As the Ekklesia Project Gathering draws near, with its focus on the church as Mission, and following on Timothy’s reflection for last Sunday, we come this Sunday to the last part of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples before they are sent out as apostles in the gospel of Matthew.
The sending of the apostles in Matthew differs from the story in Mark and Luke, in that we are not told of their return to Jesus, their telling of the experience, or of a restful retreat afterwards (or at least an attempt to retreat). Because of this, in Matthew’s telling there is the sense that the sending continues, up to and including the present day church.
When I was about twelve years old, I decided to read through the entire Bible. I don’t recall if I told anyone about this, though it wouldn’t surprise me if I let my Mom know, since it was she I most often wanted to please. I do know what would have pleased her most was if I would have become a missionary—the kind that would travel to other countries that were impoverished materially and spiritually. Even at twelve—introvert that I was and am—I knew that was unlikely to happen. Little did I know that, within my lifetime, the shift out of Christendom and into a kind of pluralism more reminiscent of the conditions of the early church would finally come to fruition, making me a missionary every time I step out my front door.
I do recall as I read through the Bible at twelve that there were certain passages that contained great terror for me, and great comfort. This text from Matthew is one of those texts that includes both. It is terrifying enough for an introvert to read of the expectation of shouting the truth from the housetops in broad daylight, let alone that this might get one killed. Jesus is addressing the fact that the apostles, and the church, can expect persecution. If he can be called the Devil, how much more so will his household members be maligned? Post Christendom, this text is regaining its traction.
And we are maligned because we speak—shout!—the truth of who Jesus is:
“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others,I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven” (v. 32).
We proclaim the truth of who Jesus is, and the truth of who we are now as the baptized community that is his body. As today’s passage from Romans 6 reminds us, everything about us dies in our baptism—our identity as humanly determined, our loyalties, our priorities—and we rise to new life in taking on our identity in Christ, loyal to him, and with his priorities of love and service to others, especially the poor, the sick, and the oppressed.
To the reader of Matthew’s gospel in the time it was written, Jesus’ instructions would have brought about a crisis of decision. Declaring Jesus as Lord would most likely have set that person over against their family and household—not a nuclear family living in suburbia, but one’s entire extended family, and one’s place in the dominant economic unit of the household business. And this is not to even mention the challenge this declaration, and the required life it demands, would have made to the established cultural system of honor and shame.
We are assured that the truth of who Jesus is—and who, therefore, we are—will challenge our relationships, challenge our economic status quo, and put our very life in jeopardy. But we are also assured of a love so all encompassing, a love that marks the fall of each sparrow, that every hair on our head is counted. Wow. This is a love that fills the black hole of our souls, and spills over even that, to mark the value and beauty of all of Creation. This is a love that draws us into a new household–God’s household–where, astonishingly, we discover even previously designated enemies as members of the same household.
And we are instructed to not be afraid. Not afraid of the name callers, not afraid of the withdrawal of support or supposed love, not afraid of those who would take away our life. “Be not afraid” is actually the most frequent command in the Bible. At the same time, we are also reminded of what our true, holy fear should be of.
So, go, lose your life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the world God so loves, and be surprised and amazed by what you will find.