‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple 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 unperceived by 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.
‘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.
On Father’s Day last week I found myself recalling that one of the best things my father ever taught me was appreciation for a good thunderstorm, and one of my best childhood memories is of the two of us sitting out on our front veranda on a summer’s evening watching and listening to nature’s theatrics: rain bouncing off the pavement and bolts of lightning illuminating the sky. I gather the science of it all has to do with systems of warm and cool air colliding, and after some rainy reactivity, the modified fronts move along and before too long the sun is shining again. It’s a good metaphor for life, actually, and for life in the Church as well. Things will often blow hot and cold, get stormy for a while, and then settle down until the next atmospheric disruption.
If you were in church a couple of weeks ago, I think I said a little something about the stormy context in which Matthew’s gospel came to be, and as we pay heed to the warnings and assurances coming out this week’s reading, it’s useful to remind ourselves why such statements were important. Writing as he was about 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, there was considerable tension within the Jewish faith because some of their adherents believed that the ancient messianic prophecies had been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, while the majority of Jewish people believed (as they still believe) that this was not the case. The ones who did believe in Jesus would not have identified themselves as Christians but rather as faithful Jews for whom the prophecies had finally come true. Predictably, they met resistance, and to be fair, it isn’t difficult to imagine why this would happen. We naturally tend to sympathize with these early Jewish converts as persecuted followers of Jesus, but let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a moment and suppose that a credible group of people from this congregation had appeared in church today announcing a profound alteration to two thousand years of Christian belief and tradition…..and it doesn’t take much to predict that the immediate reaction to that kind of announcement would be mixed at best. Storm clouds would gather, and lightning bolts would fly……and that very thing happened on a much bigger scale in the first century when the foundations of Judaism were shaken by the presence of the followers of Jesus among them in the synagogues. It was a perfectly understandable dynamic, and the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 AD only added fuel to the fire. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for them to interpret that particular catastrophe as God’s judgement for allowing followers of Christ into their midst in the first place. The two groups were two converging atmospheric systems …. a storm that had gradually but persistently gathered over four decades between Jesus’ death and the time after the Temple’s destruction when Matthew was writing – and so, to bring some light and hope to a young faith community existing in the eye of a hurricane, Matthew recorded Jesus’ teachings in a way designed to address their particular challenges. And the advice he gave to them is also good advice for us in the unsettled times in which the Anglican and other mainline churches currently exist.
First and foremost, he said, don’t be afraid: when push comes to shove, no matter what happens, ultimately what’s important is the relationship between you and God – and nothing else really matters. If we can believe that even the hairs on our head are counted, then our trust lies in a loving God whose care and concern is absolute. Not being afraid was a cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching…. and was reflected the way he lived his own life…. fearlessly, and trusting in God absolutely.
The second significant piece of advice is to live faithfully, which means that there has to be consistency between what we believe, and how it is expressed in our lives; and that the witness that we bring to everyday life now, will have significance down the line. How we witness to what we believe is critical because a life lived faithfully is the greatest advertisement there is, and our ability to form disciples depends upon it.
And finally we’re asked to put God first. This is merely a recognition that life happens, and that God is present in it, often in ways we can’t immediately comprehend; the implication being that if we are able to view our reality with the eyes of faith, then out of the Church’s challenges, and our own life challenges will eventually emerge something that is both life-altering and life-giving. This I think is what St. Paul means when he suggests that a Christian gives thanks in all circumstances – because we trust that God is somewhere, somehow present in all of life’s (and the Church’s) storms, whatever they may be.
When we take even a casual glimpse into the world of our forebears in the faith, we become aware of that old adage that there is no growth without struggle, and that commitment involves some cost. Certainly for the two systems of belief, Jewish and Christian (both of them formed by the same breath of God, incidentally!), there was a time when they converged, created unsettled conditions, experienced conflict, and then decided each to go its own unique way into God’s future. Unsettled conditions always carry a price tag: there are always casualties in any conflict – but as it was true in the development of our faith through the ages, so it is also true in the tensions and debates of our Church today, and ultimately true of ourselves as individual followers of Christ…. that out of struggle and unsettled conditions ultimately comes clarity, identity, strength, insight, direction, and, hopefully thankfulness. There is sunshine behind every cloud, and it follows every storm …. and Christians call that sunshine Grace. Thanks be to God.
The Venerable Nancy Adams