Pentecost +5 – Disciples of Christ
Rev. Doug Floyd
Ever since we celebrated Pentecost, our readings have been stirring us to reflect on the nature of discipleship or calling. We are called as a covenant community, but we also walk out our specific vocations in day-to-day life. We heard Fr. Les’s beautiful baptismal sermon to Isaiah. In it, we, were all challenged to remember our own baptism and calling to the covenant community. We’ve reflected on how calling primarily refers to the covenant community but how each of us still have a particular vocation to serve and bring God glory in the world.
Last week Melody reminded us that to follow Christ is costly. She said, “It’s not an easy life, a comfortable life, and great relationships. Paul says that good news is that God gives me multiplied grace and the gift of righteousness. He restores my humanity, empowers my life with meaning, charges me with love, and gives me a new chance at life. In the last day, He will have brought justice to each wrongdoing, those I have committed and those that have been committed against me.”
This week we continue in the theme of a life of discipleship to Christ. Jesus makes some pretty strong statements.
“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 a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” We can have no love that trumps our love to Christ or we are not worthy of Him.
These are some strong and difficult words about discipleship. If we continue to read the directives about living within families in the rest of the New Testament, we know that Jesus is not anti-family. Yet I have seen some discipleship movements that used words like this to devalue the family and family commitments. So how do we read these words in a way that is consistent with the rest of the New Testament?
First, we might consider the setting of these statements. Jesus is giving the disciples instructions for their upcoming mission into the surrounding communities. These disciples will see the power of God move in and through them, but they will also encounter opposition. In the book of Acts, some of them will be kicked out of the synagogues, imprisoned, stoned, and killed. Socially they will be rejected.
What about their families? We do not have direct stories, but historically we do know that the extended Mediterranean family was tighter knit that our typical conception of family. Following Christ will mean entire families will convert but it could also mean being disowned by the family. The pattern we see in the New Testament is a new family coming into focus. This family is made up of followers of Christ. Following Christ will define the nature of family relations within the church and within each extended family.
The Gospel reorders the nature of family. In fact, the Gospel of Jesus Christ reorders every aspect of society from trade to government to arts and beyond. Another way of saying this is to say that the Gospel reorders families around Christ, and this in turn reorders every aspect of society. Thus, we could say that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is subversive to any society.
What we see in Jesus’ statements, the book of Acts, and even the Revelation of Jesus Christ is the war that ensues when the Gospel of Jesus Christ begins to take root in a society. The powers that be are threatened (both spiritual and natural powers). As a result, there is a real and sometimes violent power struggle, which can take the shape of disciples being cursed, stoned, beaten, and even killed.
Throughout history, the displacement of family and cultural systems by the Gospel has usually been a great struggle. We’re seeing this struggle play out firsthand in certain places in the world like some African countries and in other places.
This partly explains Jesus statement that He has not come to bring peace but a sword. What happens when the Gospel transforms a culture, and the pagan systems are defeated? In the West, we’ve seen the Gospel penetrate our cultures deeply. Many of our supposed Western values are simply extensions of the Gospel. From hospitals to law to families to even our economies, we have been blessed by the expansion of the Gospel into our society.
With that in mind, I return to Jesus statements about dividing families, making enemies in a household, or the danger of loving family more than Jesus. Are we in danger of this? As I was reflecting on this question, I thought of Soren Kierkegaard. He was troubled by the Danish society where he lived. This was not a pagan culture, but a Dutch society that had been transformed by the Gospel.
What worried him? He thought the people could live out the cultural aspect of Christianity without actually following Jesus. He saw a danger in being a Danish Christian and not a follower of the living Jesus. He writes, “Would that we might see you as you are and were and will be until your second coming in glory, as the sign of offense and the object of faith, the lowly man, yet the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, who out of love came to earth to seek the lost, to suffer and die, and yet, alas, every step you took on earth, every time you called to the straying, every time you reached out your hand to do signs and wonders, and every time you defenselessly suffered the opposition of people without raising a hand—again and again in concern you had to repeat, “Blessed is the one who is not offended at me.” Would that we might see you in this way and that we then might not be offended at you!”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw within Kierkegaard’s writing a prophetic warning for society. He saw that German Christians were content in being German Christians even when Nazism reshaped the German Church. Their cultural commitment was not the same as following the living Christ. As a result, millions of Christians were complicit in a way of life that became antithetical to Christianity.
This should be a regular challenge to us. We want to be followers of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. We are not simply following a historical figure or a social movement. We as a community follow the Lord of all Creation who addresses us even now. We follow Christ as a community and as individual persons.
This creates a secondary challenge. How do we follow Christ and not our own projections? First, we are flawed and we acknowledge that we can make mistakes. Second, we seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in following Christ. Just as He brought all things to remembrance for the early Apostles, He can also lead us through remembrance and even interruption or disruption. Thirdly, we look to Scripture as a source of the Spirit’s inspiration in seeking to follow the risen Christ. Fourthly, we also look to the voice of the church across the ages. Finally, we seek out God’s wisdom in the community of the faithful, by consulting with one another and praying for one another.
My hope and prayer is that we will continually return to the source of our faith: Jesus Christ. May He pour out His Spirit upon us and lead us into all truth that we might glorify our Father in heaven.
O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and on earth: Put away from us all hurtful things, and give us those things that are profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 10:34–36.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, vol. XX, Kierkegaard’s Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 9–10.