WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN
June 22, 2014
TO BE LIKE THE TEACHER (Matthew 10:24-39)
Greg Carey wrote nice piece about Clarence Jordan that I read the other day. Jordan was agriculture major at the University of Georgia and a Master of Divinity graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also earned a PhD in New Testament. Jordan founded the racially integrated Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia in 1942. Let me say some of that again: racially integrated, Georgia, 1942. You may be familiar with Jordan through his Cotton Patch translations of the New Testament or because the Habitat for Humanity movement began with the Koinonia Farm.
There are a lot of good Clarence Jordan stories – he had a great sense of humor. Once accused of fraternizing with Myles Horton, a reputed communist, Jordan retorted, “I really have trouble with your logic. I don’t think my talking to Myles Horton makes me a Communist any more than talking to you right now makes me a jackass.”
Likewise, when the Koinonia community tried selling peanuts from a roadside stand the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the stand. Stubborn like most who fight for justice, Jordan put up another stand. It got blown up too. Finally, the Koinonia Farm resorted to mail-order ads: “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia.”
If ever there were a text for Clarence Jordan-style Christians, Matthew 10:24-39 would be it. Just read it – go out in the light, shout from the housetops. Not peace but a sword. Cling not to fathers and mothers but to Jesus, cling not to this life but give your life for the sake of Christ. This is not middle of the road, conciliatory, everyone-just-get-along Christianity. There is no compromise, no accommodation, no middle path.
It’s not just about radicalism. It’s about courage. It’s about persecution. Jesus calls his disciples to share his fate. That means not just social isolation, not just the possible loss of family and friend, but maybe even death. That’s not the kind of call that most of us are ready to answer.
This isn’t always comfortable to the Brethren. We see ourselves as peaceful and non-resistant. We want everyone to be happy. We want everyone to get along. Even when we do consider action, we are more likely to take Martin Luther King, Jr. as our model than we are Malcolm X.
This passage in particular gives us some problems sometime. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That one gets to us from time to time. We don’t like to think about Jesus as someone with a sword. We want to sing “Gentle Shepherd, come and lead us” and think about Jesus with little children, not Jesus telling the disciples to buy swords and getting busy turning over the money changers tables in the temple.
There are a lot of different ways to think about Jesus’ commands and what it is exactly that he means. One of the things that I do is to take a look at what Jesus actually did. Jesus says hard thing A – what did he then do? Elsewhere in the Bible Jesus tells the disciples that they’d better buy swords. They reply that between them they have two swords, and Jesus says that should be enough. So in that instance, it at least sounds like Jesus is referring to literal swords, to actual weapons.
But when the time comes to use the weapons, when Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, what happens? Jesus tells the disciples to put the swords away, to not fight, to not resist. So even if Jesus in that instance is talking about really owning swords, it seems like the way he applies that teaching, the way that he makes that teaching real is not what we would expect. It looks like there’s probably more to it than meets the eye.
That’s not the passage we’re talking about this morning, but the general principle is the same. Jesus says that he brings a sword. Well, does he? Is there any scripture that you can think of that talks about Jesus as a kind of Zorro of the Galilee? Does the Bible portray Jesus as Inigo Montoya? Are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit the Three Musketeers of AD 30?
- So the sword is not a literal sword. The passage continues on to tell us what kind of a sword it is. Jesus says, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
So the sword Jesus is talking about is not one that can pierce our skin and cause us to bleed. It’s one that can be even more painful in some ways – it can pierce our relationships with our family, even the closest of bonds. It’s a sword that can do that, but it’s not one that has to.
Some of the disciples had already been pierced by this sword. In Matthew 4:21 it says, “And going on from there (Jesus) saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” James and John immediately chose Jesus over their father. Certainly others had to make similar choices. Certainly others had been wounded by that sword.
But the pain doesn’t stop there. “And whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
In the article that I mentioned earlier, Greg Carey talked about one of the challenges of preaching on this passage. “Early Christians knew the fear of violent resistance. Jesus encourages his disciples to live beyond fear. They know that God cares for them more than they can possibly care for anything themselves. They likewise know that their confession of Jesus wins them Jesus’ recognition on the last day. These words have brought peace to many a Christian over the years. To me, however, they also bring fear and trepidation. Not once in my life have I found it comforting to be told not to fear. This passage is for those militant Christians who somehow enjoy confronting both fear and power.
“But most congregations aren’t made up of militant Christians. Most will find it difficult to identify with the disciples as we encounter them in Matthew. Sent out on mission, carrying nothing to provide for or defend themselves and warned of persecution, the disciples seem far removed from us. How may we connect our puny imaginations with the experience related by this text?”
Among all the various denominations, the Brethren shouldn’t need too much help connecting with that experience. We were born in persecution, opposed by the state churches in Germany and driven first to the Netherlands and later to America. We talked a few weeks ago about the Martyr’s Mirror, which recounted the persecution and deaths of many of our Anabaptist ancestors in faith. Here in America the persecution didn’t end. Many Brethren had their farms burned because they would not take up arms in the revolution. John Kline was killed by Confederates in the Civil War because he refused to stop crossing the battle lines to treat sick people on the other side. Brethren have been imprisoned for refusing to go to war, or refusing to register for the draft, for many, many years.
And even today, our brothers and sisters in the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria are literally facing death for their faith. The radical Muslims of the Boko Haram sect have killed many Brethren, and many of the girls kidnapped who were in the headlines a month ago (but not so much now) are members of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria.
How do they find the strength and the faith to go through these things? How do we find that kind of strength and faith if and when we need to?
The answer is back at the beginning of our scripture reading. “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! “
The Brethren in Europe knew who their teacher was, and they sought to be like the teacher. The Brethren in Nigeria know who their teacher is today; they are following Jesus and seeking to be like the teacher. What about us? Do we know who our teacher is? Are we ready to be like the teacher?
Being like the teacher isn’t just about persecution and death. It isn’t just about fear and suffering. It’s also about invitation. Jesus invites the disciples to follow him. He asks them, he invites them along on the journey.
We need to be like the teacher and be ready for whatever comes, for good or ill. We also need to be like the teacher and invite others with us on the journey. Who are the friends and the family that you know who are in need of a relationship with Jesus? Who are your colleagues who are looking for a church home? Who in your community is looking for a way to help others by volunteering? Jesus has a place for those people too, just as we do here at Washington City. If we are like the teacher, we will invite people to follow Jesus and come along with us wherever they are, and as they come farther along into faith and into their journey with Christ, Jesus will continue the invitation into deeper levels of faith and sacrifice.
Courage to leave behind the familiar. Faith to face persecution. Willingness to invite others to join us on the journey. All of these are a part of our lives if we truly seek to be like the teacher. Amen.