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Pentecost 3, Matthew 10:21-33
Today’s Gospel reading is the second of three consecutive readings from Matthew chapter 10. This chapter is an extended teaching from Jesus on the subject of mission. It starts with specific instructions to the Twelve as they head out on a time of training, but then adds statements which probably come from later teaching to the disciples. They are added here by Matthew, who often puts things together by thematic category rather than by chronology.
Last week’s text ended at v. 9. We focused on how Jesus gave the Twelve powerful, and yet limited, authority in their mission. Their authority was limited in that they were only to reach out to Israel. And, they were also limited in what they were to preach.
When we read on in this chapter and get to verse 18, we hear Jesus say that his followers will be “dragged before governors and kings for his sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” These words point toward a much wider scope for the apostles—the scope which they would have after Jesus ascends to heaven and gives them the Spirit.
Today’s text picks up the teaching of this chapter at verse 21. Before we examine it let me just say that those verses we skipped are important too. In them we hear Jesus expand on his directive that the disciples not be paid for their work, explaining that it would weigh them down, but that of course they should have enough to eat. And we hear too in these verses about the importance of looking for people of peace as we go about the mission. You may recall that one of our recent Bible classes had us focus on that teaching. This section is indeed important, but we are skipping it this year because its shows up instead during the year we focus on Luke’s gospel, being repeated there by that writer.
Today’s text focuses on the fact that those engaged in the mission of Christ will experience conflict and persecution. “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” That is the conflict. “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake… when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” That is the persecution.
We believe that our Christian message has the power to unite people. We have seen how the message of love and forgiveness and reconciliation has led people to put aside their hurts and their differences and come together in unity. The Christian message does indeed work powerfully in this way. However, sometimes it divides people too.
The message itself does not encourage division. It wants us to be united. But the simple fact of the matter is that some people will not accept the message. When they don’t, that leads to division.
God has never chosen to compel people to believe. He has done things to enable people to believe—sending his Holy Spirit to enlighten us—but people still have a choice. Lutherans will never emphasize the choice aspect of faith because we don’t wish for anyone to falsely understand their salvation as a result of their own good sense or effort. But, we have always said that a person has a choice to reject the faith. And evidence surely shows that this happens all the time.
When some believe and some don’t, conflict will occur. This doesn’t mean that believers can’t get along with unbelievers. We find common cause in many aspects of life… our citizenship, our work efforts, our commitment to live decently and in good order. Christians are taught to do their part in getting along—to be patient and loving toward unbelievers, because they are God’s creatures, precious to them, and we hope that someday they will see the light. Christians are never to persecute others because of their faith. In those times that we do… and we have all certainly done it in some ways, either knowingly or unknowingly… we need to repent.
In this life, this side of heaven, the Gospel message will cause conflict. For those first Christians, it would cause conflict as they moved away from the teachings of their families and instead put their time, their efforts and their heart toward the teachings of Jesus. They would be seen as rebels. They would even be seen as those led astray by the voice of temptation. Notice that Jesus makes reference to this accusation when he says: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household?”
New Christians who have converted from families or lands that commonly embrace other teachings have experienced some of this same conflict as the early disciples. They have been called rebels, or have been accused of being overcome by evil.
For those of us who have come from Christian families or lands, the conflict we face often has a different feel. We are seen as those who impede progress, or who live in the past, or who are too particular in our beliefs.
Regardless of the names or accusations which are thrown against us, we should know that as Christians involved in the mission of Christ we will face conflict and persecution.
That being said, we should be careful in differentiating between conflict and persecution. Conflict is natural. Conflict just comes when there is disagreement. It doesn’t have to lead to hostility. Persecution, however, is hostile.
Jesus has said that his followers will face hostile persecution. They will be hated. They will be marginalized. They will be attacked.
We must be careful in claiming that we are being persecuted—what we may call “playing the persecution card.” Not all conflict is persecution. Those who claim persecution too quickly are engaging in hostility themselves. They are pronouncing a judgment that may not be true.
It’s interesting to watch the world today wrestle with the similar question of whether an action is a hate crime or not. We have seen this in our community this week as a young Muslim girl in Reston was killed by a young man. Was she killed because she was Muslim? Or because she was a girl? Or because she had friends and was having fun? Or because the killer didn’t want to share the road?
We may find out in due time. However, many people have already drawn quick conclusions. In doing so they have met a basic need—that of identifying an answer to a question in a time of deep grief. Many of us, too, can sympathize with the painful reality of religious persecution.
However, by drawing conclusions without certainty people also risk spreading more feelings of hostility, or even cheapening the very real persecution that does exist toward those who are religious.
Jesus told his disciples: “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” There are definitely wolves in our world. But we must be careful not to think that everyone who believes differently than we do is a wolf. Jesus concluded his statement by saying: “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
To keep us from undue accusations, Jesus goes on in the text to share about his promised protection. “Have no fear of them,” he says. “Have no fear… for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” God will execute his perfect judgment in the end. Evil persecutors will not go unpunished. Jesus makes this clear by next saying: “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.”
God loves his disciples and values them greatly. He sees their suffering and will not allow it to overwhelm them. He protects them and encourages them. God knows if a sparrow falls to the ground. He knows the number of hairs on our heads. He is in control. We do not need to fear.
Above all, God heals his people. “The Lord heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds,” as the scripture says. God does this most completely, and crucially, as he forgives our sins, doing this for the sake of Jesus who died on the cross in our place.
God has done everything necessary for our salvation. What he asks in return is that we acknowledge his acts of salvation. For Christians, that means that we acknowledge our savior Jesus—and not just in the privacy of our own faith but also, as Jesus says, “before men.” We are to acknowledge Jesus before those who do not share our belief, and we are to acknowledge Jesus even before those who would persecute us for it.
June 25 is an important day in the history of the Church. You have observed that our focus this year has been on the 500th anniversary of the brave actions of Martin Luther, who began the great Reformation through his posting of the 95 theses on October 31st. However, just as brave, and just as important, is what happened on June 25th, 13 years later.
Martin Luther had been excommunicated by that time. Those who followed his teachings were opening themselves up to great persecution. But they believed in the reforms they felt were necessary for the church. They believed that it was essential that the Gospel be seen as a message of pure grace, apart from human works. And they believed that God’s truth would prevail.
And so, on June 25th of the year 1530, laymen from many parts of the German-speaking empire presented a confessional document stating their Christian beliefs to the Emperor, who was gathered with other leaders for an imperial meeting in the city of Augsburg. The public reading of this document, thereafter known as the Augsburg Confession, was a watershed moment in the life of the church. It led to reasoned and sanctioned debate throughout the Christian church, and it led to a great renewal of the church through the reforms which came from it.
Yes, there would also be great conflict. And yes, there would be great hostility too. Unfortunately, brother would deliver brother to death, just as Jesus predicted. The Reformation did not always go smoothly or easily. And yet it was a mighty movement of faith.
“Fear not,” said Jesus to his disciples, as he prepared them for a time of mission. “Fear not.”
Ever since, men and women have heard those words of Jesus and joined him in his mission to the world. What about you?
Conflict and persecution will come, but God is watching over his people. God will uphold the innocent. God will forgive the penitent. God will strengthen the weak and empower the faithful. The gates of hell will not prevail against that which God is doing.
So let us be people of mission—reaching out to all with the love of Christ, shown in actions, expressed in words, and done with confidence that God is with us. In the name of Jesus, amen.
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