Today, in the West, is the sixth Sunday after Pentecost. Liturgical churches, who follow the Church calendar, pay attention to these seasons of worship and remembrance. One way they do this is to use a lectionary of biblical texts which are read in their services on the Lord’s Day. The texts read in my own church setting today are: Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1-11 and Matthew 10:24-39.
So today I preached from the Matthew text. It is an account of Jesus telling his disciples to expect that they would face opposition and persecution in their mission. It comes in a section of the Gospel that we rightly call “Matthew’s Missionary Discourse” (cf. 9:35-37). The central point of my text is that following Jesus in mission will bring opposition, even death. But when opposition comes Jesus promises to be with his disciples to help them do through the fire.
He does this by telling his disciples that “a disciple is not above than the teacher” (10:24). This proverbial saying is the basis for what follows. We will never rise higher than the One who calls us and teaches us since he is Lord. As he was attacked, even being associated with the demonic, so we will be attacked.
Then we are commanded to have courage and hope because the truth will be revealed in the final day (10:26) and physical death cannot silence our mission (10:28). In addition we live under God’s providential rule (10:30). Our allegiance to Jesus must manifest itself in public ways. What we confess now impacts directly the judgment to come.
I suggested that most of us know little or nothing of the exact kind of persecution referred to in this text. (I have personally seen these kinds of persecution most plainly among my Christians brothers and sisters in India!) But we must be public about our faith no matter what happens.
When we speak of being public most think of speaking out in ways that are often wrong and unhelpful. They also think of “preaching” in public or at work. I do not think this is what is in view here at all. This is a case where being faithful to Christ is much more contextual to our situation. Being foolish and unwise is not recommended. Street preaching may be right for those called to it but most are not called to such a ministry.
But all of us can and should be public Christians. If we know him and love him we cannot keep quiet about our faith in Christ. Our culture things faith is fine so long as it is not defined and so long as we make no claims to final truth. But following Jesus involves both. God’s redemptive rule has been made known in Jesus Christ. We have no choice but to become involved in making it known in public, if we are his followers.
I used an illustration in my sermon. In my childhood most ministers and Christians sat silently on the sidelines while the impact of Jim Crow continued to oppress their black brothers and sisters. I longed to meet Christian leaders, pastors or lay leaders (besides my father who quietly did the right thing), who would say what was right. I decided to do it myself in the 1960s. The cost, I discovered, was great. I was 20 years old and working in one of the largest Baptist churches in the South. I taught a group of high school kids to prepare them for a mission trip to New Mexico to work with Navaho people. When the subject of race came up I suggested we had a lot of work to do. When asked about interracial dating I said that there was not a shred of Scripture that spoke against it. Before long the pastor, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called me into his office and towered over me with his authority threatening me very powerfully. I trembled and feared for my future. I even walked out and found a quiet spot and wept for a short time.
Within days I found me revolve strengthened and I determined that even this man was not going to silence me even if my future was wrecked politically. I do not, to this day, remember everything clearly but I do remember that I sensed that Jesus was truly with me. I knew I was right and I knew it would likely cost me to do and say the right thing.
I also learned something that summer that has been repeated in my life time and time again over the years. The primary source of persecution, at least in our present cultural situation, will come from religious opposition and this will often be from Christians. I used to question the "heart" of these Christians. I learned this was unprofitable and dangerous. Now I simply observe it and remember that God will bring into the open everything done in secret, just as Matthew 10 tells me.
I recalled that summer of 1969 as I preached from this text today. I still think that if we are public about following Jesus, and I mean prophetically public not just politically or religiously public about shoving Jesus into the face of lost people, we will suffer persecution. But such suffering will be filled with the gracious presence of Jesus because we have obeyed God and not man. I also believe there will be even more reason for us to be prepared to experience this in the coming years as the West moves further and further away from truth. Our witness is needed, both prophetically and missionally.