The Challenge of a 1st Century Sacred Text

I have always struggled with Philippians 1:21.  Paul write this letter from prison, nearly a decade after his first visit to Philippi.  He is, perhaps here more than anywhere else, aware that his life and ministry could soon be coming to an end.  Like any human being, what is on Paul’s mind tends to reoccur in his writings.  As he ponders the reality of his death, he addresses it three times in his letter to the Philippians, the first of which we encounter in the New Testament lesson for Sunday, which begins with that passage that has always puzzled me.

“To me,” Paul writes in 1:21, “living is Christ and dying is gain.”  The second half of this sentence seems self-explanatory.  Realizing that his date with his savior might be coming sooner rather than later, Paul takes comfort in his faith that life beyond this mortal body will be better than anything he has experienced on earth.  Life in paradise, heaven, the bosom of Abraham, or however a first century Jew turned Apostle of Jesus might describe is was ultimately what Paul longed for.  Not that he disliked the life he had.  Not that he was eager to give up preaching the Gospel.  Not that he was sad about the life he had lived.  Rather, Paul knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that life in the fullness of God’s love would be beyond his wildest imagination.

Where I get caught short is this odd turn of phrase, “living is Christ.”  What does that mean?  Is there an idiomatic expression that I am missing?  I went looking for other translations, to very little avail.

  • For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (NIV)
  • You see, for me to live means the Messiah; to die means to make a profit. – N.T. Wright (Paul for Everyone, The Prison Letters, p. 90)
  • For to me, living is for Christ, and dying is even better. (NLT)

The best rendering I could find comes from the CEV, which reads “If I live, it will be for Christ, and if I die, I will gain even more,” but it wasn’t until I opened my old standby The New Daily Study Bible by William Barclay that I found something that made it make sense.  “If Christ were to be taken out of life, for Paul there would be nothing left.” (p. 32)  I commend to you the entire paragraph on this phrase on page 32, but I won’t reprint it here for copyright concerns.

511wctczfrl-_sx336_bo1204203200_

All this to say just a few things.  First, sometimes, dealing with a first century sacred text is difficult.  Taking the time to do a bit of research on what it is the original author was trying to say is never a waste of time.  Second, when we do that digging on this passage, it reveals to us that for Paul, and presumably for all who follow Jesus, the life we live should be defined entirely on our relationship with Christ.  Literally, “to live is Christ,” such that we know no other existence but that which has been made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Every moment brings another opportunity to choose life in Christ, and we won’t always be successful, but at its heart, following Jesus is handing our lives, our whole lives, over to him.

Advertisements

Forgive them their debts – a sermon

The audio of this sermon is available on the Christ Church website.


o-forgiveness-facebook

I have a theory.  As you get to know me over the years, you will learn that I have many theories, most of which are useless.  Nevertheless, I have a theory that is relevant to our Gospel lesson today.  My theory is that much of the stress we feel in our lives is the result of frustrated forgiveness.  When was the last time you apologized to someone?  What was their response?  When was the last time someone apologized to you?  What was your response?  Did you say, “It’s ok”? Or “No problem”? Or “Don’t worry about it”?  If so, you short-circuited the forgiveness process.  If it really was ok, if there really was no problem, if it really was something not worth worrying about, then there would have been no need to offer an apology in the first place.  Instead, things were not ok.  There was a problem.  Something was worth worrying about, and because of that, forgiveness needs to happen.

In a world that seems to be addicted to conflict, it feels ironic to say this, but on a personal level, most of us are so conflict averse that even when a wrong has been committed for which forgiveness is required, we refuse to recognize it; choosing instead to brush it off, as if it didn’t matter.  Yet, it does matter.  Researchers at Johns Hopkins tell us that a unforgiveness can be bad for our health.  A lack of forgiveness leads to an increased risk for heart attacks, higher cholesterol levels and blood pressure, less sleep, and higher incidents of depression, anxiety, and stress.  The research is clear, unless we “forgive deeply,” we can suffer ongoing health consequences.  In order to forgive deeply, it can’t be offered begrudgingly, simply because Jesus told us to.  According to Dr. Karen Shwartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at Johns Hopkins, our forgiveness must be an active, “conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not.”[1]

Jesus knew this reality two-thousand years ago.  In the second half of Matthew eighteen, Jesus teaches his disciples all about forgiveness.  He begins by teaching them how to handle sin in the community.  When someone sins, don’t be afraid to name it.  If they refuse to hear it, then take a few others to talk it out.  If they still refuse to listen, bring it before the whole church.  If even then they won’t repent and seek forgiveness, then Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Wouldn’t you know it, but Matthew is a tax collector, and Matthew’s church included many Gentiles.  Even when the other won’t seek forgiveness, it appears we are called to forgive.  Or, at least, that’s what Peter seems to have heard Jesus saying.

As our Gospel lesson begins, we find Peter seeking some clarification on this whole forgiveness thing.  “Let’s get real for a minute, Jesus.  How many times do I have to forgive someone when they sin against me?  Would seven times be enough?”  Peter thinks he’s really going out on a limb here.  The Rabbis taught that God would forgive three times for the same sin.  Since we are nowhere near as good as God at forgiveness, three times would have seemed next to impossible, but Peter’s been hanging out with Jesus for a while now.  He knows that Jesus always goes a step further, so Peter doubles that number and adds one for good measure.  Forgiving someone seven times is downright absurd, and yet Jesus responds by saying, “you aren’t even close.”  Depending on how you translate the Greek, it could mean seventy-seven times, or, more likely, seventy times seven.  Perhaps the best translation is the one Mark gave us last week, “forgive them for as long as it takes.”

There must have been a look in Peter’s eye that made Jesus realize that he didn’t quite get it.  He went on to explain by way of a fairly straightforward parable.  Well, it was certainly clear to Peter, but I wonder how clear all that talk of talents and denarii are to us today.  This story hinges on a servant who is deeply indebted to a king.  His debt was ten thousand talents.  A talent was a unit of measure, weighing about 130 pounds and, in this case, refers to silver.  A talent was roughly the equivalent of 15 years of wages for a common laborer.  This man owed the king 150,000 years wages.  In modern terms, if the average construction laborer in Bowling Green makes $30,000 a year, this servant owed the king 4.5 billion dollars.[2]   That’s a fairly insurmountable debt for man making thirty-grand a year.  Yet, the king forgave him the debt, free and clear.  Can you imagine the joy that slave must have felt in that moment?  I’m eleven months away from being down to one car note, and I’m already pretty excited about it.  There must have been tears and hugs and thanks flowing like a river as he left the king’s presence, but it didn’t last long.

The parable goes on to tell of the newly debt free slave seeing another servant who owed him a hundred denarii.  A denarius was a single silver coin, nearly four thousand denarii made up a talent.  It was worth about a day’s wage.  Returning to our friendly average construction laborer in Bowling Green, he or she would make roughly $115 a day, so this debt, a hundred days’ worth of wages was about $11,500.  This certainly isn’t a minor debt, but it is nothing compared to the $4.5 billion debt he had just been forgiven.  Rather than sharing his joy with this fellow slave and forgiving his debt as well, the forgiven slave had him thrown in jail until he could pay it off.  Obviously, the king didn’t take too kindly to his slave’s lack of forgiveness and the parable ends with him being tortured until he could pay the original debt.  That is, he would be tortured forever.  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

From this teaching, we learn a profound truth.  Forgiving one another is a universal command for all who follow Jesus.  At least every Sunday, and hopefully multiple times each day, you pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.  In it, we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Our willingness to forgive one another flows directly out of the forgiveness we have received from God.  As the Johns Hopkins study suggests, the necessity of forgiveness is hard wired into us.  Whether the other deserves it or not, whether they ask for it or not, when we fail to forgive, it is bad for our health both physically and spiritually.

Let me pause for a moment and draw a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation.  Forgiveness is the conscious choice to let go of past hurts.  Reconciliation is the return to right relationship.  Forgiveness is a choice the offended can make without the offender.  Reconciliation requires both sides to be present to the forgiveness process.  Despite the universal Christian commandment to forgive, reconciliation is not always possible and in some cases, shouldn’t even be attempted.  The Church has not always been good at this, and we should be ashamed of the result.  Too many victims of abuse have been sent back to their abusers by clergy who have misunderstood what it means to forgive.  Sometimes, treating another like a Gentile or a tax collector means forgiving them, even as we remain in broken relationship with them.

As followers of Jesus, we should forgive whether forgiveness is sought or not.  When one who has sinned against us comes to offer an apology, we ought not short-circuit forgiveness by shrugging it off, but rather, we should do the challenging work of confronting the wrong directly by accepting the apology. We do so, not just because a lack of forgiveness is bad for our health, but because we have been forgiven so great a debt that the joy of forgiveness should overflow.  So, forgive them their trespasses, their debts, and their sins, for in the Kingdom of God, forgiveness never ends.  Amen.

[1] Healthy Connections, “Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It” http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_connections/forgiveness-your-health-depends-on-it (accessed 9/16/2017).

[2] https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_14540.htm#47-0000

The New TEC Website is an Unpleasing Front Door

outside church in color

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the red doors of an Episcopal Church served as its initial point of entry. Americans lived, by and large, in the neighborhoods of their youth. Churches served those neighborhoods and new members came either from Episcopal parents or the rare new family that came to town. There was brand loyalty back then, so if you did find yourself in a new place, you found the red doors at 10am on Sunday, and you went in. Over time, the front door has had different iterations. As Americans became more mobile and technology advanced, the point of entry moved away from the red doors to the Yellow Pages, newspaper ads, and the occasional place mat at the local diner. Today, without question the first point of contact for someone looking for an Episcopal church is its webpage.  Whether a simple WordPress site, a Facebook page, or an elaborate web presence, the vast majority of visitors to your church will find you because of a Google search and subsequent review of your website.

Recently, The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States unveiled a new front door.  Design decisions are always a matter of taste, so I won’t waste much of your time discussing them, other than to say that the bar was so low after the Dreary Stained Glass Window era that anything would be an improvement.  That’s not to say I like the choices they’ve made, but simply that they aren’t resolutely awful.   The new website is very mobile friendly, and since more than 50% of internet users access the web via mobile device, this is a very good thing.  It has a nice modern look, with good photography and clean lines.  Overall, it is very pleasing to the eye, and I applaud the Communications Department for that.  And, for what its worth, the giant drop down menus are a neat throw back to when the under construction gif was a thing.

underconstruction-72327f17c652569bab9a33536622841bf905d145ee673a3e9d065fae9cabfe4f

Ah, the good old days

My main issue with the new Episcopal Church website is that for our front door to the world, there is very little about it that makes me certain that my denomination is a Christian Church rather than the newest gym in town.  Yes, there is the ubiquitous reference to the Jesus Movement, the Presiding Bishop’s ongoing refrain, but beyond that, what do we see that proves us to be a Christian denomination that lives out its theology by way of common prayer?  This Sunday, in the Collect for Proper 19, we will acknowledge before God that without God, nothing we do is pleasing to God.  It seems to me, that by and large, this new front door is rather unpleasing.

A quick scroll down the page brings us to an opportunity to give money toward hurricane relief, which is good and necessary, but not any different than the websites of the United Way, CNN, or even Coca-Cola.  Moving further down the page, we come to the section titled “New to the Church?  Here’s what we value.”  In case you don’t believe what I’m going to write next, here’s a screen shot.

Screenshot 2017-09-13 08.28.02

There are three enormous flaws in this section.

First and foremost, there is an amazing lack of Jesus in our list of values.  In fact, if you look closely, you won’t see the name of our Lord anywhere in our values.  The Episcopal Church is indeed a spiritual home, but it is a spiritual home because we believe that Jesus invites us to be members of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Evangelism is a priority, but not in the “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words,” kind of way.  Evangelism, at least according to our Presiding Bishop, is actually telling people about Jesus, about the difference following Jesus makes in our lives, and then inviting other to become disciples.  We are committed to things like racial reconciliation and environmental stewardship because of our faith in Christ.  Our faith in Jesus is what sets us apart from the Rotary or Bowling Green Women’s Club.  Our faith in Jesus should be our core value, and without it, we are lost.

The second flaw comes immediately below the heading.  There we find something that looks a lot like a mission statement for the Episcopal Church.  You’ll note that Jesus is not a part of our mission, at least according to this particular statement.  I pay pretty close attention to what’s happening in the wider church, and like the ill fated scheme to re-brand ourselves as The Missionary Society, this new mission statement caught me by surprise.  I’ve seen no press release through ENS.  I’ve not noticed the Presiding Bishop mentioning it in any video or publication.  I’ve not read about its approval at an Executive Council meeting.  Instead, it seems that whoever was assigned the role of revamping the website took it upon themselves to describe the Episcopal Church as “a spiritual home free of judgment and inclusive to all,” and who ever approved its launch didn’t spend a whole lot of time poring over the copy.

2017-09-12 20.27.26

Despite what you may have read between the lines in my post on Monday, I am firmly believe that judgment has a place in the church.  Paul’s admonition that we ought not pass judgment upon our brothers and sisters doesn’t mean that the church should be a judgment free zone.  Instead, Paul argues that we should avoid casting judgement upon one another, only because we all stand in judgment under Christ. The Church, on behalf of and because of Jesus, must be clear in her judgment of sin, both individual and corporate.  Our Prayer Book, modeling nearly two centuries of baptismal practice, makes us live this out by requiring three renunciations of evil from baptismal candidates.  I know that our Presiding Bishop believes in judgment.  He has preached on the evils of racism, xenophobia, and fear-mongering.  He is willing to offer a prophetic voice (a term I use intentionally, and rarely) to call the Church and individual Christians into action against the powers and principalities which threaten to corrupt us.  The Episcopal Church is not Planet Fitness.  There must be judgment here.

My last main issue with the section on our values is the ever-growing list of priorities.  Following General Convention, it was clear that two things would occupy our attention during the triennium: Racial Reconciliation and Evangelism.  I was on the floor of Convention for every day of legislation.  I remember the budget amendment that brought an extra $2.8 million dollars for evangelism.  I remember making unequivocal statements against the evils of racism be it by flying the Confederate Flag or committing violence in Emanuel AME Church, and calling for study and prayer that would develop into “Becoming Beloved Community.”  At some point in the last two years, Environmental Stewardship was added to create the kind of three-legged stool of priorities that Anglicans adore.  I’m honestly not sure how this happened, but I know it didn’t come out of General Convention as a budget or thematic priority.  Environmental Stewardship is important, which is why no one has really balked at its ex nihilo addition to the priority list, but like so many other things in the church, it would have been nice if someone had talked about it.

The same goes for Inclusivity, which is apparently the fourth wall in the now also Anglican-friendly quadrilateral of priorities.  Again, I’m not going to argue against inclusivity, but I don’t actually believe the Episcopal Church to be “inclusive for all.”  I would argue that the story we have told ourselves for too long – the story of our political power as the church of the elite – precludes access to many who would see themselves as something other than a privileged, upper-middle class, white person.  I have also personally witnessed the exclusion of people who have prayerfully considered any number of political and theological issues and come down somewhere other than the platform of the Democratic Party.  Yes, love will win, as the website borrowed from Rob Bell, but let’s not pretend that love has already won, and that Episcopalians have perfected loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The Episcopal Church has much to offer the world.  We have an important voice in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that can be heard just a little bit differently than other interpretations of it.  I believe this to be true such that I wrote my DMin thesis about it.  I wish, however, that we would be more careful in how we define ourselves.  Rather than focusing so hard on not being like some other group that we see as judgmental or exclusive, let’s focus on what we have to offer to the honor and glory of God.  We must not be ashamed to be disciples of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again to save us from our sin, and who will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Let’s make sure our front door is an adequate and appropriate representation of who we are, never forgetting that without God, nothing we have to offer, not even a website, will be pleasing to the Lord.

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

I’ve had Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “Sixteen Tons” stuck in my head all week.  I’m not really sure why my mind is replaying this old song.  It may be because of my profound sadness at the latest Taylor Swift offering.  It might be the rash of “Feed the Pig” ads on ESPN radio that decry a 2005(!) statistic about American’s spending more than they are saving.  Most likely, it is the result of Sunday’s portion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which Paul admonishes his hearers that they “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Biblical thoughts on usury and indebtedness aside, this is helpful advice from Paul.  As I’ve said before, one of the best definitions of sin that I’ve heard came from an early elementary aged child who said that we sin when we aren’t loving.  I know this is true in my life.  Relationships, be they between me and another person or me and God, sour when my focus falls away from love.  Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets by commanding us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When we fail to live by that code of love, barriers go up, relationships break down, and violence and fear enter our world.

The trouble is, as Tennessee Ernie made famous, every one of us is “another day older and deeper in debt.”  So how do we change?  How do we work toward being more loving?  How do we avoid Saint Peter calling while we still owe our souls, not to the company store, but to the love of neighbor, enemy, family, or friend?  First, we have to admit that this just isn’t possible.  Sin is a universal human condition, no matter where we find our names in the book of life, all fall short of the glory of God.  Rather than trying to muster up, by our own strength, the ability to love our neighbor perfectly, instead we must rely on God and the perfect love that God offers us.  When we live in God’s grace, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, renewed through prayer and study, then, as Psalm 23 says, our cup will overflow with love for all through generosity and service.  Simply put, the way to stay out of a debt of love is to stay in relationship with God, and the way to deepen our relationship with God is through discipleship.  With God’s grace, we can take on the debt of love for the up-building of the Kingdom of God.

Subtle Drama Lost

File Aug 09, 1 33 19 PM

Shortly after 6am this morning, I sat down in a rocking chair on my front porch to sip my first cup of coffee of the day.  It is the first day of school here in Bowling Green, so everything had to be moved ahead of the slower paced summer schedule.  I noticed, if only for its lacking, that the sun was not yet over the trees.  What had been an overwhelming brightness over the past several weeks was replaced by the redness of the newly risen sun, just barely peeking through the trees.  It was cool, the street was quiet, and I thought to myself, “this is the calm before the storm.”

By the Roman time keeping standard of the 1st century, 6am is the end of the fourth watch, the time stamp given for this week’s Gospel lesson in the Greek version (and honestly most others outside of the NRSV).  After a night spent in prayer, Jesus set out to meet up with the wind battered disciples on a boat somewhere near the middle of the Sea of Galilee by walking across the water.

I note the time of day as the fourth watch because I think it helps add in the subtle drama of the story.  We don’t know what time of year it was, so we can’t be for sure when the sun rise would have occurred on that particular morning, but the sky most definitely starts to gain light toward the waning hours of the fourth watch.  Unlike Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus seems to teleport from one location to another, Matthew tells us that somewhere during the period between 3am and 6am, Jesus walked to meet his disciples.  It would have taken him some time to traverse the roughly four mile hike from the south-western shore to mid-lake.  As he walked, the sky began to wake.  First light came, and as the sun approached the horizon, the twilight grew until the figure on the water began to come into focus for the disciples.

It isn’t so much that the time of day really matters for preaching, except that it kind of does.  When we miss these details, the story loses some of its power because we are no longer able to put ourselves within it.  With the return to a fourth watch translation (and the requisite teaching required to help people know what that means), we can begin to imagine ourselves within the story.  Many have experienced the twilight of the morning.  We know what it is like as what was once darkness gives way to light and more and more things come into view.  Sometimes, all it takes is one small detail of subtle drama to allow us to experience more fully what the disciples were feeling, to understand the story more fully, and find our place in an ancient encounter with the Savior of the World.

A Parable for the Church

Despite our ongoing fascination with it, Jesus didn’t talk much about the institution of the church.  In fact, the only reference to church in the Gospels comes in Matthew’s account.  In chapter 15, Jesus tells Peter he will be the rock upon which he will build his church.  In chapter 18, the word occurs several times as Jesus explains how to handle a fellow Christian, literally a brother, who sins against you.  In the Greek, it appears only three times (16:18, and twice in 18:17) while in the NRSV, the word occurs five times.  Still, it is worth noting that Matthew’s Gospel shows an affinity toward the church that would bloom out of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It is helpful as we read other portions of Matthew’s Gospel to recall that it was written with the Church in mind.

Which brings me to the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  As parable season rolls on, Jesus channels his inner Joachim Jeremias by offering a doozy of an allegorical interpretation on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.  It is tempting to read this parable and think of the individual: how each of us has within our own hearts some good wheat mixed in with some uncontrolled weeds, but that isn’t what Jesus has in mind as he tells this parable.  Instead, as Jesus explains the parable, he has a much wider perspective.  He tells this story about a world in which there is good and there is evil.  As his explanation comes to a close, Jesus says that after the weeds – stumbling-blocks and doers of evil, are carried off to the unquenchable fire, what will be left is a pristine field of wheat that will “shine like the sun.”

lovely-green-roofed-church-in-wheat-fields-field-green-roof-plain-church-2560x1600-915x515

In his allegory, Jesus explains that this wheat that will be left over are the righteous, literally those who conform to the standard of God and are thereby in right relationship with the Father, which with Matthew’s heart for the Church in mind, led me into the Catechism of our Book of Common Prayer and the answer to the question on the top of page 855, “What is the mission of the Church?”  “The mission of the Church is to restores all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”  That is to say, with apologies for mixing allegories, the reason the Church exists is to work the soil so that the wheat in our hearts chokes out the weeds.  The work of the Church is to help righteousness flourish in our hearts so that when the harvest times comes, there is a whole lot more wheat left shining like the sun than there is weeds burning in the furnace.

To be sure, the Church hasn’t always done a great job of this.  Often, weeds have been actively ignored, which in my flower beds means they grow wildly.  Sometimes, they are pulled up with haste, allowing their seeds to scatter and the roots to remain in tact, which only makes for more weeds a few weeks down the road.  Rarely, are the root causes of weeds addressed and the proper fertilization and watering for wheat utilized in order to facilitate abundant harvests.  All this to say, when I read this as a timely parable for the Church and a call to intentional discipleship training for an abundant harvest, I am quick to realize that we have a lot of work to do to facilitate healthy growth in restoring all people to unity, i.e. right relationship, with God.

Go, have no fear, take risks, and share the Good News – a sermon

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.

martyrdom

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.