Click here to listen to this sermon, preached on 29 June 2008.
The commitment of a Christian is total commitment. That’s the kind of faith we see in St Alban. And that’s the kind of faith we heard about last Sunday.
Today’s gospel (which is actually the gospel for St Alban’s day) continues what some call Jesus’ “missionary discourse,” which is Matthew 10. But before we get too comfortable with the thought that Jesus’ words here are only for “professional” Christian missionaries, let me remind you that this passage is addressed to all of us.
Jesus has a word here for every Christian believer. We all have the vocation of Christian discipleship, and discipleship includes glorifying Christ before others, by living holy lives and sharing the gospel (i.e., by being disciples who make disciples).
Jesus begins this missionary discourse in Matthew with the calling of the Twelve. Before he sent them out, Jesus gathered his disciples close to him. Gathering close to Jesus is an act of empowerment—that’s what we do in church on Sunday mornings. Perhaps you have felt powerless to do some of the things that you feel that God has called you to do. Maybe you feel that way because you set out too soon. Perhaps God wanted more personal time to shape and mold you. Remember, it took forty years to shape Moses for God’s work.
After Jesus calls his disciples close, then he sends them out. He gives them instructions for how to carry out their mission. We also have instructions for carrying out our mission. We can turn to the holy Bible for unfailing guidance on the moral and theological questions that may come up. We have the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us, to show us the way and unveil God’s will.
We also have the Church to lead and guide us. We are surrounded by a family of brothers and sister in Christ to encourage us and help us find our way. We have those whom God has empowered in apostolic ministry. We have a godly bishop—the one entrusted to oversee God’s flock. It is his duty to guard the faith, to be the chief teacher, and to nourish the people in Word and Sacraments. The priests are his co-workers in this ministry. The priests are among the people as ambassadors of Christ. They are there to listen and give counsel, and to preach and teach and absolve in the Lord’s name.
This is part of the pattern of the church’s life—the life of a family. People come into this fellowship; they are born into the mystical Body. Once people are born in a family, they are raised up. We raise them through sharing our spiritual traditions. We pray together and read Scripture together. We learn together in thing like Sunday School, VBS, youth group, and Bible studies. When we grow up, we begin to move out. Some of us move out to start new churches or serve in new ministries. Some of us move out by getting involved in ministries that make a difference inside and outside our church.
Of course, moving out in God’s mission is not without problems. Last Sunday, Jesus said persecutions might await you when you go out there. But do not be afraid of any hostility that may come along. Your job is not to arrest the hostility that comes from the world; your job is to remain faithful in spite of any hostility.
Today, we pick up with some words about discipleship from our blessed Lord that might seem shocking to us, but need to shape our perspective. Jesus says, “Forget those Christmas carols for a moment. Don’t think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Now, if that was all Jesus had said, we would be gravely mislead. Jesus is rightfully trying to get our attention here. Jesus is trying to tell us that what he’s doing will shake things up. Sometimes we need to be shaken up, because while we are well able to recognize the hostility from without, we are often less able to recognize the hostility within.
Jesus warns us that in some cases, his radical call of discipleship will bring hostility within the closest of bonds—the human family. He says, “I have come to divide such close relations as a man and his father, or a mother and daughter. And if you can’t choose me over them, then you are not good enough for me.” Ouch.
These kinds of passages are what we call the "hard sayings" of Jesus. They seem to clash with our expectations so abrasively, we can scarcely believe it was really spoken by Jesus. Jesus goes on to say something a bit more familiar, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me, is not worthy of me.”
I believe Jesus is speaking here of the stark reality of priorities—what is most important? When faced with tough choices, one turns to his or her priorities. Often that’s how we first find out what our real priorities are. That’s why people say that conflict reveals character. That is, it is only when we make these tough decisions under real pressure that we discover what is truly important to a person.
Jesus is warning his disciples. “Before you go out there, before you face a hostile world, before things get messy in your own life, you need to set your priorities in order." That's why Jesus first drew them close. "And in case you miss it," Jesus tells us, "I am your number one priority.” Our main commitment as Christian disciples is that Jesus is our number one priority. It is what we mean when we say that Jesus is Lord.
We have many things that are meaningful and important and even crucial to us. But what is your highest priority? Food? Water? Shelter? Time? Let me suggest that your highest priority is not your job, your home, or your possessions; it is not your country nor your ethnic or family heritage; it is not your mother or father, nor your children, it is not even your husband or your wife or yourself. Your highest priority is Jesus Christ.
Who is this Jesus who claims such prominence? Our faith has a rich heritage of answers to that question: He is the Second Person of the Trinity, the Lord most high. He is the Savior and Redeemer of the world. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega. He is the only-begotten Son. He is the Bread of Life and the Captain of Salvation. Jesus is the Cornerstone and he is the Desire of Nations. He is the Light of the world, and the Dayspring from on high. He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of peace.
Jesus is the glory and power and wisdom of the Lord God Almighty. He is like the Ancient of Days, and the Head of the Church. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the Good Shepherd. He is our great High Priest. He is the Holy One of Israel. Jesus is Immanuel—“God with us.” He is the perfect icon of the Father. He is the Lamb of God. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He is the Man of Sorrows, the Mediator of a New Covenant. Jesus is the bright Morning Star. He is the Rose of Sharon. He is the Fairest of ten thousand. He is the Bishop of our souls. He is the Resurrection and the Life. He is the Root of David. Jesus is the Sun of Righteousness. He is the Seed of the woman. He is the True Light, the True Vine. He is the Truth. He is the incarnate Word of God.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Yet we must remember that each of those titles begins with the first confession we find in the early church: the confession that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus is not Lord in your heart, none of those others will matter.
One thing and one thing alone should have final command over every catholic believing heart—Jesus Christ as Lord. He is the measure of all things. He gives true perspective. He puts everything else in its proper order. Jesus lays an absolute claim on his church. He should rightfully be our highest priority. And that priority is not without its reward.
Jesus reminds us that welcoming the Son is the equivalent of welcoming the Father. He invokes the Jewish concept of shaliah, which regards the king’s emissary as if he were the king himself. And so the blessing moves on down the line: Welcoming the prophet earns the host a prophet’s reward. Welcoming the righteous person earns the host a righteous person’s reward. (Here, the righteous person might be said to be a mature Christian, what we would refer to as a strong believer or a living saint.) Finally, he said there will be great reward even for those who are good to these little ones because they are disciples. The little ones here are possibly children or new Christians. Each segment in the church’s life cycle is represented: those who are newborns, those who have grown up, and those who have been sent out.
Jesus’ note about reward here underscores the idea that the worthiness of a disciple is related to the priority of Jesus in their lives. It’s Jesus’ way of saying, “You can’t go wrong with me.” Just as persecutions await those who go out into the world in my name, so blessing will abound through those who go out into the world in my name. He doesn’t say what the rewards are—he only says they are certain.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, giver of every good and perfect gift: empower us to make Jesus the top priority in our hearts, that as committed disciples, we may share the blessings of Christ with all those we bring to him; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.