If You Are Like Jesus, Not Everyone Will Like You

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Wed, 06/28/2017 - 2:45pm

Matthew 10:24-39, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, June 25, 2017 

            Most of us grow up thinking that if we are nice, people will like us. It follows that if Jesus’ teaching is mostly about love, people would like us when we talk about Jesus. But that has never been the case.

            The lectionary gospel reading today is a kind of wake-up call from Jesus to his followers. Listen up: it’s not going to be easy. Following me is not for the fearful or the timid, and not for those who want to get along with everyone. You may think, Jesus says, that I came to bring peace on earth—and in the long term, when my kingdom is complete, peace will come. But in the near term, no. In the here and now, the effect of my words and my claims are to divide people, even within families. You don’t live as my disciple because you want to have a peaceful life or you want your family to be proud of you. If you are a faithful student of mine, there will be disruption and letting go of things you once held precious.

            When I first read this collection of sayings—which Matthew probably put together from several speeches of Jesus—I thought, Wow, this is tough. This is not what people come to church to hear. They want encouragement. But this is a realistic kind of encouragement, a call to be courageous, the kind of speech a football coach might give before he sends the players onto the field. “Fellas, this ain’t gonna be easy. This is a tough team we are up against. They are going to hit hard. But you are prepared, you have your assignments, and I will be right there with you. Don’t be afraid. They can knock you around and hurt you, but they can’t touch your soul. If you’re not willing to suffer, you don’t deserve to be on my team, but I know that you are going to leave it all on the field and play your hearts out. Now get out there!”

            Of course, if you came to church this morning thinking that the Christian life is a game of touch football and Jesus tells you that it’s tackle, you might be a little uneasy. Listen up, church: the point of this life we share is not to make the community think we are wonderful because we are so nice. The point is to announce the kingdom, to speak clearly about who Jesus is, to bring healing and hope and victory over the forces of evil. The first half of Matthew 10 is about Jesus sending the twelve disciples out into the villages as missionaries who will tell people that God’s kingdom has come on earth through Jesus, and who will exercise Jesus’ own authority to cast out evil spirits and to heal. For this, Jesus says, you will be opposed. “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.” You will be arrested and whipped and stand trial, but don’t worry about it. God will tell you what to say. Your own family members may betray you and “all nations will hate you because you are my follower.” That is some heavy stuff!

            When Matthew was writing his gospel, those things were already happening to people in his community. They were in a conflict with the rabbis who ran the synagogues, who had no use for unauthorized preachers making heretical claims about Jesus being Messiah or even God. They were in conflicts at times with Roman authorities because they were promoting an unauthorized religion and implicitly criticizing the imperial cult that said “Caesar is Lord.” The Romans were something like the Chinese government today; they would tolerate various religions as long as you got authorization from the state and swore allegiance to the ruling party. Christians were not willing to do that. And they were offering a lifestyle based on radical equality across social, economic, and racial lines, breaking the unwritten rules of class and hierarchy. So when Matthew cites Jesus saying that they will be arrested, he’s referring to something that is not imaginary but already happening.

            What about us in the 21st century? It’s easy to read this as instructions to Jesus-followers in the first century who faced serious persecution, but as teaching that is irrelevant to us. I don’t think so. Now I am not one of those who whines about the “war against Christianity” in America by the forces of liberalism, secularism, and Islam. We Christians are not—as a group—victims of persecution in this country. If you want to say you believe in Jesus, and even that you believe Jesus is the only way to God, you are not going to get into serious trouble. Where it gets more difficult is when you say you believe what Jesus said and want to live by the values of his kingdom.

            If you call for people to live by the Sermon on the Mount, you will face opposition, as promised. If you try to be a peacemaker and enemy-lover and teach turning the other cheek, you may be labeled an enemy of the people. If you proclaim that God does not respect one nation more than another, or one race more than another, as the first disciples did, you will get in trouble with nationalists and racists.

If you go beyond giving to the poor and teach what Jesus said about the dangers of wealth and the fundamental choice between living for Money—which we experience as the capitalist-consumer society—and living for God, you will get into trouble. You have no doubt heard the words of Brazilian archbishop Don Helder Camara: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." If you tell young people that life is not about economic security but about taking risks so you can serve others, you will hear from their parents. The chaplain at Duke reported that one father called him, angry because his daughter had decided to go into the Peace Corp rather than to law school, and asked, “What have you been telling my daughter?” If Kyle Wilkinson had been around, he could have told the dad that you can go to the Peace Corps and still go to law school!

Jesus reminds us that the whole point of becoming a disciple is to become like the master. This was the pattern in Israel, in Greece, and in many cultures: students would follow a rabbi or philosopher around, listening to his words, imitating him, and hoping by osmosis to become like him. You students of mine, Jesus says, are not greater than me. And if they are calling me the prince of demons—or Satan himself—they are going to call you worse names.

The question for us might be whether we are enough like Jesus that anyone would want to call us names at all. Remember the words we used from Kierkegaard’s prayer: “Save us from the error of wishing to admire you instead of being willing to follow you and to resemble you.” Christians are not the Jesus Admiration Society. We are those who make a choice to follow Jesus, to take his yoke on us, to learn from him, and gradually to become more and more like him. If the effect Jesus has on us is to lead us to be nicer versions of ourselves, we have nothing to fear. But if we in fact become like Jesus, and act with the authority he has given us over the forces of evil and suffering, we will upset those who are comfortable with the way things are. It is only natural that the same world system that put Jesus to death will come after us.

But, Jesus says, and it is a big BUT, don’t be afraid. First of all, the truth will come out. It may seem now that the kingdom of God is a secret kingdom, invisible to most. It may seem that my standard of justice is hidden from the world. Someday soon, though, everything will be revealed and it will be plain to everyone what the truth is—who I am and what I came to do, and that you have been on the side of God’s reign. On that day, what I am whispering to you now, you will shout from the rooftops and everyone will hear the truth.

Second, those who oppose you cannot touch your soul. The worst they can do is to inflict physical pain and then to kill you, but that will not do anything to separate you from me. Your true self belongs to me and your eternal destiny is secure.

Third, God is aware of what is happening to you. He knows when a sparrow falls. Jesus has said earlier that your Father provides for you as he provides for the birds of the air, and here he adds that even the smallest bird is always on God’s radar. You will not be forgotten. There is a darker side to the image of the sparrow, though. Jesus says that you can buy sparrows two for a penny. But who buys sparrows? Nobody eats sparrows or makes pets of them. Do you know where they sold sparrows in Jesus’ time? At the Temple in Jerusalem, for the poor. If you could not afford a lamb to present as a sacrifice, you were permitted to offer a dove. But if you couldn’t even buy a dove, there were sparrows for sale to the paupers, so they could offer a sacrifice. The fact that your heavenly Father knows your situation as he knows the sparrow’s does not mean that you will not be sacrificed.

The next thing Jesus says to us as disciples is that we must not be ashamed or timid. He is calling us to be courageous and to be public about our faith. Jesus will acknowledge us as his followers when we stand before God—but only if we acknowledge him publicly. There are no secret disciples.

All of us might say that we would not deny Jesus. If someone put a gun to our head—like at Columbine High School—and asked if we believed, we hope we would say yes. But some of us are reluctant to use the name of Jesus in public in a multicultural and fairly secular culture. Part of being nice, perhaps part of being polite, is to keep your personal faith in Jesus private. We hope that if we are nice and kind, the community will get the idea that we are trying to be like Jesus. I don’t think that’s enough for Jesus. He wants us to be unashamed to name our allegiance to him in public. When international students ask us why we are so kind to them and feed them, we answer that Jesus tells us to love our neighbors and to be kind to strangers.

The toughest thing Jesus says is that he didn’t come to bring peace on earth; he came to bring division. We would rather think that Jesus will make everything all right, that if we just love Jesus we will have the Age of Aquarius, peace and good, brotherhood, crystal blue persuasion. You might think that Jesus’ message would make everybody love everybody, but Jesus himself is clear-eyed. There will be opposition. There will be blood.

Even your family may be divided. It is troubling that Jesus says you may have to choose between Jesus and family. For many people—including in the church—“family first” is the primary moral principle. For the last generation or so, evangelicals have talked as if “family values” were the core of Christianity. But Jesus clearly relativizes family. If you have to choose between family and your obligation to me, I have to come first.

When my parents were young, right after World War II, they had to make that kind of choice. They felt that God was calling them to go overseas to share his love and the message of Jesus with people who had been enemies of our nation. This was unfathomable to some, on patriotic grounds; it was unfathomable to others because it meant separation from family for five years at a time. Who is it that you love most? That is the question Jesus was asking then and he is asking you now. If God called you to a ministry—or a job—that meant less financial security for your family, more stress, less contact with grandparents, a loss of American identity for your children, would you follow Jesus rather than your longing for home?

Who do we love the most? Jesus says, “You can’t really find life in me if you give me second place in your life.” I have to be your ultimate concern. You can’t have money #1 in your life, you can’t have country #1, you can’t have ethnic identity or sexuality as the most important thing. You only have room in your heart for one God. If you make the God made known in Jesus your ultimate concern, some people will think you are wasting your life. To them, there are more pressing concerns: politics, economics, nationalism, marriage, nature, on and on. In fact, Christians do deal with all those areas, but faithfulness to Jesus is at the center.

If you hold onto your life tightly, you will never experience the life of the kingdom you could have through me. If you let go of your life, if you give up your claims to it for my sake, you will find out what real life is like.

My dad told about a man who first heard about Jesus in a sumo arena my dad rented when he was a young missionary. The man became a Christian that night. When his older brother found out, he told him he had 24 hours to choose between being a Buddhist and a member of the family and being a Christian and out of the family forever. The convert knocked on the pastor’s door, in tears, and asked, “How much does it cost to be a Christian?” The wise pastor replied, “Everything.”

In her novel, The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd wrote, “The hardest thing on earth is to choose what matters.”

Near the end of the play A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More, standing fast for his Christian convictions, is about to be beheaded by Henry VIII.  On the way to his execution he encounters the man who had given false testimony against him to the authorities in order to advance his own ca­reer.  More asks, "So, what is Richard's position now?"  "Attorney general for Wales."  "Richard, our Lord said it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world -- but Richard, all you got was Wales?"  What did you get? What do you want?