“Not roadblocks, but stepping stones.”: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

“Not roadblocks, but stepping stones.”: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Year A, Trinity Sunday
June 25, 2023

Year A: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-29

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As soon as I read this Gospel, I recalled a story about Emmanuel’s beloved Jean Allen Davis. When Jesus said something particularly troublesome, Jean Allen would say, “That’s not my Jesus.”

I understand feeling that way. The first thing we must do is acknowledge how troublesome this gospel is. At the Saint Andrew rummage sale yesterday, I handed out extra copies of the inserts and asked people to read the Gospel passage to give me insight into what they would want to hear in a sermon today. Pretty much all agreed that it was a difficult passage but that some things could be focused on. We talked a bit about following the cross and finding our life, which provided the start for this sermon.

The Gospel, according to Matthew, is full of profound teachings and parables that provide invaluable insight into the essence of our Christian faith. It is discipleship that Jesus is focusing on in today’s passage. This section is particularly significant as it presents an initially unsettling image of Jesus, the “not my Jesus,” who declares, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Understanding this unsettling statement requires a deeper exploration of its context and metaphorical significance.

Jesus is commissioning the twelve disciples, preparing them for their mission to spread the Gospel. He warns them about upcoming persecution, division, and the cost of discipleship. This section unfolds a view of Jesus’ mission that contrasts with popular notions of Jesus as a harbinger of peace.

Jesus IS NOT inciting violence but introducing a metaphorical sword symbolizing conflict. “Peace,” in the biblical context, often signifies harmony and wholeness, the reconciliation of humanity to God. This peace is the ultimate goal of the Christian faith. However, Jesus highlights that the journey to this peace is not without strife and upheaval. The “sword” that Jesus brings is the Gospel’s truth that penetrates hearts and minds, dividing old beliefs from new convictions and worldly allegiances from fidelity to the way Jesus has set forth for his followers and us.

Jesus affirms that the Gospel’s proclamation will inevitably induce societal and familial conflict, as some embrace the message while others reject it.

Jesus employs stark language to underscore the weighty decision to follow Christ. True discipleship may entail separation from family and societal norms, a struggle that Jesus encapsulates as carrying one’s cross. The cross symbolizes the burden and self-sacrifice inherent in Christian discipleship. Followers must prioritize their relationship with God above all else, even when faced with family opposition or societal rejection.

How dangerous is it for us today, at least in our context and time, to follow our Christian faith?

And the language Jesus employs comes right from the Old Testament. In verses 34-36, Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophet, Micah, prophesying family divisions resulting from the Gospel’s divisive power.[1]  By doing so, Jesus wants the disciples to be fully aware of the hardship of following Christ. The message calls Christians to courage and steadfast faith amidst familial and societal upheaval.

While discussions and differences regarding specific political and social issues certainly exist among the diverse spectrum of Christians in the United States, suggesting that core religious beliefs or practices are under substantial infringement or repression is a significant mischaracterization. We have the right to practice our faith freely. We must differentiate between these debates and instances of real, significant religious persecution seen in other areas. According to Open Doors USA, a non-profit organization that tracks Christian persecution worldwide, countries where persecution is most severe, include North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria, and India. In these and other countries, Christians often endure extreme hardships such as physical violence, societal discrimination, imprisonment, and even death for their faith. That’s the kind of persecution Jesus is talking about in the first century. Christians in those parts of the world are experiencing the cost of discipleship that Jesus outlines in our passage this morning.

The conclusion of the passage is what people spent some time yesterday considering.

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[2] This profound paradox presents the crux of Christian discipleship. The verse delineates the Christian life’s transformative journey: an invitation to die to oneself (losing one’s life), relinquishing ego, personal ambition, and worldly desires to find life in Christ (finding life).

This verse does not advocate physical death but signifies the death of self-centeredness, making way for a Christ-centered life. It conveys that those who pursue their selfish ambitions (find their life) at the cost of the Gospel’s demands will lose true life – eternal life with God. Conversely, those who surrender their desires for Christ’s sake (lose their life) will gain authentic life. Jesus emphasizes the need for self-renunciation and a willingness to embrace the Gospel, despite the cost, to experience life in its fullest sense.

From a broader perspective, this verse redefines the concept of ‘life.’ In the worldly sense, ‘life’ often signifies individual prosperity, personal comfort, and societal approval. However, Jesus challenges this view, emphasizing that genuine ‘life’ is rooted in self-sacrifice, obedience to God’s will, and commitment to spreading the Gospel, despite challenges and opposition. This understanding radically alters the Christian discipleship approach, orienting it towards eternal life and spiritual fulfillment rather than temporal gains and societal validation.

As we stand on the dawn of another week, when the last couple of days have been so challenging in terms of world peace quite literally, let us remember that our walk with the Lord does not promise ease or simplicity. Like any journey of love and understanding, it calls us to wrestle with complexities, question and dig deeper. The scriptures we find hard to grasp are not roadblocks, but stepping stones, nudging us toward a more profound comprehension of our faith.

These challenging Gospel passages remind us of the endless depth and richness of God’s Word, like a deep well from which we may never stop drawing wisdom and insights. They compel us to lean closer, seek divine guidance, and admit that our human understanding is, and always will be, limited.

We are called to grapple with these passages, to reflect and pray. As we do, we can deepen our understanding of God’s vast and timeless plan and develop patience, empathy, and wisdom. We can grow as individual believers and a community bound together in our shared faith journey.

Today’s passage also provides a perfect segue into the beginning of our discussion this week on the book “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment,” by author Robert Farrar Capon who expounds on the biblical narratives with profound wisdom and understanding. Capon brings out the challenging paradoxes in Jesus’ teaching. The overall message is not one of comfortable reassurance but rather a summons to a shift in perspective. When Jesus speaks of family divisions and losing life to gain it, Capon argues these hard sayings compel us to realign our conventional wisdom and invite us to live in the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, as we journey together, let us not fear the troublesome passages. Instead, let us embrace them, knowing that each is an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God, strengthen our faith, and grow in God’s grace. The scriptures do not promise an easy path, but they assure us of a meaningful, transformative journey that ultimately leads us closer to the heart of God. Amen.

[1] Micah 7:6, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”) “For the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household.”

[2] Matthew 10:39, NRSV