We are living through tumultuous and difficult times. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests gripping the world, poverty, the climate emergency, and just in the last 24 hours, here in Reading, 3 people killed while they enjoyed an afternoon sitting with friends in the sun. Suddenly Reading doesn’t feel so safe any more. The world is a dangerous place on so many levels. I mention all of this because, in today’s gospel reading, there is a focus specifically on the troubles that Christians may face as a result of our commitment to Jesus, and I want to honour this. It’s important, too, because how we live, what makes us tick, what makes us the people we are will colour our reaction to all of these problems that face us.
I found it interesting to just review where we are in Matthew’s gospel to help us understand the reading we heard today. The gospel starts with Jesus’ genealogy, his heritage; then goes on to his birth, the flight to Egypt and his return; John the Baptist; Jesus’ temptation by Satan, and then the beginning of his ministry. It starts with the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus’ grand manifesto of the Kingdom of God – how to live, how to love, how to pray. Then there are a series of stories about some of the things Jesus did. I’ll run them past you, notice the sort of people he chose to love and to heal and to call: a leper, a Roman soldier’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, two fierce men possessed by evil spirits, a paralysed man, Matthew himself, the despised tax collector, a dead girl and a woman with a haemorrhage that made her untouchable, two blind men, and a man who was mute. Then, in Matthew 10, Jesus turns around to his disciples and tells them, ‘Now it’s your turn. But don’t imagine it will be easy! The disciple is not above his master!’. At the time the gospel was written, towards the end of the 1st century, indeed it was not easy at all to be a follower of Jesus. Matthew 10 is split roughly speaking in 3 parts: go and do what I am doing (1-15), it is going to be tough (16-25), but don’t fear (26-42). There’s always an edge in Matthew, he doesn’t let us off the hook: you will be flogged, dragged before governors, betrayed and hated. Then the message of don’t fear: even the hairs on your head are counted, you are worth more than many sparrows.
Well, thankfully I don’t think any of us have to face that kind of reckoning today, in this country. But the followers of Jesus really did face exactly what is described here for the first 300 years, until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity an approved state religion. Many people in the world today face persecution for their faith. The question that faces us is this: why then, would anyone follow Jesus if it means that much trouble??
I am risking a return to Narnia to try and find an answer. In Prince Caspian, Peter, Susan, Edmund, Lucy and Trumpkin the Dwarf are on a mission to confront the evil powers who have taken over Narnia, put Prince Caspian on the throne. They have all got lost on the way, but Lucy, the youngest, meets Aslan in an enchanted wood while the others are asleep. ‘Aslan said, “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must get up at once and follow me – what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.” “Do you mean that is what you want me to do?” gasped Lucy. “Yes, little one,” said Aslan. “Will the others see you too?’ asked Lucy. “Certainly not at first,” said Aslan. “Later on, it depends.” “But they won’t believe me!” said Lucy. “It doesn’t matter,” said Aslan. “Oh dear, oh dear,” said Lucy. “And I was so pleased at finding you again. And I thought you’d let me stay. And I thought you’d come roaring in and frighten all the enemies away – like last time. And now everything is going to be horrid.” “It is hard for you, little one,” said Aslan…Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from his face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.” “Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed.”’
Why was Lucy prepared to do what was very difficult for her? Simply, because she loved and trusted Aslan, despite her fears. It was the same for those early Christians that Matthew wrote his gospel for: they loved and trusted Jesus. In those first 9 chapters of his gospel, before he gets to the tough bit, Matthew tells the story of the Jesus that he himself fell in love with as he sat at his table collecting taxes and Jesus came into the room, looked at him and just said, ‘Follow me’ (9:9). And he did. 30 years later, writing his gospel after Jesus had ended his ministry on a Roman cross, as Matthew was facing the end of his own life, he makes sure that we understand why we love Jesus, but at the same time what the cost of that love is going to be.
Christianity is, above everything else, a religion, a way of life, founded on and expressed in love. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied, ‘”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Matthew 22:34-39). St Paul, speaking of his own life of faith, put it like this, ‘The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). Love is at the root, the heart of our faith. Love of God for us; our love of God; and the overflow of that love to our fellow human beings and indeed to all of creation.
The passage we are looking at today in Matthew 10 does express this, and puts it pretty bluntly at the end: ‘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.’ (10:37). Again, Matthew is writing against a background of persecution and hardship. Without love of Jesus, you simply won’t be able to face the hardships. Why would you?
I think some of us struggle a bit with the idea of love of God as a command. How does that work? What kind of love is that, if I’m ordered to do it? I kind of feel that command is the last reason we should love God; perhaps it’s put like that as a statement of last resort so we can’t say we didn’t know! In fact, most of us love God or Jesus not because he insists on it, but because if we catch the faintest glimpse of God, we cannot help ourselves. We praise and love him in as instinctive a way as we would love a human being who impressed us by their beauty or skill, reverence him as we would reverence a person who is shiningly good, serve him because we feel driven to it, because we want to, because it is a pleasure. It is like rising to our feet and clapping like mad because the orchestra has taken wings. It is only that that will give us the energy, the persistence to face the hard times that may come as a result of our decision to love and serve God. Incidentally, this is why Paul faced such troubles which led to his sufferings, that Claire referred to last week. He chose that way to live because of his love for Jesus. His sufferings were a badge of honour for him, which is why he boasted of them – but I admit, it’s still an odd thing to boast of.
We know this is true because we all know what love is. Even those of us who have been through great struggles and pain in human relationships will know the power of love, both given and received. Love motivates us and gives us energy, a reason for living, for giving, for facing hardship, like nothing else. Since God is love (1 John 4:8), all love springs from him anyway.
Many years ago, when I became a Christian, one of the illustrations of the life of faith was that it was a bit like a train with an engine and two coaches. The engine was called ‘fact’, the first carriage was called ‘faith’, and the last carriage was called ‘feeling’. It’s all about the facts! Get them straight and faith and feeling will follow along! Sounds a bit like a spot of DIY – measure everything and get it straight, the shelf will stay on the wall – nowadays, I take a different view about the train of faith. Without the love of Jesus to fill our hearts, what we’re left with is duty and obligation, and somehow that doesn’t have enough energy to base your life on when difficulty faces us. Seems to me that the love of Jesus, which comes from the heart, is what makes the engine go. It’s not to say that facts aren’t important, they are, but they don’t really have the motive power that love does.
How do we cause our love of God to grow, to blossom in us? We need to give time and space first of all to receive that love, to dwell with it. The other week in our home group meeting, we started using an ancient practice of reading scripture called ‘Lectio divina’. A passage is read slowly 3 times, with a period of silence in the middle (we did 7 minutes) to allow it to soak in. In the passage we read in John 15, Jesus addresses us as friends, and tells us that we do not choose him, rather, he chooses us. And we let that sink down inside us in silence. As people shared their reflections afterwards, it was clear that the privilege of being Jesus’ friends, of knowing we are chosen, was indeed touching our hearts. It was a lovely moment.
‘Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from Aslan’s face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.” “Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed.”’