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Jesus's commission to the disciples

17 Jun 2020 • From Elizabeth, our Vicar

Readings for Second Sunday after Trinity

Jeremiah 20 verses 7-13, Romans 6 verses 1(b) – 1, Matthew 10 verses 24 – 39 (shown below)

‘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 Beelzebub, 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.

Reflection

It’s probably true to say that we all find some of the biblical writings more tricky to get our heads – also our hearts – around. Today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel is, I suggest, one of those less than straight-forward writings. It depicts a somewhat dire role, or maybe dire outcome, for the followers of Jesus – trials, sufferings, betrayals, threats and ultimately, probably violent, death. What are we today, with our love of certainty, clarity and scientific explanation, to do with words such as those?

Maybe we do our best to try and keep the texts at a distance. The warnings that the words carry about opposition and danger may – we reason – have had significance for one group of disciples at a particular moment in time – by which we mean long ago – but are they really relevant in the world of western Europe in the twenty-first century, we may ponder?

However, we probably do well to listen in on the conversation that’s happening, to eavesdrop as Jesus reveals his commission to the disciples, because the words say a lot about fidelity and fear; they say a lot about the present and the future. Perhaps if we search we may find also a needed word for modern disciples.

There are four movements in the reading from Matthew which reveal its message.

Firstly, there’s the connection drawn between the disciples and the teacher – so here, the connection between the disciples and Jesus, and between the master and the servant, the one who bids and the one whose task it is to do the bidding of the other.

‘If they called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they malign those of his household?’ There’s an understated logic here which calls upon us to ask, ‘why should disciples, then or now, who have heard the words “follow me” expect a different reception from the reception Jesus receives? If it happened to Jesus then logic dictates it can happen to us also.

The second movement serves to reassure the, perhaps now perplexed, reader so that we can begin to understand what the words, ‘being like the master’ imply, by the repeating of the command ‘Do not fear.’

Do not fear because the somewhat meagre beginnings of the message of the kingdom will have huge consequences – so what has been quietly spoken, as a secret, will be shouted from the rooftops because a powerful reality has been launched and there can be no turning back.

Do not fear those who have power but whose power is limited to the body. They may well be able to wreak havoc on the body but they can’t destroy the soul. But be in awe of God who holds responsibility over the destiny of body and soul.

Do not fear because God knows and cares about everyone and if we see the evidence of sparrows getting divine attention then we should expect to see that also played out amongst God’s people, and within ourselves.

Thirdly, there’s a move from that reassurance – do not fear – to a reminder that human behaviour really does matter, and what is done or not done today, in the task of ‘being like the master,’ has eternal consequences. There can be no evading responsibility and no claiming exemption because the issues seemed a bit cloudy, or the context a bit uncertain. It’s Matthew’s big question, ‘What does it mean to acknowledge or deny Jesus?’ and in his gospel we frequently encounter people who say yes or no, stories of faithfulness or unfaithfulness, parables which expose devotion or defiance.

The final movement in the story is to those jagged and troubling words of Jesus, ‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword.’ So the new order that Jesus brings to the world, which is so radical in its message of love and freedom, also presents a great challenge to the structures of the old order. We might use the familiar biblical image and say that the old wineskins can’t contain the dynamic of the new wine. And the result of that is always going to be conflict – it’s going to be the sword, or the metaphor of the sword. ‘Do not think,’ declares Jesus, ‘that I have come to bring peace to the world, rather I bring a sword.’

So it’s a bit like a weather image we’re all familiar with. When cold artic air moves south and hot humid air moves north there’s a clash, storms where the two meet. Jesus is telling us that it’s not possible for there to be any encounter between the new order and the old order without there being conflict, division and pain. It’s not just that the old order is threatened by or resistive to the new, the new also challenges the old and so precipitates the shift.

At the end of this reading we find that sharp either/or thing going on and it’s not easy for us to hear. ‘Either’, Jesus says, ‘you love your mother, father, brother, sister, or you love me. Either you take up the cross or you’re not worthy of me’. Matthew portrays Jesus as calling into question an idolatry of the structures of family and of society in which the ills of society can be easily remedied. And he portrays Jesus as presenting a stark warning that the gospel may, and probably will, cause division not unity.

And so Jesus presents to us this conundrum, this mystery, this puzzle, that the losing of life for the sake of the Gospel, in whatever way we may come to understand that, is for the Christian disciple how life is experienced and ultimately it’s how life is truly discovered.

Prayers

Collect Prayer

Lord, you have taught us
that all our doings without love are worth nothing:
send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts
that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,
without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.
Grant this for your Son Jesus Christ’s sake,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.  Amen.

A prayer by Nicholas Ridley

Heavenly Father, the author and fountain of all true, the bottomless sea of all understanding, send, we beseech thee, thy Holy Spirit into our hearts, and lighten our understandings with the beams of thy heavenly grace. We ask this, for thy dear Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

Take some time to pray in silence for those who are sick,

those who are bereaved,

those who are struggling with the restrictions to daily life,

and those who are on your own heart and mind this day.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven.
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.  Amen.

A Blessing

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace.