There are two opposite reactions I find among Christians to the conflict our faith may cause us in our society. One group looks for ways of witness where they will be respected. The other group seems almost to go looking for persecution.
With those different reactions, we come to today’s Lectionary Gospel reading. It is quite a shock after last week’s passage, where we saw that the mission Jesus calls us to is very much a ‘Mission Possible’. He is quite clear that the Gospel will not always be popular. How should we take account of that? That’s what this week’s sermon is all about. Here is what Jesus tells us:
1. Don’t Be Surprised
Here’s how Jesus opens what he says:
‘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 Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! (Verses 24-25)
In other words, if Jesus is maligned, the same thing will happen to his followers. The ambition always to be able to witness to Christ and be respected is a futile one. Some will respect us. Others will not. Jesus himself suffered rejection, and so will we. So get used to the possibility that not everybody will like what Christians stand for and say. We may rightly not want to be confrontational unless we have to be, but there is no way of being faithful to Jesus and remaining permanently popular.
So does that mean that the Christians who go around looking for persecution are right? No. This is no reason to be deliberately offensive. The call of the Christian is still to do good to all, even loving our enemies. Jesus does not call us to pick a fight.
Nor is there a case to exaggerate the level of opposition to us and develop a persecution complex, as some Christians do. It is true that the Christian faith is much more marginal in our society today. It is less accepted, and before that, it is less understood. So we are likely to lose more debates in the public arena than before. Legislation that disregards the need of a child to have a father is one example. So is the upset caused by ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’. But we face much less opposition in this country than in many lands. Talk to Indian Christians, facing organised opposition from Hindu political parties and Muslims. Appreciate the underground Christians who can only meet covertly in other lands. They suffer persecution.
Our problem comes because for centuries we have been used to Christianity being central to our national life. We can probably trace it all back to the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine apparently converted to Christianity, and made the faith not only respectable, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. We have had centuries since then of an Established Church, and since Henry VIII, the sovereign has been the head of that church. That has left us much less used to the idea that Christians could face general opposition. (We have had Protestant-Catholic wars, of course, and followers of the Radical Reformation such as the Baptists would know more of the sense of alienation. However, the general point remains.)
So we need to hear Jesus say to us, ‘Don’t be surprised if following me brings you into conflict with the world.’ It is normal. Don’t go looking for it, still bless people, but it will happen. You may not expect it, you may consider it unjust, but it is standard treatment in the world for Christians. We are like the minority Jewish community in exile in Babylon. We live with different values in an alien empire. Life will not always be comfortable for us.
2. Don’t Be Afraid
If opposition is going to come, isn’t it natural to be afraid? Yet Jesus’ next words are ‘So have no fear of them’ (verse 26); ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’ (verse 28); and ‘So do not be afraid’ (verse 31).
The Bible has three hundred and sixty-six occurrences of the words ‘Do not fear’: one for every day of the year. Jesus, then, gives three of them here. There are three reasons not to be afraid of our opponents.
The first is that the enemies of Jesus will be judged. That is what Jesus means when he says that ‘nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known’ (verse 26). This isn’t a warning that God will expose all our inner thoughts. Rather, like a Robert Mugabe today, God’s opponents think they can keep their evil secret, but God will expose it, either in this life or the life to come. Justice will arrive. We are easily consumed with the here and now, but the eternal perspective reassures us not to fear our accusers.
The second ‘do not fear’ also reassures us that no enemy can ultimately destroy us, not even by killing us. There is a story told from the early centuries of the church, about a Christian artisan who was commissioned to make objects for a pagan temple. One of the famous early church leaders, Tertullian, told the man he must not accept the commission, because he would be supporting idolatry. The man, however, needed the income, and said, ‘But I must live.’ ‘Must you?’ replied Tertullian. No one but God can take away eternal life.
The third ‘do not fear’ comes with the assurance that we are worth far more than the sparrows, for whom the Father cares. It’s about not being afraid, because God values us much more highly. A sparrow may fall to the ground, and so may we. But we are made in the image of God. We are loved with an everlasting love. God’s love may not prevent us from suffering, any more than it stopped Jesus going to the Cross, but we are loved and cherished. God will preserve us.
God will judge his enemies. They cannot kill our eternal life. God loves us and he will preserve us. Believing these things, we can own the name of Jesus in the teeth of opposition in the world. So when we are mocked for our faith in Jesus, we can stand firm. When we are smeared for standing for social justice for the poor and the weak, our feet are on solid ground. When our belief in ancient wisdom is ridiculed as outdated nonsense, Jesus is pleased with our courageous stance. Yes, the world will throw words, laws and even violence against those who are faithful to Christ, but we need not fear. In Christ, we have something they don’t have. Something indestructible.
3. Don’t Be Surprised (Part 2)
Why a second part to what I’ve already said in my first point? Because that’s the way Hebrew logic often works. In our culture, we’re used to arguments that proceed along straight lines. So if there are three sections to an argument, we have the first part, the second part builds on it and then the third part builds on the second.
Not the Hebrews, though. Rather than a straight line, they argued more in a series of concentric circles, or a spiral. Either way, the outside stuff led to the centre.
So here, we have the other part of the ‘don’t be surprised’ teaching (verses 34-39). But boy, are we surprised! Jesus hasn’t come to bring peace but a sword (verse 34)? Jesus has come to split up families (verses 34-37)? Jesus calls people to give up their lives (verses 38-39)? What have we here – a cult leader?
I think we have shock language from Jesus. Like many Jewish people, he used extreme language to make a point. I believe he is saying that we shouldn’t be surprised if the opposition to our faith and mission comes from closer quarters than we might expect. We may reasonably anticipate disagreement from atheists and followers of other faiths. But what if those we expect to love us are our fiercest critics?
It was certainly Jesus’ own experience. His own family members thought he was out of his mind. If they had had the power in the first century to have him sectioned under the Mental Health Act, they would have done so.
Not only did his family oppose his mission, so did his spiritual family. Those most passionate to defend the pure Jewish faith had Jesus in their sights. Eventually, they got him.
This has been true throughout church history. The Church of England opposed John Wesley. The Methodists opposed General Booth. If we get passionate about the mission of Jesus today, we should not be surprised if the first wave of opposition comes from within the ranks of the church. The late American saint A W Tozer said that the average spiritual temperature in most churches is so cold that when a normal Christian comes in, everyone assumes that person has a fever. So people will gently try to tell us to cool down or calm down. If we don’t, then the next step will be a certain amount of emotional arm-twisting: ‘Please don’t be divisive.’ If that doesn’t stop us, then things will happen behind our backs, gloves will slowly be removed, and the unpleasantries will begin. No, do not be surprised if those who like an arctic spiritual temperature start to fight to keep it that way, and all in the name of faithfulness.
So do not be surprised. There will be opposition to living for the mission of Jesus, the Mission Possible. And it will start in the unlikeliest of places, with the people you might naturally consider your allies. This is the outward concentric circle of Jesus’ teaching here.
But that means it is there to focus us towards the centre. What’s in the centre? We’ve already looked at it. That was my second point, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Jesus has given us reason after reason not to be afraid when we encounter resistance to his mission when we are faithful to him.
Opposition will come: it’s no good pretending otherwise, or trying to devise strategies that keep us sweet with everyone. If we manage that, then at some point we are likely to have been unfaithful to Jesus. But neither are we to be unnecessarily provocative. Our provocation is with the weapon of love.
When the opposition comes, it will come not initially from our natural enemies, but from those closest to us, especially at first from the family of God. It’s nothing unusual for religious people to employ heavies. But God will judge those who are merely religious without loving Jesus. They cannot take away our eternal life. They cannot replicate the fatherly love and astonishing grace that God has for his children.
So do not be surprised if faithful witness means a drop in your popularity rankings. Do not be surprised if trouble comes from surprising sources. But do not be afraid, either. Jesus keeps saying, ‘Do not fear’. And he has good reason.