Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 23, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 10:16-33
Sermon: "The ways of the world or the way of God"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Jesus said, "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they had you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciples to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven."
The ways of the world or the way of God
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost - June 23, 2002
The words of the Gospel are hard words this morning. Disciples of Christ are warned of being persecuted by the authorities of the synagogues and the appointed officials. They are warned that family members will betray one another. They are told that they will be hated by the world because they believe in Jesus Christ. These words almost make us want to be quiet about our faith.
In addition to these words being hard we often have difficulty comprehending them. In the United States, a country founded on religious freedom, we do not often see people persecuted for the Christian faith. We don't see people brought on trial or dying for their Christian beliefs before our court systems. So, these words for us are difficult to grasp fully.
I think it is important for us to understand the history of this text. This text is a post resurrection text for Matthew's community. The writer of the Gospel inserted this text early in the Gospel to address problems of the community. The community to whom this Gospel was originally written was predominantly Jewish Christians. They believed Jesus Christ was Lord and Savior. They also followed Jesus' example and attended synagogue. Because they believed Jesus was the Son of God, the leaders of the synagogues ostracized them. They were brought to trial before the leaders of the synagogues and punished by flogging if they believed in Jesus. They were also brought before the government appointed officials. Before these officials they were questioned about their beliefs and punished accordingly, even to death.
The Jewish Christians who were tried were betrayed. Friends, relatives, even family members betrayed them. As a result, the Jewish Christians were afraid. They were afraid to speak out for Christ. They were afraid to let their beliefs be known. Who can blame them? Wouldn't we feel the same way today? If we were being persecuted for being a Christian I suspect we would not be very vocal about our faith.
I invite us to dig a little deeper. Why was the Christian faith so upsetting to the religious and political systems of Matthew's community? What was it about Christianity that made the authorities so angry? I believe the answer is in the basic and fundamental difference between the way of the Christian and the ways of the world. Please remember the Christians are dealing with people in positions of power and authority. These positions were usually appointed, the product of birthright or bought with favors. They also had access to many perks and privileges. Once in these positions the people had tremendous power and control. Many of these people were corrupt. They thought of themselves over others. They ate well while others at their feet starved. They put laws on people restricting their activities and taxing their meager incomes. They put themselves first, over and above God, and the people. The Christians, by contrast, are saying love God and love your neighbor. God doesn't want law or legalism. God wants compassion, care and love. Place the needs of the other before one's own needs. The Christian message was a threat to the power and control structure of the day. It is not possible to follow the Christian message if one lifts oneself up by stepping on the backs of others.
Does this system sound familiar? Doesn't this system exist today? When I was growing up I heard phrases like, Money Talks. Or it isn't what you know it is whom you know. I was given advice like, "Bill, the goal is to get to the top. Sometimes you have to step on a few people to get there." I have heard people say, " I don't care what other people do. I'm going to get mine first, and then I might worry about others. You better take care of yourself, because nobody else is going to care about you." I have heard these messages from poor, middle class and rich. I have heard these messages from people just beginning their careers and people ending their careers. I have heard these messages from those who are at the bottom and from those who are already at the top.
The problem with these messages is everything depends on the individual. A person has to make it on his or her own. The concept is me first. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is important. Nothing else exists beyond my little world. These messages describe a world of hopelessness. Many of us hear them and we don't see how much we buy into them.
C. S. Lewis had issues with hopelessness. He was a member of the faculty at Oxford University. The faculty had formed a debate club of sorts. The two groups were the Christians and the atheists. Once a month they would gather. One side would present a paper supporting their point of view. The next month the other side would respond. Lewis was originally an atheist. He argued the point that God did not exist. Everything was dependent on humanity and natural forces of the universe. He argued his point well. One day he realized he had argued humanity into a position of total hopelessness. If the world, if humanity, was all on its own, and left to its own devices, then we would be in a horrible world. The nature of humanity was so depraved that we would be lost. In this lost humanity, there is no hope. Hope does not exist. There cannot even be the concept of hope.
Then, Lewis realized his flaw. Hope does exist. Hope is what keeps humanity out of this dismal world he created. Hope is not something humanity can create. Hope has to come from something outside of humanity. That something outside of humanity, Lewis concluded was God. The realization that hope existed and was real was the conversion point for Lewis. The corrupt nature and systems of humanity are real. They cannot stand, however, against hope. They cannot stand against the way of God.
The way of God is the way of love and compassion. The way of God places the other first and not the self. Money does not talk. Money is a tool. We don't climb to the top on the backs of others. Instead we help others reach their full potential as children of God. We don't have to get ours first in this world, because we already have eternal life with God. We don't sit still and be quiet and let the ways of the world run over us. We stand and we proclaim loudly the message of hope from a living and loving God.
We are not in the same exact situation as Mathew's community. We do not fear for our lives. We are still faced with the same deadly issues. Do we follow the ways of the world or do we follow the way of God? As disciples of the God of hope, do we fear to speak or are we willing to share the message of hope? We have the greatest message in the world. We know where our eternal hope lies. We know of the goodness of God. We know of the incredible love of God. Our daily question to ourselves is, "Are we willing to proclaim God's message?"