By: The Rev. Linda J. Ferguson
Gospel: Matthew 10: 24-39
In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew Jesus spoke to His disciples 12 disciples: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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; 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.”
This message seems so out of character for Jesus, the one who proclaims good news to the poor and who brings liberation for the oppressed. The one who commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, to provide health care to those who are sick. The one who sought to tear down walls that marginalize and who risked his life so that the world might be saved. The words we heard this morning are out of character for Jesus. They totally contradict who he is and what he is all about.
And so we need to look a little closer at the context of our passage in order to better understand what Jesus really was referring to here.
You see, our text this morning comes a bit after our Matthew text we heard last Sunday. Just last week we saw Jesus summoning the Twelve together and commissioning them to continue Jesus’ work in the world.
And now today we hear Jesus telling the disciples about what it actually means to be a disciple: one who will bring the good news of Jesus out from the dark and into the light and who will not just whisper Jesus’ good news to those who are willing to hear it, but who will proclaim it from the housetops for all to hear... no matter how people might receive this good news and no matter how they might respond when they do hear it.
As Jesus explains this, he gives the Twelve a sharp warning about what they will likely face when they do follow Jesus in this good news work. You see, being a disciple of Jesus is risky business. And this is what Jesus is warning the Twelve, and all of us, about in our passage this morning.
Because to be his disciple is to choose to speak as Jesus speaks. To make peace in this world as Jesus, the Prince of Peace, makes. A peace that is not about making sure everyone is happy and being careful not to ruffle any feathers. No, Jesus did not come here to keep the peace. Jesus came here to make peace. A kind that will end up causing divisions even among close family members and friends.
“But have no fear,” Jesus urges us. “For nothing is covered up that will not eventually be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not eventually become known.” In other words: the truth will set us free.
Therefore, we should not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, we hear Jesus tell us. We should not fear those who will lash out at us for bringing truth to the light and proclaiming Jesus’ good news from the housetops. We should not let our fear of what others will think of us, or what they will tweet about us, or how they will respond to us, hold us back from making Jesus’ king of peace in this world.
Instead, he urges us to only worry about how God sees us. For we are His beloved. We are cherished. God loves the tiny sparrows. And yet, we are more valuable than many sparrows in God’s eyes. For even the hairs on our head are all counted.
“So,” Jesus concludes: “Take up the cross and follow me. Those who will find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Now, I want to stop right here for a minute. Because this statement has often been used to make a few particular claims. I want to make it very clear that Jesus is not saying here that anyone who chooses to follow him must stop taking care of themselves or must give up their creativity, unique identity, or deny who God created them to be. Jesus is actually saying quite the opposite.
He is saying that as followers, we must deny our old selves that make the Gospel centered on us while marginalizing others.
We often tend to look at God and conform God into the way we see fit, to the way we want God to be. We put God in our own image. We speak for God with our own interests and needs in mind. We make God look like us.
But the hard reality is that we, as humans, were made in God’s image. Not the other way around. And when we start to deny our old self-centered selves and take up our cross, we actually become more human. We stop reflecting our sometimes grandiose views of self and we actually allow ourselves to reflect the image and love of God in Christ.
To follow Jesus, we need to take up our own cross. For the early disciples, the cross represents death. And as we now know... What comes after Jesus’ death on the cross is the resurrection. New Life. To take up our cross means that something must die in order for new life to come about. We must allow our old selves to die with Christ on the cross, so that we can be made new in and through him.
The old has gone, the new has come.
To follow Jesus and take up our own cross means we must follow Jesus’ way of the cross – a way of love that proclaims peace and justice for ALL God’s children. A way that sees the image of God, in our neighbors AND in ourselves.
To take up the cross means we will shut down and speak up against any and all forms of hate on social media, in our workplaces and schools, with our families and friends, and in our communities and our country.
To take up the cross means we will listen to their stories, sit with them in their sufferings, welcome them into our homes and church, and join them in this fight for justice, working harder and stronger than ever... Even and especially when we know we will face resistance because of this.
In 1985, on Good Friday, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Keith Wheeler began carrying a 12-foot, wooden cross. By the grace of God, Keith has now walked with the cross over 24,000 miles, through more than 175 countries on all seven continents. He walks with the cross as a reminder of God's love for all people everywhere! "At the foot of the cross is where the VERY best of God meets the worst of mankind!"
Keith Wheeler, an American father of five has carried a 12-foot wooden cross through 176 countries on all seven continents, facing down firing squads, venomous jungle snakes, and members of al-Qaeda. He has been traveling around the world with his cross for over thirty years as a pilgrim of peace with a message of reconciliation and love.
“I am not here promoting another religion, organization or charity – I am promoting a message of love on the roadsides.”
In 1985, as Keith was praying one night, he felt that God spoke to his heart, “I want you to make a cross and begin carrying it through the streets on Good Friday.”
He also felt these words burning in his heart, “Anyone can carry a cross – think about Simon of Cyrene; he carried Jesus’ cross. Anyone can die on a cross – think about the two thieves on either side of Jesus. Only One, however, could die for the sins of the world ... and that was because of love. I want you to take the cross and identify that message of love along the roadsides of this world.”
Later, Keith felt God saying to him, “For you, the cross is never to be a symbol of protest, but a symbol of reconciliation; I want you to be a ‘pilgrim of peace’ and a messenger of My love.”
His pilgrimage has taken him to places like Iraq, Iran, Tibet and China, as well as nations at war, including Bosnia and Rwanda during the genocide. He has even brought his cross to Antarctica.
He has been arrested over 40 times by authorities unnerved by his pilgrimage, and in the state of Louisiana he was beaten and left for dead.
He spent time with the “heaps of homeless people” he came across in the capital and he also brought his cross to Glendalough and the Cliffs of Moher, where tourists from places like India, France, Switzerland and Nigeria thronged to talk to him.
“I know it is an issue in our world of how we handle other nations. But there is also a blessing when we welcome nations. The challenge today is to build bridges and dialogue.
“Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers – not the peace-lovers or the peace-wanters – but the peacemakers. That means we go into a world of conflict and we go to both sides. How can we make peace if we only go to our side – the people who look and act like us?”
I also would like to end this morning with a tragic story of a 15-year-old girl who was killed in a car accident. I do not know who shared this story about this incredible tragedy and loss. The person wrote that the young girl was completely genuine, kind-hearted, and caring. It was common to hear of how she sat with kids on the bus or in the lunchroom who sat by themselves or how she stuck up for the kids who were being bullied, even when it meant she would get picked on for doing so. And during and after the funeral, several of her classmates or parents told stories of how she had reached out to them or cared for them in a really difficult time in their lives. The week after she passed away, as her family looked through her room, they found a note written in her handwriting on a page in the middle of her Bible. It said: “God first. Others second. Me last.”
I think these words summed up the kind of life she lived and will always be remembered by. And I also think this is what Jesus was trying to convey in our passage in the Gospel of Matthew. To follow Jesus and take up the cross means we must live our lives putting: “God first. Others second. Me last.”
Teach us, good Lord God, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, except that of knowing that we do your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.