You can hear this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.
It was pointed out to me after last Sunday that thanks to a couple of baptisms and Vacation Bible School, I had escaped a pretty difficult Gospel passage for another three years. Without thinking, I laughingly agreed, and gave the old “phew” sign. Monday morning, I realized that I had breathed a sigh of relief just a little too soon. Unfortunately for me, the Lectionary has split Jesus’ warning into three sections, the toughest of which we hear this morning. If you’ll recall from last week, Jesus’ ministry has become increasingly successful. He toured many of the cities and villages of Israel, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near, and the crowds continued to grow. As Jesus looked at the throngs of hurting and helpless people who were following him, his heart was broken. They were like sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus knew that for every one that had heard his message, there were hundreds of others who had yet to hear the Good News.
So, Jesus called together the twelve and commissioned them to go: cast out demons, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven has come near. Before they departed on their evangelistic expedition, Jesus offered a word of caution. Well, actually, it’s more like eight hundred words of caution. The task will not be easy. There are plenty of people who do not want the Jesus Movement to take off, and many of them are in positions of power. “You will be brought before councils, flogged in the synagogue, and dragged before governors and kings,” Jesus told them in last week’s Gospel, “but don’t worry, the Spirit will give you the words you need.” “You will be hated by friends and family alike,” Jesus goes on to warn them, “but with God’s help, you will endure.” His rhetoric heats up in this week’s passage. Jesus reminds the disciples that “out there” they are calling him Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that is, Satan himself. “What do you think it will be like for you,” Jesus asks, “as you take my message and help it to spread.”
Consistently throughout these dire warnings about the struggle that is to come, Jesus pauses to offer the word that God always offers in moments of anxiety and struggle, “Have no fear.” The work will not be easy. There will be pain. There will be broken relationships. There will be rumors and innuendo. There might even be a call to die, but despite all that, Jesus says, “have no fear, for even if they kill your body, they cannot touch your soul… Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
When Jesus talked about giving up one’s life and that “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” he was dead serious. To give up one’s faith in the Jewish tradition and follow Jesus was akin to walking away from one’s family. The same was true of Pagan Gentiles who converted. In a world where men followed in the family business and sons took care of their aging parents, this was a significant issue. To disrupt the religious, political, and economic status quo was the threaten the stability of the whole region, and governments are not fond of instability. It was not safe to be a disciple of Jesus. In fact, for the first three hundred or so years of Christianity, there was an almost constant, real threat of death, and so these words of comfort were of crucial importance.
Hearing a similar chunk of Matthew 10, this Thursday, the Church remembered Saint Alban, the first British Christian for whom we have a name. Alban lived just outside of modern day London during the third century. He was a pagan when he met a priest who was fleeing the most recent wave of Roman persecution. For reasons that will forever be unknown, Alban decided to hide the priest in his home. For several days, they had nothing to do but talk with each other. Over time, Alban was so impressed by the faith of the priest, that he became a Christian. When soldiers got word that the priest was hiding at Alban’s home, they came to arrest him, but Alban quickly donned the priest’s cloak and gave himself up instead. Alban was tortured in hopes that he would renounce his faith, but when he withstood the flogging with patience and joy, the judge ordered him beheaded.
As Alban and his executioners made their way to the hill where he was to be killed, they came upon a fast-flowing river. The bridge was so clogged with onlookers that the execution party couldn’t cross the river, but the excited new convert was so ready to lose his life for the sake of the Gospel that he “raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up.” The first executioner, amazed by the miracle, put down his sword and offered to be killed in Alban’s place. Ultimately, both men were beheaded atop a hill that now bears his name. Legend has it that as he made the fatal blow, the second executioner’s eyes popped out and dropped to the ground along with Alban’s head, which then rolled down the hill and a spring of fresh water burst forth from the ground at its final resting place. Martyrdom stories tend to get embellished over time, but even if all the details aren’t exactly true, the reality is that for Alban and thousands of others like him, following Jesus in those early days of Christianity was a life-threatening endeavor that they willingly took on buoyed by the assurance of Jesus in passages like this one.
From the comfort of our mortgage free building that sits in the heart of the Bible Belt, and is filled with relatively comfortable, middle class, “mainline” American Christians, this message doesn’t have the same impact. In fact, it can be downright difficult to begin to make sense of it. When I hear these warnings about persecution, I can’t help but wonder if I can even consider myself a disciple. Life as a 21st century American Christian just seems too easy. What are we to do with a text like this? I think the answer is two-fold. First, these words from Jesus should call to mind the millions of Christians outside of our safe little American bubble who face the threat of death every day. These words from Jesus remind us to pray with fervor for the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Iraq, for Anglicans in Sudan, and for Christians around the globe who are under the real threat of violence for their faith in Jesus.
Secondly, I think these words of warning should inspire us to evangelistic action. In a country where there is no actual threat to our faith, but where the face of Christianity is often closed-minded, abusive, or worse yet, a self-seeking get-rich-quick scheme, to not speak God’s word of love for the world God created is to fail to live up to the expectations Jesus has for us. Instead of choosing to love father and mother more than Jesus, many Episcopalians have decided to love polite society or our own comfort more than him. When we choose the easy route, we fail to take up our cross and follow him. When we ignore the call to proclaim the Kingdom of God in word and deed, we deny Christ before others, and, tough as it might be to hear, Jesus promises that he will deny us in the same way.
If it weren’t for the faithfulness of those early disciples, who withstood persecution and proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord, we wouldn’t be here today. It is our responsibility, then, as committed, albeit comfortable, disciples of Jesus, to continue to share the Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near, to share a message of God’s love and grace in a world that hears mostly of God’s anger and vengeance, and to show that following Jesus doesn’t mean condemning those who are different from us, but rather, embracing the reality that God loves everyone, no exceptions. In a world full of vitriol and strife, the message of hope, grace, and love that we have to offer is too important not to share. So, go, have no fear, take a risk, and tell out the Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Amen.