(Mt. 10:4) “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 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! 26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 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; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 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; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
A funny thing happened on the way to writing this sermon. I went online to do some research about today’s passage (not to look for a sermon to pirate-really!), and I found the most interesting commentary about it on a website called, “The Thinking Atheist.” I didn’t agree with much of it, especially not when someone called Jesus a “terrorist,” for saying, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” Someone else asked: “How can anyone call Jesus, ‘The Prince of Peace,’ after he said that? And “Just who does Jesus think he is to say things like, ‘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?’”
Others asked, “How can you square the commandment, ‘You shall honor your mother and father,’ with ‘I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother?’” Or “How can anyone call Jesus a great moral teacher, a prophet of social justice and a visionary of peacemaking and pacifism, if he’s setting people against each other by making such grandiose claims for himself?”
Now I’m not saying all this to rag on atheists and make us fear them or despise them. I take at face value the love they profess for life, family and friends. I even share it with them. Those are good things to love. And that question hit the nail on the head: “Just who does this Jesus think he is?” Today’s gospel passage makes no sense if we don’t stop and ask: Who does Jesus say he is? And who do we say he is?
The commentators on The Thinking Atheist website are even doing us a favor: the favor of putting to rest any notion that Jesus of Nazareth was simply a great moral teacher, merely the most advanced and evolved teacher and technician of “how to win friends and influence others” that is so much in vogue today. The teachings of Jesus certainly do get us farther in the direction of justice and peace than everything else we have tried thus far, like war. But when you come across words like these in Matthew 10, it’s hard to avoid what C.S. Lewis said in his radio talks that later became the book, Mere Christianity: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg–or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
Or we might say that the Jesus who said such things is simply a legend. That’s Dan Brown’s thesis, in his popular potboiler novels like The Da Vinci Code. But then you have to explain why anyone would dream up such a legend, when that legend’s uncompromising demands to our life, love and loyalty are what kept the lions in the Roman Coliseum so busy. A safer, more marketable legend would be Jesus as the sweet, inoffensive guru of self-fulfillment or social progress that we often try to make of him. Saying that the Jesus of Matthew 10 is just a legend actually requires more faith, not less, than the simple but costly Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.”
So, “Who does this Jesus think he is?” our friends on The Thinking Atheist website ask. And “Why would Jesus make such strong claims to our lives, love and loyalty?” (the first question in the sermon outline) Both the Bible and the ancient Christian Creeds confess Jesus as the incarnation of God, and God’s Word in the flesh. Our own Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective says this in Article 2 (I invite you to read these words for a moment, and if they are yours, if they stir anything in you, I invite you to say them with me):
“We believe in Jesus Christ, the Word of God become flesh. He is the Savior of the world, who has delivered us from the dominion of sin and reconciled us to God by humbling himself and becoming obedient unto death on a cross.1 He was declared to be Son of God with power by his resurrection from the dead.2 He is the head of the church, the exalted Lord, the Lamb who was slain, coming again to reign with God in glory.”
If we believe that abut Jesus, then what he claims from us by way of life, love and loyalty is as much for our own eternal welfare, joy and honor, as for his own honor and God’s kingdom. Then the most pressing question no longer is. “Who does Jesus think he is, to make such strenuous and absolute claims to our life, love and loyalty?” but “Why would Jesus not make such strenuous claims to our life, love and loyalty?” And “What are we going to do about his claims?” And, “Why would we value anyone or anything else more than him?”
Because it’s not a question of If anyone or anything should lay such absolute claim to our love and loyalty, but what will, or who will? I would ask our friends on The Thinking Atheist website to think some more about human nature and human history and remember how Stalin, Hitler, Chairman Mao in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and even the Caesar in Jesus’ day and age, made claims just as grand and absolute to people’s lives and love and loyalty, above family, faith and culture, as Jesus did, and at the cost of so much suffering, even of hundreds of millions of lives. Something about human need and human fears makes us vulnerable to taking good things, like kin and clan and country, and making gods of them, expecting of them things they were never made to bear, giving them worship and sacrifices of which they can never be worthy. Future historians may look back and say that we in modern America had similarly grandiose expectations, and made equally grandiose claims, and offered equally great worship, obedience and human sacrifice, with equally great faith, on behalf of our country, the market, of corporations, commerce, capitalism, consumerism, sexuality and technology. Something about human nature eagerly longs and looks for such all-demanding gods or idols to fill the holes within our souls.
The first reason why Jesus would make such absolute and ultimate claims to our lives, love and loyalty is simply because of who Jesus is: God’s supreme self-revelation, God’s Word in human flesh, the presence, power and promises of God in our flesh-and-blood. But there’s another reason why Jesus would make such claims: because of the seriousness of the times, the crisis of that moment, and the stark and mutually exclusive choices pressed upon us. Jesus spoke these words in a time of great danger, when he had to confront his disciples with their only immediate and unavoidable then-and-there life and death choices: courage or cowardice.
Jesus sees the time as so serious, and the choice as so stark, that he quotes a Hebrew prophet whose own time was equally as critical, and whose ministry required as much cost and courage: Micah, eight centuries earlier. Micah foresaw Israel’s destruction and dispersion by Assyria. He also saw that Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians was not far behind. The reason for that coming destruction, what provoked the crisis, Micah said, were the injustice and idolatry of God’s people. They too had made idols of otherwise good things, such as their country, their kin, their kind, idols of pleasure, power, prosperity, and fertility.
Micah’s ministry and his message also provoked wrath and resistance, like that about which Jesus warned his disciples. It is now a time, Micah says (chapter 8), when: “The day God visits you has come, the day your watchmen sound the alarm. Now is the time of your confusion. 5 Do not trust a neighbor; put no confidence in a friend. Even with the woman who lies in your embrace guard the words of your lips. 6 For a son dishonors his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.”
Those are the words which you just heard Jesus quote to his disciples in today’s Gospel reading, to explain the times they are in.
Micah’s words remind me of something I’ve heard about going to school as a child in Hitler’s Germany. Teachers would sometimes ask their class questions like, “Whose portraits are hanging in your homes?” Or, “What has your family recently done to celebrate our valiant armies’ victories in Russia?” Or “What sacrifices and contributions has your family made toward the Reich’s ‘final victory?’” That was to encourage patriotism and conformity, of course, but also to flush out any evidence or suspicion of disloyalty, or of insufficient enthusiasm, and report it to officials higher up. If your child failed often enough to raise his hand and give satisfactorily enthusiastic and patriotic answers to such questions, expect a late night knock on your door. People then took Micah’s advice and learned to hide their thoughts and censor their words from even their closest friends and family members, for fear of getting themselves or someone else in trouble. Similar pressures and threats fall today on people of faith and of conscience in Eritrea, Iran or North Korea, and in parts of Central America under the rule of drug cartels. Trolls of the political and religious left and right are constantly hunting down doubts, disagreements and disloyalty online, posting rude, snarky and even threatening comments on the blogs and responses of complete strangers.
When Jesus quoted these words of Micah, he was confronting his disciples with their three critical and unavoidable choices: 1) give in to and go along with the idolatry of the Roman Empire and believe, obey and confess Caesar as Lord; 2) give in to and go along with the nationalist, patriotic, militaristic idolatry of the Jewish rebels and so provoke war with Rome, and Jerusalem’s destruction, or 3) believe, receive, obey and confess Jesus as Lord, and Prince of Peace over all peoples, Jew and Gentile. His warning about the looming crisis and the crucial choice proved true just a few decades later, when the Romans besieged the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and all its inhabitants were killed, enslaved or exiled.
In such a critical time, the right choice could cost you your friends, your family, even your life. But the wrong choice would prove even more costly. Silence and secrecy about your conscience and convictions were no options. Silence and secrecy will be construed by the idols, their cheerleaders and their chaplains, either as assent, agreement and permission, or punished as insufficient loyalty and enthusiasm. Sitting on the fence was no option, either. Even if you were not interested in Caesar nor the rebels, they were definitely interested in you. It’s only a matter of time before they come around to monitor your loyalty, or any disloyalty, like the teachers in my father’s classrooms, or the trolls policing online chat sites. With these words, Jesus closes the door to a quiet, private faith in him that allows us to just go with the flow in the streets while our heads and hearts face elsewhere.
But the crisis did not end with the destruction of Jerusalem. We can’t walk away from the words and warnings of Jesus, thinking that was then and this is now, and things are so much better today. Our fallen world is ever and always in crisis, and Jesus pinpoints the heart and source of our crisis in our misplaced faith, in our idols, even in the good things, that we choose to love, to trust, to worship and to serve before him and above him. The idols of culture, country, clan, kin and king that put Rome and Jerusalem on a collision course toward war are very much alive and well today. Other idols which compete today for the love and loyalty which Jesus claims would include power, pleasure, prestige and possessions.
The sword that Jesus brings then is not a literal sword of steel for us to wield against anyone else. But Jesus’ supreme claim to life, love and loyalty acts like a sword, cutting us off from all other claims equally as strict and supreme. So no, Jesus is no terrorist. But don’t be surprised if the idols of this age, or any other, react to Jesus with terror, and to his disciples with terrorism. That’s also the sword of which Jesus speaks.
Which brings us to the second question in the outline: What virtue or value do these words of Jesus require from us? The answer to that question is courage. Courage is not the absence of fear. Jaywalk on a busy street without looking both ways, and fearlessness is but another word for foolishness. In today’s passage, Courage is the rightful ordering of our lives and our loves, and choosing to act in the order of their priority and importance.
To our friends on The Thinking Atheist website, I honor and share their love for life, for family and friendships. I would hope that Christians love those good and God-given things at least as much as they do. But I hope we don’t love them first. If Jesus is who he claims he is, and is more than just a pacifist Jewish rabbi, then if ever I have to choose between putting Jesus first and following him, and putting kin, country, culture, pride, possessions and pleasure first, I hope I would put Jesus first, and love those other things and people and places with a love that is just as great as that of my atheist friends, but still less than my love for Jesus. And I can only prove such love for Christ not by stirring up feelings, nor by worshipful words alone, but by actions and choices.
Actions and choices like those of a young man of high school age whom Becky and I got to know in Burkina Faso by the name of Toallamah. “Toallamah” means, in the Dioula language, “Leave it to God.” He was the first believer in his family when we met him. His parents told him, just before the start of a new school year, “It’s time to ‘drink the Quran’ for your success in school.” Drinking the Quran is a ritual that involves writing a verse of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, on a piece of paper, then putting it in a glass of water, letting it dissolve, and drinking it, in hopes of getting supernatural wisdom for your secular studies. Islam and the Quran condemn that kind of magical ritual, but West African Islam can be funny about blending traditional magic and Islamic law like that.
Toallamah politely and respectfully told his parents that, as a Christian, he could not engage in that ritual. His faith was in Jesus Christ, not in magical rituals and semi-sorcery. His family, impressed by his conviction, courage and respect, only said, “As you wish; but we’re not paying for anyone to go to school without supernatural help. If one of your siblings will drink the Quran, we’ll pay their school expenses and you’ll go back to working in the hot and dusty fields.”
Toallamah was willing to make that sacrifice, and, true to his name, leave the results up to God. But when some church leaders heard about this, they respectfully approached the family on Toallamah’s behalf, listened to their concerns, and worked out this compromise: Toallamah could go to school this next semester without “drinking the Quran.” But if his grades suffered significantly, then he would go out into the fields to work and let one of his siblings, who was willing to “drink the Quran,” take his place in school.
After that first trial semester, Toallamah came around to our house and showed us his grades. In French, he was third from the top among sixty; in math, something like second; in history, again near the top. Most of his family members shrugged their shoulders and said, “Well, it looks like Toallamah found something better than drinking the Quran,” and let him stay in school. The last time we saw Toallamah a few years back, he was pastoring a church in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso.
You’ll notice that Toallamah’s profile in courage is not a wild, hair-raising saga about death-defying heroism in the face of firing squads or the Gestapo knocking on the door. Most of the time, our choices between cowardice and courage come in little and less dramatic moments, like Toallamah’s choice. Will we remain quiet while someone rags on African-Americans or immigrants? What will we do or say when someone ridicules and stereotypes people on the other side of the political spectrum, as either godless heathens or incurable ignoramuses? Or, guys, when another guy invites us to join him in at ogling and objectifying women? Toallamah could have stayed silent and “drank the Quran” without the church knowing. But those little and less dramatic confrontations can be all the more deadly, because, over time, the silences and surrenders add up, we get used to making them, and our faith slowly dies the death of a thousand little compromises.
In the spirit of courageous saints, like Toallamah, I have on the bulletin board next to my desk the words of one stanza of a medieval Christian hymn. We sing it occasionally for Holy Week or Good Friday, under the title, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” The words are:
“Lord, make me yours forever, and lest I fainting be,
Lord, let me never ever outlive my love for thee.”
So Who does Jesus think he is? That thousand-year-old prayer only makes sense if the Lord to whom we sing these words is who he says he is: the Only One worthy of the lives, the love and the loyalty that he claims of us in the very words we heard today.