To follow Christ is to be transformed in how we see and how we love, to see with the eyes and love with the heart of Christ; such transformation might in fact cost us, as it did our Lord.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 12 A
texts: Matthew 10:24-39; Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69:7-18; Romans 6:1b-11
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
For someone who follows Christ, who claims to be a disciple, there may be something troubling about these readings. In all these words we hear from God’s Word there is a consistent theme that believers who seek to be faithful to the true God either are facing great adversity as a result, as with Jeremiah and the psalmist, or are warned to expect it as a certainty, as Paul and Jesus so clearly speak.
So what are we to think if our lives of discipleship have not experienced setbacks like that, persecution, animosity, as a result of our faithful living? To hear these words and consider one’s life as a Christian can be to wonder if we’ve sometimes missed the point altogether. That is, if your experience is like mine, and you don’t recognize the pain and difficulty of what is being shown here.
Here’s another way to look at it. Jesus says that if he, our Master and Lord, is called “Beelzebul” by others, we shouldn’t expect any less ourselves, as his faithful disciples. So when was the last time someone said you were from the devil because of how you lived your faith?
That’s actually a helpful thought, though, isn’t it? Because there is at least one situation in the lives of many here where, if the language wasn’t actually naming us demonic, it was at least clearly stating that we were not faithful to Scripture and so were against God. Close enough to Beelzebul, at any rate. That, obviously, is in relation to the long-standing position of this congregation, and in many of our personal lives, to claim that welcoming those of different sexual orientations is not only God’s call, it’s Scripturally warranted, and the way our Lord Christ would have the Church live in the world. For many, that caused rifts and accusations even in their immediate families, many here lost jobs and careers as a result, or family and congregational ties.
That’s not insignificant, and it’s hopeful to me. Because apart from that particular issue, I can honestly say that I don’t recognize the pain and anguish of Jeremiah in the cost of his speaking faithfully what God has called him to say, and I don’t recognize the ostracism and family splits that Jesus speaks of. And even on the issue of welcoming all, I have to say it hasn’t been a terrible cost to me personally, unlike the experience of many of you here. In that, you are my models and my teachers, and I’m inspired by your witness to the cost of faithful discipleship, a cost we are led to believe we should expect, rather than be surprised by.
So the question remains, even if some of us have experienced just what our readings say is possible, and the question is this: if following Christ Jesus faithfully leads to a cross, to suffering on behalf of others, and we don’t find such a cross in how we are following, do we need to ask if we’re following in the right direction, going the right way?
That is, if sacrificial love is the mark of the Christian, and we can’t think of when we are called to sacrifice regularly on behalf of others, lose ourselves for another, risk ourselves for Christly love of the other, are we missing something? And even if for some here that has happened in the past, should we not all expect it to continue into our present and future, on all sorts of issues, if we are being truly faithful?
It might be that Jesus gives us a direction for our answer in his first words today, that the disciple and the master eventually begin to look alike.
It’s why he says if he’s called the devil, we should expect to be, too. But on a deeper level, that’s our entry into understanding true discipleship.
Jesus, the Son of God, lives in the world with God’s priorities, God’s way of seeing the world and loving the world. Eventually that puts him, as it did Jeremiah, directly in conflict with others who would protect their way of seeing the world. The cross, for all it means on a deeper level, is at the start the sign of Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father. Because of how he lives and loves and reaches out with God’s Word, he is killed.
So our first question isn’t the consequences of faithful discipleship, it’s the question of whether we look like our Lord Jesus or not. If we do, then Jesus says, we should expect adversity.
But perhaps we should back up even one more level, because looking like Jesus in our behavior starts before the behavior itself. What is clear is that the behavior of Jesus is the result of his deeper identity within the Triune God, as the Son, especially in the way God sees and loves the world.
So if we are beginning with the question of whether or not we’re recognizable as followers of Christ Jesus, we start not with our behavior but with the way of seeing and loving that leads to faithful behavior.
To be like our Lord and Savior, then, is to see as he sees, and love as he loves.
Our natural tendencies are actually the reverse of that. If you look at how we normally act toward others it looks something like this:
When it comes to needs and wants, we tend to think of our own first, and make them a priority over the needs of others. So we’ll say or think, “I know you think you’ve got it bad, but you should try what I’ve got going in my life.” Or we’ll be so focused on our problems or our pain that we don’t even see the pain and problems of the other.
On the other hand, when it comes to sinfulness and wrongdoing, we look in the opposite direction. We tend to want to focus on the wrongdoing and offenses of the other and give those priority over any reflection on our own. So Jesus actually has to say that we’re like people who look at the speck of wood in our neighbor’s eye while overlooking the 2×4 sticking out of our own eye. And it’s true. We’ll completely miss ways in which we hurt or offend others and quickly note every time someone hurts or offends us.
Jesus calls us to the opposite way of seeing and loving, to God’s way.
First, to train ourselves to love as Christ loved, that is, to love others and seek their good before we seek our own. To look to the needs and suffering and pain of others first, before our own, and to do this because we, as disciples of the Christ who loved the world so much he offered his life for all, we can do no less, can love no less.
And second, to train ourselves to see our own sin first, and address that, while forgiving others. To begin to understand Paul’s admonition that we seek death to our old way of being in the world because it cannot live in a disciple of Jesus.
That means painful honesty with ourselves about the ways we hurt others and hurt God, and clear vision of the truth about ourselves, while offering forgiveness, grace, and understanding to others. And we do all this because we, as disciples of the Christ who asked forgiveness for those who were killing him, we can do no less, can love no less.
This is the way of transformation the Holy Spirit seeks to create in us, and it will be a transformation. The more we seek this way, the more we will see and act differently in the world. We’ll begin to see the world as God sees the world, and love the world as God loves the world. And act accordingly.
And that’s when we’ll find out the cost of such a new life.
The cost of being made new, being made into people like Jesus is that the world doesn’t like people like Jesus.
The world is comfortable with the way the world works, and people don’t like others to shake up the status quo.
Think of a parallel example of transformation we know, when someone goes through rehabilitation from chemical addiction.
For many who are successfully going through rehab and the 12 steps, while it’s a transformation of their life, it can be a real challenge to live in this new way among their family and former friends. Sometimes recovering people are actually counseled to avoid former friends, who won’t understand or welcome the change and will work to bring the person back into addiction.
And often enough families can be uncomfortable with the “new” person in their midst, because their way of openness and understanding can seem to disrupt family systems that can’t handle such a way. Sometimes families can even wish that the loved one return to drinking or drugs because they liked things the way they were.
Change is threatening to people.
And change into the way of Christ is also deeply threatening, if we live transformed lives.
To be people who are unafraid of losing everything in a world that protects itself and operates on threat, is to be people who are impossible to control or manipulate. And that’s threatening to others.
To be people who insist on God’s justice and peace being extended and shared among all people in a world that is built on getting your own and not worrying about other people, is to be people who make others feel embarrassed or judged for their selfish attitudes. And that’s threatening to others.
To be people who see our own sinfulness and regularly ask forgiveness of others, who seek to grow to be more Christlike in our actions and choices and thoughts, even people who actually forgive others, in a world that holds grudges and counts offenses, is to be people who reveal in our lives the destructiveness and smallness of the world’s way. And that’s threatening to others.
So Jesus says, be ready for that. It’s a mark that you’re following me if you find such a cross. We should expect it. Sacrificial love for the world should mean sacrifice for us.
And actually, that leads to another source of resistance: ourselves. Seeing and loving in a way that looks to the needs of others and is critical first of our own sinfulness is a little like dying to who we were. Paul’s right.
So we might find ourselves the greatest resistance to walking the faithful path, because it will cost us to see differently, love differently. We lose our insistence on our own self-centered way, and that’s uncomfortable and often painful. True honesty about our own selves before God is rarely easy. We might be our own worst opponents in this faithful path.
But here is the hope today: our faithfulness and our path are in the way of our Lord Christ, whose love for us and the world made this path, and who is always with us on it. We can never lose sight, even in these somewhat frightening words of Jesus, of the fact that it’s Christ Jesus, our risen Lord, whom we are following.
The one who tells us, shows us, embodies for us, the love of almighty God who notices every little bounce every sparrow makes on the ground (a likely better translation). Think of what that means, that God takes note of every little bird and every little movement of every little bird. That’s the one we’re following, whose love for us therefore cannot be doubted. For we are loved even more than sparrows.
We are following the one whose love for us and the world led to the cross, and in rising from death ended the power of pain and suffering and sin and even death to do anything to us.
So even if we find that in following Christ and looking like Christ even some in our family can’t abide us, or love us, even if we find that we don’t like what it asks of us, we know that God loves us fully and always, and that all will be well. And that goes for anyone else who might hate us or run over us or marginalize us or ignore us or make fun of us because we are becoming more and more like Christ Jesus. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
And let’s also remember this about the one we are following, the one we seek to be like: the Son of God says that the love of God is for all things, even little sparrows. That means even those who hate us for who we are are loved by God, and in God’s plan of salvation, and will be continually sought and eventually found by the roaming Spirit of God who seeks to bring all sheep back to the Good Shepherd.
Because of all this, our Lord says today, “have no fear.”
This transformed life we seek, this life of discipleship and sacrificial love the Spirit is calling us to live and is seeking to grow in us, is a life lived in the undying, powerful love of God revealed in Christ Jesus. Nothing can ultimately harm us, and all is in God’s care. Let’s not forget that. And let’s put aside our fear.
And let’s also remember that we are called together in this, as a community. The life of discipleship is not a solo life; following Jesus is never an individual activity. We are called to live this life together, to encourage each other, to speak “do not be afraid” to each other as we walk this path as faithfully as we can. We are all in the hands of the Triune God whose love for us and for this whole world is unshakeable. Let us walk together, then, and seek this faithful, sacrificial life, and the fullness and joy it is intended to have for us and for the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen