Psalm 69:7-10 [11-15] 16-18 (16)
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
This morning marks the beginning of the “Time after Pentecost”, that long stretch of time following the celebration of Easter and Pentecost in which the church reflects on the gift and challenge of life lived in light of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Throughout this time we’ll be asking, in one form or another, a crucial question: What does discipleship look like? Our readings for today, especially that gospel reading from Matthew, make it clear that the answer to that question is neither easy nor readily apparent. Listen again to part of the challenge that Jesus lays before his disciples (and us):
34Don’t suppose that I came to scatter peace upon the earth. I didn’t come to scatter peace, but to wield a sword! 35Indeed, I’ve come to separate a man from his father, a daughter from her mother, and a daughter-in-law from her mother-in-law. 36A person’s enemies will live within their own household! 37The one who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and the one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38The one who doesn’t take up his or her cross and follow after me is also not worthy of me. 39The one who finds his life will lose it; the one who loses her life for my sake will find it.
If you think these words sound out of character for Jesus, you’re not alone. It’s difficult to reconcile sayings like these with others that are recorded elsewhere in Matthew. How can Jesus say “Blessed are the peacemakers” and then turn around and claim that he came to bring sword and division? How can the one who urges us to love our enemies caution us against loving our families too much? What was Jesus trying to teach those first disciples, and what word is he speaking to us, his present-day disciples?
Let’s start with the first part of that question. Jesus lived and preached in a society in which one’s primary identity was bound up with family. One’s place in society was determined almost exclusively by one’s family of origin, and bringing honor to one’s family was considered the highest possible social good. Obedience to God was undoubtedly important, but it was difficult for most people to imagine a scenario in which obedience to God and allegiance to family would have conflicted with one another. Jesus, of course, demonstrated the potential conflict at an early age. Matthew tells the story of Jesus and his family traveling to Jerusalem for one of the annual pilgrim festivals. The family does their religious duty, and at the end of the festival turns around and heads for home. About a day into the trip, Jesus’ parents realize that something’s not right: the boy isn’t with their traveling party! They frantically return to the holy city and search for their son, eventually finding him engaged in conversation and debate over the meaning of Scripture with the elders and legal scholars who gathered in the temple. When confronted with his parents’ anger at his disobedience, he responded by questioning them: “Didn’t you know that I needed to be about my Father’s business?” In a society that took for granted the easy identification between obedience to parents and God, Jesus’ teaching is a shocking word. The problem, of course, wasn’t that family was a bad thing; in fact, elsewhere in Matthew Jesus calls people to task for not honoring their commitments to family out of selfishness. The problem was that it was all too easy for people to make decisions based on what would honor one’s family rather than on what would demonstrate trust in Jesus. For those first disciples, there was a very real possibility that a disciple would have to make a choice between family and discipleship, and Jesus makes clear that allegiance to him needed to take priority.
So what are we to make of Jesus’ words today? Is Jesus telling us that we should expect the Gospel to cause conflict in our families? I don’t think so. Generally speaking, we don’t have to make a choice between loving our families and following Jesus. For the vast majority of us, putting those things in opposition represents a false choice, though it’s perhaps not difficult to imagine a scenario in which we might need to choose. More likely, however, we’ll need to think differently about the challenge that Jesus lays before us as present-day disciples. If family was the highest good in the first century, what might be the equivalent for us as twenty-first century American Christians? What sorts of things are vying for our attention or our allegiance as we think about the kind of costly discipleship Jesus is calling us to embrace? What would Jesus’ teaching sound like in our context? Whoever loves their individual freedom more than me is not worthy of me? Whoever loves their wealth more than me? Whoever loves their political ideology or party affiliation more than me? Whoever loves their reputation more than me? Whoever loves their country more than me? Again, the problem isn’t that these things are bad in themselves, but that they are often valued so highly that honoring them might create conflict with the call to follow Jesus Christ. However you might fill in the blank, Jesus’ call for us to take up the cross is the call for us to set aside anything else that might rival our allegiance to him.
Alongside the challenge laid down by Jesus in Matthew is the reality that Paul writes about in our second reading from Romans. He writes, “Don’t you know that those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have also been baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried together with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, thus we might also walk in a new kind of life. 5For since we have become one with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also become one with him in his resurrection.” We who follow Jesus are called to live cross-shaped lives, lives that bear witness to the truth that in Christ we have died to everything that keeps us from relationship with God. Later, Paul writes that we no longer live independently; instead, our lives are bound up with Christ, who loves us and lives in us every moment of every day. The challenge for us, then, is not to jettison everything else we love, but to place everything else in the proper relationship to the one who dwells within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. To go back to our earlier examples, we are called, not to reject everything that isn’t Jesus, but to ask ourselves “How is Christ calling me to be obedient in relationship to everything?” How does following Jesus change how I exercise my individual freedom? How does following Jesus change how I think about and use my income or wealth? In what ways do I value being accepted by others more than faithfulness to God in Christ? What difference does it make to think of myself as a Christian first and an American second? Each of us may need to ask a different set of questions, but all of us will have to think deeply about the challenge of discipleship.
As we do so, let us remember that challenge is always accompanied by promise. In Romans, we are reminded of the hope that sustains us as we do the difficult work of bearing the cross, or, as Luther puts, the work of dying to self each day. That hope is this: that we who have been united with Jesus in his death will also be united with him in his resurrection, that God is drawing us from death into life that matters now and lasts into eternity. In Matthew, alongside the hard saying about bearing the cross is that wonderful declaration: that God the Father has numbered the hairs on our heads and cares for us deeply and passionately, that none of the pain or failure we experience is unknown or unimportant to God. Above all, brothers and sisters, Scripture proclaims the profound truth that we are not alone as we ponder our priorities. Jesus goes ahead of us, giving us the guidance and the grace to take up the cross that calls for an end to business as usual, even as he dwells within us, showing us the way through that death into real and abundant life. Thanks be to God! Amen.