Jeremiah 20: 7-13, Romans 6: 1-11, Matthew 10: 24-39
It is widely held by Biblical scholars that, while Matthew’s Gospel is the first which we find in the New Testament, it was actually written down about fifty years after Jesus ascended into Heaven. In the verses we have heard today, Matthew appears to collect together a number of related sayings of Jesus having to do with committed discipleship in the face of conflict.
Much of this passage is about persecution and suffering for being a follower of Christ.
Ever since Christianity came to these shores, and certainly since the arrival of St Augustine in 597, Christianity has been the norm, the mainstream in England, right up until recently.
Christians were not maligned for their faith here. Nobody threatened their lives. Being a Christian did not require cross-bearing, it was just the thing to do and in some eras you were persecuted if you were not, at least nominally, a Christian. There was persecution elsewhere in the World, there still is, but here in England life has always been relatively easy for Christians.
But even here things are changing, we are no longer the norm really. Just after Easter I read a circular from the local Council. In it it said that “Holy week and Passover are over and we approach the Holy Month of Ramadan”. No mention of Easter, the most important festival in the Christian calendar and Christianity was clearly just another religion. It seemed that, to the writer, Easter was perhaps just about bunnies and chocolate and not worth mentioning and maybe not even a religious festival at all. Our biggest challenges are probably going to be overcoming such ignorance, more than anything else. And the forces of political correctness accusing us of past wrongs of which we are not guilty.
The media delights in portraying Christianity in a negative light, but would not dare to make fun of other religions. It ignores the church’s good work, but delights in reporting its misdeeds.
I have often wondered why this might be and I have a few thoughts. A lot of people who mock Christianity come from Christian backgrounds and traditions. They have decided they are far too sophisticated to believe all this nonsense and wonder how intelligent people like us could possibly do so. So we are fair game for ridicule. And it is safe to knock our faith, while it is not safe to knock others. But equally it is perhaps almost patronising to people of other faiths, almost treating them as if they are less sophisticated and need humouring when those who would mock us appear to treat them with deference. This actually dishonours other faiths as well as ours. No faith should be dishonoured.
But people of my generation who have rejected Christianity do mostly know something about it. It is the succeeding generations who have not been taught about it by their non believing parents, who I worry about. To them Christianity, if it even crosses their radar, really is just another religion. It is all rather sad.
So perhaps we might be nearing the time when we will find our faith to be a mystery to many people and difficult to witness to. In the future some of the difficulties and challenges which Jesus speaks about in this Gospel passage might become more real to western Christians, just as they are to so many of our brothers and sisters throughout much of the World. Christians might learn again what it means to suffer with Christ—to bear a cross—to be persecuted—to find families divided over issues of faith—to suffer abuse and ridicule.
Just as Jesus faced opposition and, ultimately, the cross, so Jesus’ disciples will face persecution. And he meant us as well as those in say Pakistan or Vietnam or Indonesia or China and many other places.
So, what should we do? Well we are not to tiptoe around the truth in the fear of inviting mockery or persecution. We should not be silent. We should wear our faith with pride. God loves us and God will protect us and has a place waiting for us with him in Heaven. We should proclaim our faith from the rooftops as Jesus tells us to do.
Moving on, many Christians today tend to think of God’s love rather than God’s judgement. However, this passage and many others like it make it clear that God will reward the faithful and punish the unfaithful. Perhaps in some ways we have lost our sense of awe in God’s presence. It is important, however, to fear and respect God for he has ultimate authority over everything. He is our Lord and friend, but he is not our mate. He is compassionate and full of love, but he must be treated with reverence and respect. And he demands that we do not deny him, that we stand up for him. If we acknowledge Jesus before other people, Jesus will acknowledge us before the Father in heaven. However, if we deny Jesus before other people, he will deny us before the Father. It is a bit like a courtroom with Jesus in the role of potential Barrister. If Jesus is our Barrister, we cannot lose. If Jesus declines to take on our defence, we cannot win. Thus, our actions in this life have eternal consequences because Jesus is watching us and assessing us. It is not all a free lunch, it involves commitment and respect and a public witness of allegiance to him, even in the face of opposition or even persecution.
Jesus requires us to take up our cross and follow him. It is not an easy command to follow. But many have done so over the centuries and many have sacrificed much for Jesus – even lost their lives, or their livelihoods, their freedom, their families. But they are the ones who have found their lives, their salvation and their joy. The sacrifices we need to make are probably not quite so dramatic. But we do need to follow their example, loving, serving, honouring our Lord in whatever way we can and never, ever denying him.