Trinity 5 Year A (2)

The love of God, persecution, and service

Sermons year A

There are some difficult and uncomfortable passages in the New Testament, and today’s Gospel reading contains at least three of them:

Is Jesus really saying that he brings division and conflict, even violence?    Is he saying that one consequence of following him will be that families are divided?    And is he really saying that before the throne of judgement he will not support you if you have denied him?    Where, then, is the forgiveness which he preached?

Let’s look, though, at the context of Jesus’ remarks. He has just sent out the twelve disciples as missionaries on his behalf.   He tells them that he is sending them ‘as sheep among wolves’ – and that they are to be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves.   In other words – they are going into a world which is hostile; they will be greeted with rejection and persecution.   Jesus encourages them and tries to strengthen them, telling them not to be afraid – those who kill the body cannot kill the soul, he says.    

He explains to them, then, that his message is bound to be disconcerting to some who hear it – and by this he means those who will be rebuked for being hypocrites, lacking in compassion, failing to give justice to the poor and oppressed, those who have lost sight of God’s commands to put love of neighbour and love of God at the heart of their lives.   Such people, then, will respond with hostility, not wanting their evil deeds to be exposed.   This is why, then, Jesus says that his message will not bring peace on earth.    It is why there will even be divisions within families, between those who follow the path of Christ and those who don’t.   It is difficult to accept this, but it is a sad reality when some members of a family are Christian and others aren’t – but it doesn’t stop those who are Christian from loving those who are not.

What about Jesus’ words in which he said that he would disown before his heavenly Father those who disowned him on earth?   Don’t forget that this is entirely consistent with what Jesus said elsewhere about separating the sheep and the goats at the last judgement, and that this judgement is like a harvest in which the righteous will be saved and the weeds – the tares – will be thrown onto the fire and burnt.    Disturbing and unsettling words – even frightening.   But we have to set them against what Jesus said about God’s desire that everyone be brought into his heavenly kingdom, even – indeed especially – those who have sinned against him.    See how the Good Shepherd searches out the lost sheep; how the Father celebrates the return of the Prodigal Son; and the woman who has lost a coin rejoices when she finds it.   In today’s reading, no less, we hear too that God cares even for the sparrow – and all the more so for us; Even all the hairs on our head are numbered by God – in other words, God’s care for each one of us goes right to the microscopic level of the human hair.  

All these are examples of God’s infinite love for the people of the world.   But in return, we have got to want to come into God’s kingdom, we have to come back to him of our own accord.   He does not force us to do so – but the message is that if we deliberately reject God and go against his will, we will pay the price for this.

Jesus ends this section by calling upon the disciples to give of themselves – sacrificially – for God’s work.   He tells them to devote their lives to him, saying that in order to ‘find’ one’s life one has to ‘lose’ it.   This means putting one’s selfish wishes to one side and seeking God’s will even if this goes against one’s own wishes.   This is what he means by saying, ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it”.

In spite of the difficulties about this passage with which we began, then, there much in it which brings us to the heart of the Christian faith.    In particular, there is the Christian confidence that God’s love for us is total – even if life is sometimes hard and we don’t always seem to feel that love.   There is also Jesus’ call to us to respond actively to God’s love by putting God and our neighbour first – in other words by ‘losing our life in order to save it’.

The world of Jesus’ time – a world in which his disciples had to choose to face persecution and eventually, for some, come face to face with martyrdom – seems a long way from the safe and secure world in which we live and are free to be Christian.   Yesterday, however, I heard an address by a bishop from the Sudan, in Eastern Africa, who gave a remarkable testimony about the resilience of the Church there in the face of persecution.   Until 2005, the Sudan endured over 20 years of civil war, between the Muslims of the north and the mainly Christian population of the south.   Millions – yes, millions – of people in the Christian south were forced to flee their homes, and around 2 million were killed, mainly civilians.   For years many were forced to make do with food found in the wild – leaves, berries etc.   

And yet the Church there is not defeated.   On the contrary, it is thriving, and there are more and more new converts, and large numbers of people are being trained to be clergy and lay leaders.   There must be something about the Christian faith which gives them strength.   Maybe it is sayings like the one which we have heard this morning:   “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul”.   “Even the hairs on your head are all numbered”.   “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” – if not on this earth, then in heaven.

Our faith speaks particularly to those who suffer. The Christ who shared in the sufferings of the world, who died one of the most painful deaths imaginable even though he was innocent, has given strength and hope to countless suffering people through the ages.   I regularly meet people at the Padley homeless centre in Derby for whom Christ is very real – they have endured acute suffering, and so Christianity means something very important to them.  

We are all tremendously lucky not to have been born in a war zone, or to be without a roof over our heads.   So let’s remember in our prayers and in our acts of charity those, like the victims of the war in the Sudan and those who use the homeless centre in Derby, who have heavy crosses to bear.   But we all have to go through periods of suffering, from time to time.   When we do, then, let’s not forget the words of hope uttered by Christ, which we have heard today.    Let’s hold onto God’s total faithfulness to us, even if we stray from him.   For we know that even if he doesn’t take away our sufferings, he is there with us in them. And even if we are called to make the ultimate sacrifice, if we commit our life to Christ, we will find that life – for ever.   Amen.  

Christopher Harrison