Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
“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; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
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; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
You might well wonder how I could possibly preach on this text yesterday since it was Father’s Day.
For one thing, as a liturgical church, my congregation follows the Revised Common Lectionary, and Matthew 10:24-39 happened to be the designated gospel reading. Plus I knew from earlier conversations in worship planning that this church values the church calendar over the Hallmark one. So the designated Scripture readings for yesterday were:
I knew I would focus my homily on the gospel reading, yet for me preaching is both biblical and contextual, so I couldn’t ignore Father’s Day altogether. I couldn’t ignore the calls for racial justice that have been in the daily news. I couldn’t ignore our present circumstances in the coronavirus pandemic. Somehow I knew these would be part of my sermon too. So this is what I shared yesterday, revised for today.
Sent by Jesus
In Matthew 10, Jesus sends his disciples into the world, and he sends them out with these words about family conflict, taking up your cross, losing your life. It wasn’t exactly an inspiring pep talk!
Instead it was a warning—that just as Jesus faced opposition in his ministry, his disciples would face opposition too. After all, “a disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master” (v. 24). In other words, just as Jesus endured accusations, name-calling, and death, so also would his disciples. The book of Acts tells us that King Herod later imprisoned Peter and killed the disciple James (Acts 12:1-5).
So the words of Jesus in our gospel text were very much related to the experience of his first disciples as they were sent into the world. But how are we to read these words of Jesus today? Is their significance simply historical, about a bygone era? Or do these words also speak to the way we are sent into the world today?
Sent into the World
On the face of it, our world is very different from the world of our gospel reading. For the most part, Christians in Canada don’t face accusations, name-calling, or the threat of death simply for following Jesus. And unlike Jesus’ first disciples sent out to travel from town to town proclaiming God’s kingdom, for months of this pandemic most of us have been told to stay home as much as possible.
Yet the stark contrasts described in our text haven’t changed over the centuries. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we too live in a time when things that are concealed will one day be made known. We live in a world of darkness and daylight. In our world today, there are still some who acknowledge God and some who do not. Our world also knows peace and conflict: between nations, between political parties, even within families. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we share the same human condition where finding and losing our lives can turn out to be just the opposite from what we might expect—where the more we focus on ourselves, the more we lose our way, and the more we lose ourselves in faith and following Jesus, the more we truly become ourselves. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we too are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
We too are sent into the world. For those who work in health care, teaching, or other occupations, that engagement in the world has continued over the last months, although perhaps in some new ways. Even those of us who have been mainly at home are part of a wider world. Our world includes the people we live with, the people we see when we venture out for a walk or a drive. The person who delivers our groceries or scans them at the store. The people we can call on the telephone, or email, or connect with online in other ways.
As we are sent into the world in these different ways, our text reminds us that we are not sent alone. Jesus gave these instructions not just to one disciple but to all twelve. Mark 6:6-7 adds the detail that Jesus sent out the twelve in pairs. When Jesus sent out 70 of his followers, Luke 10:1 says he “sent them two by two.” Going together in teams of two offered a measure of safety at a time when travel could be difficult and dangerous. For us today, this text serves as a reminder that we are not sent into the world alone. We go not as individuals, but as part of a wider Christian community.
Today if we read this text narrowly as individuals, we might say, “Well, this doesn’t apply to me. I’m not facing opposition as a Christian. I haven’t received any death threats.” But when we read it as part of a body, as part of a wider Christian community, the risk of following Jesus is still very much with us today.
I’ve been challenged by the stories shared in our congregation about the suffering experienced by Vietnamese Christians. I read recently that last year in India, there were over 1,445 physical attacks and death threats against Christians. In the first four months of 2020, over 600 Christians have been killed in Nigeria. So from a global perspective, these words of Jesus still carry weight for us today. The servants of Jesus today are still being abused and killed as he was, still carrying their cross in extreme circumstances.
Read in this context of the larger Christian community, these words of Jesus reinforce the reality that Christian faith is not only about me and you, but about all of us in the church, including those around the world.
Sent Alive to God
The words of Jesus in our text also help to re-orient us to what’s most important in life. Our individualistic and consumer-driven society might push us to go after our personal desires and acquire more and more things. It tends to focus us on the physical world. But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (v. 28). This life is more than our physical bodies and the physical world around us. As human beings, we are body and soul. We have a spiritual life that also needs tending. Even the best the world can offer in the love of family does not compare to loving God and following Jesus.
So Jesus says:
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 (v. 37).
It seems rather ironic to read these words of Jesus on Father’s Day. But as author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
The gospel is not a table knife but a sword. It can set free and it can divide. The gospel is not pablum. It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties” (“Family Values” in Gospel Medicine).
Yet Jesus is not anti-family. His great commandment is to love God and love our neighbour (Matthew 22:37-39), and that neighbour includes the members of our own families. So of course, we are to love our father and mother. Of course, we are to love our son and daughter. But as much as we love our families, we are to love God even more.
That commitment to God takes priority over all other relationships (vv. 35-37)—and it takes priority even over our own lives (vv. 38-39). As our designated lectionary reading from Romans 6 reminds us, we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).
Our life in Christ impacts every area of our lives, including our family relationships, including the pressing calls for racial justice, including the many, many choices that never make it into the news: like how we spend our time, how we reach out to and care for other people, when to speak up and when to be silent, and so many other daily choices. As author Donald Miller writes, “The trouble with deep belief is that it costs something” (Blue Like Jazz). It costs everything.
The prospect of being cut off from family, the prospect of opposition and the threat of death might make anyone fearful. But over and over again in our gospel text, Jesus reassures his disciples: “Do not be afraid” (v. 26). “Do not be afraid” (v. 28). “Do not be afraid” (v. 31).
For Jesus’ first disciples and for us: Do not be afraid, because God cares for you. The God who cares for the sparrows cares for you. Even the hairs of your head are numbered.
Our lectionary reading from Genesis 21 shows God’s care in action. When Abraham sends Hagar and her son into the wilderness, they run out of water, and Hagar cannot bear to see her son die. She cries out to God. And God says to Hagar exactly as Jesus would later say to his disciples: “Do not be afraid” (v. 17). God cares for Hagar and her son in the wilderness, and provides for them. Her son does not die, but goes on to become the father of a great nation.
Our reading from Psalm 86 echoes the story of Hagar, how she prays for her son in the wilderness. “Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy” (v. 1). Then near the end of the Psalm: “Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl” (v. 16). And God answers Hagar’s prayer.
In our reading from Jeremiah 20, the prophet describes his experience of being ridiculed for speaking out: “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me” (v. 7). But God cares for him too, for Jeremiah also says, “But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail” (v 11).
Like Jeremiah, like Hagar, like Jesus’ first disciples, today we face challenges of our own as we seek to follow Jesus. How are we called to speak out for justice in spite of opposition? How are we called to have compassion on others and cry out to God in prayer? How are we sent into our world today? Jesus encourages us: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. God cares for you. You are not alone, for you are part of a larger community of faith. Follow Jesus and place your trust in God above all.
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