Matthew 10: 24 – 39
We are not, of course, the first people in history to live in anxious times. The Gospels were written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD (about 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection) thus the Temple and spiritual home of Jewish Christians was decimated. People were still trying to work out who Jesus was, and how his life and words could speak into the political and social upheaval of the times. Some of our own confused reactions – the natural instinct to comfort mixed with outrage and searching questions – are reflected in this week’s reading.
Reflecting this work of grappling with Jesus and his message, Matthew does not provide a sustained, coherent argument. It’s more a patchwork of sayings. Some are comforting and inspiring: ‘have no fear’; ‘even the hairs of your head are all counted’. Others are disturbing: ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’; ‘I have come to set a daughter against her mother’.
This reflects the natural human response to trauma. We reach out with words of comfort and we are deeply grateful to those who risk their own lives to save others. But we simultaneously search for reasons ‘why this awful suffering?’. But normality in first century Israel had fractured, and there were many questions – Will society hold? Where is God? People wanted answers.
Jesus’ death and resurrection is presented as a model: ‘those who lose their life for my sake will find it’. Within this model there is hope. This text would have been read aloud to create and sustain resilient Christian communities with the strength and stamina to bear the burdens of a Christian life lived out at odds with the values of the world. It explained the suffering they faced and gave them hope in God’s love, the hope of life gained and stretched out into eternity.
A sense of community becomes vital in the wake of upheaval and disaster. Take, for example, the solidarity shown in Nottingham after the murder of three people there a couple of weeks ago and how, within hours of Grenfell Tower catching fire, churches and mosques were open, volunteers were mobilising, and donations were pouring in. This was concrete, practical help and a way of asserting our humanity, and forging bonds of friendship.
The MP Jo Cox was murdered on 16th June 2016 by a right-wing extremist. Three of my previous five Churches were in her multicultural constituency. In her memory, her family set up ‘The Great Get Together’ events to celebrate and bring alive Jo’s words “We have more in common than that which divides us.” In her Batley and Spen Constituency, several such events are happening this very weekend. Her family speak passionately about the relevance of that message and urge people to take small steps to build community, and unite against hatred of any kind.
There’s an African saying ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’, and in New Testament Israel children were known and nurtured within the wider community. People lived in tight-knit multi-generational families where family honour was hugely important, so it would have been a huge shock to hear Jesus saying ‘Don’t think I’ve come to make family life cosy, far from it!’
Of course, Jesus came to bring peace, but achieving the peace of the kingdom – peace that is God’s peace – can be costly, it will certainly involve commitment and possibly even sacrifice.
You may have experienced the sort of painful division that faith can bring. It can, literally, cut like a knife when you want to follow Jesus’ way and others resist, despite our best efforts. Matthew was ‘speaking’ to people who felt cast off and cast out because of their faith.
The early followers of Jesus suffered for their faith. If they evangelised, they would be treated as Jesus was, suffering physical and verbal attack, strangers would run them out of town hurling abuse. Worse, they could cause disruption in their own families and may even be killed.
So, Jesus warned his disciples that following him might cause conflict in their immediate families. But he also encouraged them to see themselves as part of a wider family, Later in his gospel, Matthew (Ch12v50) quotes Jesus saying ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’, and in teaching them to pray to ‘Our Father’, he indicated that everyone could be seen as ‘family’. Perhaps the intention of Matthew’s writing is to convey that, as Christians, we need to enlarge our vision of who our family is, that we should extend our understanding of the bonds and obligations beyond those of our immediate family; extend even the notion of neighbour to include the folks we’d rather overlook, perhaps even despise.
Doing God’s will can be demanding, difficult and dangerous. Taking up the cross is to commit to a less trodden way, it is to turn aside from the path of personal pleasure and interest into the way of humble, self-denying and demanding service. Along this way are many crossroads and we need courage, wisdom and love to help us choose the direction of travel.
The way of the cross has no comfortable guarantees. Taking up the cross is a description of Christian commitment. It is not about our personal problems ‘the crosses we have to bear’, although, of course personal distress is an important biblical theme. This Christian taking up of the cross is about a deliberate choice to follow a crucified man whatever the cost, because he deserves our loyalty and our love to live out God’s kingdom life on earth.
The surprise and joy within Jesus’ difficult message is that, in giving ourselves wholeheartedly to the topsy-turvy way of Christ, which will be at odds with the world’s values, we receive ourselves. Christ asks nothing of us that he cannot repay with life found in God’s loving care, the love we cannot fall beyond in time or place. As we follow Christ’s demanding way we will be under the eye and love of God, and nothing can separate us from that.