural edginess. Until recently various forms of Christianity have held that lofty position. In the last 50 years or so, some cracks developed in the alliance between Church and State. (This alliance was “unofficial” in the United States, but existed here as well.) Today, the alliance between Christianity and Culture is all but gone. You hear the rhetoric of those who lament that loss mostly in the Christian media, and complaining at Church meetings across the country. We long for a return to the recent past when following Jesus did not require the type of sacrifice called for in the lesson for today. The reality is “The Way” as followers of Jesus were first called, was born as a counter cultural movement, even within Judaism. For the first several centuries of mission, Christianity labored in a hostile environment, and enjoyed unprecedented growth in mission. But that was not without its drawbacks.
Though last week we heard about the sending of the twelve into mission, and about the dangers in the mission field, no one expects what is coming next: the danger from your primary relationships, your primary identity. Jesus warns us that the largest challenge will come, not from outsiders, but from the disciples’ own families. Even in our individual centered society this seems rather harsh. In the first century it was essential for the survival of Christianity as a movement. This borders on the type of demand that is placed on new recruits by cults in our world. Was early Christianity that sort of controlling organization? Did people have to abandon their families and swear an oath to the Christian community? Are we expected to have the same kind of loyalty today? What is Jesus doing here?
In Jesus day, the primary way people thought of themselves was as part of a group. This may seem strange to us, post-enlightenment, but then, the first century is often misunderstood because we fail to grasp this basic truth. (For more on this see “A Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels” by Malina and Rohrbaugh.) To be separated from one’s family was to be outside of the protection and largess that the family would provide. For this reason, a person would not normally leave home (like the Prodigal Son). It was the way the culture had of offering protection from one generation to the next. It also provided for the means to keep the younger generations in line. It was part of the greater cultural DNA of that era. Only with the protection and patronage of another would it be possible for a person to leave home. Jesus promises the disciples just that when he says that he will acknowledge before his Father those who acknowledge him (and deny those who deny him).
What Jesus is doing is not asking the disciples to join a cult-like organization that demands ultimate loyalty, so much as he is explaining to them the consequence of following Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom (Reign) of God. His vision was so radically different than the one widely held in his day (and ours!) that following it would mean a break with family. Holding ideas that are contrary to your parents, after all, would bring dishonor to everyone, and likely get anyone who followed the “new” ideas kicked out of their families. Jesus doesn’t demand that people break with their families in order to be with him so much as he warns them that following will probably mean a break with what has, up until now protected and guided them.
In the midst of this jarring section we find the heart of the good news in this passage. God values you. Jesus tells the disciples that even when they proclaim their allegiance to Jesus openly, they need not fear. They need not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot sever the relationship that they have with God that is more than skin deep, but reaches to the core of their very being. They have a God and Father who knows the value of each small sparrow, who knows the number of hairs on each head. The implication is that if God can account for the small stuff, he can account for those who are of inherently more value than a sparrow, his very children.
This is an important word for us as we enter daily life in a post-Constantinian Church. We too might expect that following Jesus will be an increasingly difficult, counter-cultural thing to do. We might find that our access to dance lessons for little Jane or baseball for little Jim might lesson because we are committed to the worship of God during Sunday practices and performances. We might find ourselves unpopular when we stand for the care rather than the abuse of God’s creation. We might find ourselves shouted down by forces that call for a violent military response to terrorism. We might find that following Jesus way leaves us out in the cold in many more ways. And many of us fear being alone, isolated. We fear what happens when we do not conform to what others are doing. We live in an “individualized culture,” but we find our identity in a group that looks, acts and sounds enough like us to let us know that we are OK.
To us, as well, Jesus reminds us that though the world will not greet us as kindly as it did the cultural Church of the 1950s, we must not fear. For God’s word will advance, in the daylight, even if we are not the ones who carry it. God’s love triumphs even over death, as we know in the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. God knows the details of our lives and our world intimately, and considers us of great worth, even when we feel small and insignificant against the forces of culture and the powers of this world. God encourages us so that when the time comes, we can stand against the tide with a powerful affirmation of God’s love in the face of the world’s indifference and scorn.
Standing Alone/Never Alone
I recently watched the 1957 Henry Fonda Film “12 Angry Men” based on the stage play of the same name. In it Fonda plays a character on a jury. For the other 11, the case was simple, open and shut, and they all vote guilty right away. Only Fonda’s character wants to weigh the evidence and sift through to find a verdict. Throughout, the “truth” and the “facts” are spoken of, and yet Fonda holds fast to his insistence that the jury owes a young man, in a death penalty trial, all due consideration. Piece by piece, each bit of evidence is weighed, at first reluctantly by all the others. Then, as new information comes to light, one by one, the others are convinced by Fonda that reasonable doubt exists in the case. They too decide to vote not guilty. Finally, as the last part of the prosecution’s case is stripped bare, the last of the Jurors concludes that they cannot convict beyond the shadow of a doubt, and all vote Not Guilty. Even in fiction, there is tremendous pressure to conform to the group. It takes great courage to stand alone.
Eventually, when all of his disciples have left him, Jesus stands alone: he stands alone before the Chief Priests, he stands alone before Pilate and Herod, he hangs on a cross alone before God. Only one who trusts the promises of his Father in Heaven can do such a thing. And God comes though on Easter Sunday for Jesus and for us. We are offered a first hand glimpse of the power of God’s love as it faces down and wins the victory over death and evil. We are offered evidence that Jesus way, however daring and counter-cultural, is the way toward life. We are called to stand together, and sometimes to stand alone, in the face of a world of class, race, division, hate. But unlike Jesus, we do not ever really stand alone. We have his promise that he who has faced all these things before us, now faces them all with us. And though we be maligned as evil, we stand with him (even apart from our own families) as the new vision of God’s kingdom is unfolded before us in worship. It is, after all, a kingdom that envisions embracing all people as God’s children, even our reluctant or hostile families. It is a vision that values each person, even the most resistant. It is a vision that places ultimate worth on Jesus, and finds new value and worth for each.
It is just such a vision that grasps each and every one of us each Sunday. We are grasped by God’s vision in Word and Sacrament. It is a vision of love and forgiveness for all people. It is a vision of the creation restored to God’s original intention. It is a vision of the people of God gathered without distinction around the table, each being fed with the same food. It is a vision of life as it should be, and life as it will be. But it is not a vision for Sunday only. It is a vision that we then bear to the world and share with that world for the 167 hours a week that we are not in church. I find this vision to be exciting enough to give my life for. I find this vision to be something that the world craves and only those who follow Jesus can give. In it we are all invited into something greater than ourselves, and we are sent to become what God has called us to be: the community of faith that can transform the world. Then and there, each week Jesus words echo most true, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Come, join the mission, and experience the truth of these words for yourself. God our Father values us, and Jesus, our savior, bids us come, and sends us out in mission.
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman,