Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 21, 2020
Year A, Proper 7: Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-29
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We’re in a season right now where so many commencement speeches that were to be delivered were never delivered – probably to the relief of many a parent and graduate because anyone who has sat through a commencement speech know that speeches can drag on interminably. I’d say that what we hear from Jesus today is kind of a bookend of a commencement speech. He’s talking to his twelve closet followers for their first mission apart from him. In last week’s Gospel, we heard Jesus give his disciples authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal people. In this week’s gospel, he is giving them some concrete instructions on how that will happen.
I think the first thing we must do is acknowledge how troublesome this gospel is. You know I was talking yesterday to two of our beloved parishioners and we were talking about Jean Allen Davis. And they told me something that made me laugh out loud later as I was pondering this gospel again. “That’s not my Jesus,” she would say when she heard something particularly troublesome that Jesus had said.
“That’s not my Jesus.” I get it, Jean Allen, I get it. And so too have biblical scholars since the earliest days of the church who have wrestled with this gospel passage. These are tough words. “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…” It’s parallel to what we hear in Luke when he tells the disciples to follow him and “let the dead bury their dead.”
Two things need to be said: first, I think it’s fair to say that this is a truly great example of scripture not saying what, at first glance, it seems to be saying. We cannot simply take these words at face value. And we have to always think of that ever-present context – that is the context in which Jesus was preaching this message. To follow Jesus during this time was particularly dangerous. To be a follower of Jesus in the first century was most assuredly a quick way of getting yourself killed. Jesus is telling them I’m going to be setting you against your family by you following me – that’s going to be the outcome.
I wonder how dangerous it is for us today at least in our context and out time. I think it’s the exception rather than the norm to be persecuted for one’s faith or to risk losing one’s life to follow at least in our local context.
It’s certainly true in other places in the world, however, where it is dangerous to be a disciple of Christ. Interestingly, where it’s dangerous to be a disciple of Christ is where the church is growing the fastest and where it’s growing the most. It’s growing in parts of Africa, in parts of Asia, in underground churches, in house churches. Just look to the places where there is poverty, difficulty, famine, and strife; there you’ll find the church growing. There you’ll find disciples in the making. And there you’ll find Jesus in the midst of pain and suffering lifting up his people, strengthening them, and abiding with them. That’s the kind of situation faced by Jesus’ disciples at the time he preaches this message.
You’ve heard me talk, and I’m sure you’ve heard other priests, about the cost of discipleship. The cost of taking up their cross to follow him, and the cost, right now is being described starkly in terms of rejection by their family. Jesus is preparing them for what God’s Kingdom looks like, interrupting life-as-they-knew-it with new possibilities for healing, wholeness, truth-telling, and repaired relationships. You can imagine Jesus on the cusp of sending his twelve disciples when he pauses to equip them with a final spiritual gift: the ability to persevere in the face of resistance. He gives it to them straight: “Some folks will welcome the Good News, others won’t. They’ll resist the message and the change that comes with it. And you’ll be the target of their resistance.”
Well, that is true I think in our own time when we bring the message and the gospel of Jesus Christ to others. If truth is told, I think in our context many people just think that the message is irrelevant. We have to remind ourselves and others that God is incredibly powerful and caring. In this gospel, we are told that God notices every sparrow that falls and counts every hair on our heads. By remembering the character and the faithfulness of God, the disciples have what they need to endure beyond their fear of rejection and violence.
It’s one step in a moment of a process of formation for these disciples. Jesus shows the twelve: who they truly are – children of God; what they are capable of when they are aligned with God’s grace – as we hear about in Paul’s letter. When they’re aligned with God’s grace they’re capable of healing others and reconciling communities; and he also reminds them how to hold onto that truth even when the going gets tough – by remembering God’s character, God’s faithfulness, God’s goodness.
It took several years at this point of being with Jesus, eating with him, watching him heal others, speaking truth to power, listening to his teachings, and overhearing his prayers for them to become the kind of men – and women, for we know Jesus had women disciples, too – who were willing to lose their lives as martyrs, testifying to God’s shalom, God’s peace in the world.
We Christians who claim to follow Jesus – we are given the same instructions about a life of discipleship. We learn about how following Jesus might have the consequence of suffering, even to the point of death, but that we always have God’s love. We hear Jesus’ invitation to pick up our cross and follow him into every area of this world’s brokenness.
But when the moment comes, if the moment comes, when a moment involves risk, I wonder if we are quickly tempted to quickly dismiss what we profess to believe. Because there is a real cost to discipleship. It’s that cost that Jesus is discussing in this passage from Matthew.
So many talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his cost of discipleship. He stood up to the Nazis in Germany. His commitment to social justice appeals to liberal Protestants, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, and Mennonites. But, perhaps some of you don’t know the story of Perpetua.
Her story is one of broken relationship. It’s a true, painful cost of discipleship.
She is a very early 2nd century martyr. Amazingly we know her story, we know the story of a woman from the 2nd century, because she kept a careful diary at the end of her life, at the end of the first, beginning of the second century. She was an educated woman, she was a Roman woman. A diary almost two thousand years old has survived through the centuries and is among the texts in the earliest church writings.
Raised pagan, Perpetua converted to Christianity at a time when it was illegal to do so. Before she had even been baptized, she was arrested, and her father came to the prison multiple times begging his beloved daughter to renounce this God of costly love. After all, not only was she his daughter, she was also mother to an infant boy, his grandson.
Perpetua wrote that it pained her to see her father suffering, and her body ached for her child. But pointing to the corner of her cell she said, “See that pot lying there? Can you call it by any other name that what it is? To which he replied, “Of course not.” Perpetua responded, “Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am. I am, dear Father, a Christian.” I am dear Father, a Christian.
It was the last conversation she had with her heartbroken father before she was tortured and killed for her love of her God. She died a beautiful daughter and mother. But above all, she died a Christian.
For Bonhoeffer, for Perpetua, in living out their Christian values, for us – in becoming truly Christian, we are often presented with new problems because it is not easy to follow Christ. It is not cozy. It is not comfortable. At least it’s not supposed to be. And it is certainly, quite often, counter-cultural. Look where Christ’s journey led him – to that cross.
Jesus’ disciples were living and bearing witness to a world in which things that have been unknown were becoming known. I think that’s true of our life today. We are learning things that we never knew. We are always invited to take up our cross and to follow Christ and to make those things known. Because in taking on the cost and joy of discipleship, we lose our fearful lives in Christ and save them in the process.
Easy will never be the answer. Most things truly worth having require expenditures of time, effort, energy, and sacrifice. Why would we expect the life of faith to be any different?
One thing I know from the Gospel that we’ve heard today, and the gospel that I hear every week and the gospel that I hope to live and that well live in the name of Jesus Chris, the gospel sustains us. Always. But Jesus makes it abundantly clear that he wants each and every one of us, AND, he wants all of us. Jesus demands our full participation.
We always love the Easter story of resurrection – Good Friday death not so much. That’s what this gospel gives us this morning – a good big dose of the Good Friday death that we experience.
Part of the cost of that Good Friday death and coming to that resurrection is to examine the place in our lives for places in our lives where we have failed to allow our baptism into Christ to truly change our hearts. Because in 2020, just as in 202, when Perpetua was martyred, we have to continue to speak to the powers of the world as Christians, we have to continue to speak as receivers of that grace that Jesus has given. We are called to speak with the same clarity that Perpetua and Bonhoeffer and all those others spoke. And to be clear, it is hardly likely that the cost of our discipleship will be the sacrifice of dying on the cross or being beheaded or dying in a concentration camp. What our discipleship will cost us remains somewhat unknown – what is known is that we must not check our values at the doors of our church. We cannot place conditions on God’s extravagant and unconditional love. Because God is calling for us to proclaim the kingdom in our way, here and now. If we need inspiration, there is plenty to be found.
When we have proclaimed the truth of the gospel with the urgency of the disciples and the power of God’s love, I hope it is said of you me, “They were Christians.” Dear Father, they were Christians.
 Matthew 10:35, New Revised Standard Version
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