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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Choose Well

Mt 10:24-39

The Gospel message has a sharp edge today, with its talk of persecution, family conflict and death. I want to briefly consider all of chapter 10 before focusing in on today's verses.

We covered this passage some months ago in my Bible study on the parallel Gospels. When we did this we saw that Luke has some of the same material spread out over three different chapters in his Gospel. This leads us to think that perhaps Matthew has crafted together an "apostles guidebook" from his sources of Jesus' words.As such, it is not simply remembering what Jesus said, but reminding the church in his age (and ours) of the deadly implications of discipleship. This makes it more important in our own consideration of church mission. What if following Jesus is really a life or death decision? How enthusiastic are we about our loved ones perishing for their faith in and love for Christ?

Mt 10 is introduced by 9:35-38 where Jesus is teaching, proclaiming the Good News and healing. His heart is moved with compassion for the crowds--which look to Him like sheep without a shepherd. {sheep/shepherd are code words for King and Israel, so this is a loaded analogy, just like 'harvest' is an apocalyptic, final judgment image). They are wandering about lost and needy, and Jesus sees that need. He sends His disciples, empowering them with the words and work which He has begun. "Proclaim the Kingdom" He enjoins them, "Raise the dead..."

This is to be an apostolic ministry of trusting faith. "Take nothing for the journey" is probably meant as an illustration of deep faith. Surely, it is not a Law. St. Francis and his jolly band actually did it for a while, but we know that within his lifetime the Franciscan Order adopted a more "practical" approach to evangelism. The key is the "ideal" Jesus offers us: a constant reminder that we are not to worry about our physical needs or let them take ascendency over the Kingdom. This is important in light of what comes next.

Matthew's narrative takes a decided shift (from v5 to v15). Jesus tells them (and us) that there will be a mixed reaction to the message, and the response, acceptance or rejection, will determine the eternal destiny of those who hear these words. Make no mistake, Jesus says, we are being sent out like sheep (again!) among wolves. We will be hated. We will be saved by enduring to the end (is there a better definition of faith?). [This is why the apostles were told to bring nothing with, if that is your focus then how can you stand up to resistance or threats?]

The words we hear today continue this theme. Jesus was rejected and crucified. Why would His followers expect an easier way? If Jesus is hated the followers of Jesus should not be surprised to feel the world's hatred. In a world ruled by the Deceiver, truth is offensive. In a world enamored with "many ways" to God and diversity for its own sake, the One Way, Who is Jesus, brings offense.

Yet our battle is not just with flesh and blood. There is one among us, Satan, who would draw us into the gaping jaws of Hell. Humans kill the body, yes, but all of us die eventually. Such a death may be unpleasant but it is unavoidable. The second death, eternal fires, are the warm welcome that the Evil One has prepared for those who renounce the Christ and embrace the Father of Falsehood. It is this demonic kingdom which Jesus warns us to fear and flee. There are two Princes who would rule this world---choose with care whom you will follow!

The battle lines are drawn, and have been for centuries and centuries. Jesus calls us, you and I, to be participants in His mission of salvation. We who respond can be assured of the Father's mercy and love. We are beloved in His sight. Yet, can we rest in peace and joy knowing others are swept along by the deceit and deadly power of the world, the flesh and the devil? Can we ignore our mission given us by Jesus and joyfully bask in the safety of a socially acceptable faith which demands little of us and offends no one?

Jesus sees a world of sheep in need of shepherding. We are also sheep, armed with His word (the sword which divides family is the word of God) and protected, ultimately, by His promise. There can be no room in our heart for divided loyalty. Satan twists even the good and the beautiful---things like reputation, citizenship and even family love---to evoke blasphemy and infidelity. Elsewhere Jesus makes the same demands with different language:
Seek First the Kingdom.
Give to God what is God's.
If you do not love me more than family, friend and even your own life then you cannot belong to me.

Such phrases are a challenge to translate this faith of ours into daily actions. It is clear, there are two paths stretched out before us: One is Jesus (the way, the truth and the life) and His Kingdom. The other is everything and everyone else. The first requires an active, committed decision; the second is an auto-response which happens if we do nothing.

This leads to a question. Can any man make such a demand? Does Jesus have a right to demand such a thing of us? Can He claim our first allegiance over everything, even those we love most? Can Jesus tell us not to worry about all the things that make life possible?

No man has the right to claim that, but Jesus is no mere man. He is god Incarnate, the Word made Flesh. He is Creator and King; so, yes, He can make such a demand. [Even the best people we know are not worthy of worship before God.... this is about worship and first loyalty]

Jesus has made the demand. The bigger question now is, knowing that He has made such a demand.... how will we respond in word and deed?

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