Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Matthew 10:24-39
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master.” (Matt. 10:24)
Who controls your life? If you’re like me, your immediate response is likely to be: “I do!”
We are people of self-determination. We imagine ourselves to be the masters of our own destiny. So, who controls our lives? We do! Or do we?
Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine. Like me, she’s retired now. But she had a stellar career as a high-school teacher, and is the mother of two university graduates. At work she was known for her competence and independence.
Yet—despite all her competence—she could be felled by one little word from her own mother. In fact, it usually didn’t even take a spoken word. Her mother could just look at her disapprovingly … and this smart, capable woman would collapse emotionally. It was as if she became a child again, seeking her mother’s approval. And in large measure, that reality controlled her personal life. Everything she wanted to do, she had to run through the filter of her mother’s opinion. What will mom think? Will it please mom? Will it disappoint her?
Who controlled her life? Her mother did—even some 30 years after she moved out of her mother’s house.
Here’s another thought: remember the Watergate break-in? Most of my generation will recall that event, which took place 51 years ago, on June 17, 1972. It was a simple burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters that eventually led back to the White House, led to the uncovering of all sorts of “dirty tricks” and ultimately forced the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon.*
And why did it all come about? Richard Nixon—for all his brilliance in so many areas—was tormented by the criticism of others. A single word of reproach would disturb him profoundly. And so, he expended enormous amounts of energy trying to please or appease or silence those who were critical of him.
Who controlled Richard Nixon’s life? His critics did.
We blithely say we control our own lives, but often it is not true. The truth is that often the voices of our family or friends or enemies dictate our actions. We find ourselves acting in response to what others have said—or in fear of what they might say, or think. When you live in fear of others’ disapproval, then that fear controls your life.
Fear can control your discipleship, too. When the opportunity arises to speak of your faith or to invite someone to church—or to even say to someone in need, “I will pray for you”—how do you respond?
If you’re like me, then—too often—you hesitate. You worry what people will think if you practice an overt Christianity. And so, you allow others to control how you live out your faith.
Jesus knew that those who were serious about being his disciples would end up facing persecution and opposition—from those in power, from their neighbours and friends and employers—even from members of their own families!
Jesus also knew that if his disciples allowed their fear of others to control their lives, they could not possibly carry his message into the world. So—with his trademark hyperbole—he told them this:
“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.” (v. 28)
In short, he tells them: “Fear God more than others.” In other words: pay attention to God, rather than to your family or friends or neighbours. Fear God more than you fear your enemies!
Fear God? I don’t know about you, but that statement doesn’t exactly inspire me! However, Jesus wasn’t finished. He went on to say this:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (vv. 29-31)
Jesus doesn’t just tell his disciples to change their focus from others to God; he tells them that the God they are supposed to please is a God who loves them!
If God sufficiently values penny-a-pair sparrows to keep track of each one, how much more must God value his children? If God even knows the number of hairs on our heads, then certainly we are precious in his sight. If God loves us with that kind of love, then what is there to fear—even from a God who has the power of judgment?
Jesus says the only person we need to live our lives to please is God. And God already loves us. Jesus’ disciples understood what he was telling them here. Because of that understanding, they withstood the doubts of their families, the rejection of their peers—they even endured persecution and death. Yet, what did the apostles preach? Was it “fear of God?” Was it a message of doom and damnation?
No. They preached good news. They told people that God’s love for us has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and that through Jesus we can be set free to live our lives for God. They preached that the only person we need to please is the God who loves us enough to die for us.
It strikes me that this is what we experience in the Sacrament of Holy Communion—this undying love of the God who is always reaching out to us, seeking to draw us to himself through Christ.
In many denominations, the Lord’s Table is a closed table—that is, the rite of Communion is available only to the initiated—only to the baptized, the confirmed, the worthy. But in most churches of my denomination, we invite anyone and everyone to partake of the bread and cup of Communion.
And I, for one, am glad we do that. I think we keep the table open because we understand that it is, after all, the Lord’s table—and not simply the Church’s table. The Lord we meet at this table of his is the same One who has assured us that the God who made us—who created all of us—is, above all else, a God of love.
Jesus calls us to his table not to understand him, but to remember him. He invites us to eat and drink not because we are worthy, but simply because we hunger and thirst. At his table, we acknowledge before others the One who acknowledges us before God.
And we also acknowledge this: Jesus decides who is invited to this holy meal! God is in control of the guest list—not us. Our job is just to set the table.
What we experience in Jesus the Christ is perfect love. Perfect love does not engender fear—rather, it casts fear out! And that, I tell you—that is what makes the Good News truly good!
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)
* In 2005, at age 91, former Deputy FBI Director Mark Felt revealed to Vanity Fair magazine that he had been the shadowy figure known as “Deep Throat”, who provided Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with critical information about the Watergate scandal.