Proper 7 — 25 June 2017
Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45, 9:00, & 11:00
Track 2: Jeremiah 20:7-13 | Psalm 69:8-11, (12-17), 18-20 |
Romans 6:1b-11 | Matthew 10:24-39
Romans 6:1b-11 | Matthew 10:24-39
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” [Matt 10:34]
There are still a few of us around who remember the little section of the Prayer Book Communion Service called “The Comfortable Words.” That was the part that began, “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him.” The first of those sayings, you may recall – or not! – was from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
(Those were in the “old Prayer Book,” as opposed to the “new Prayer Book.” But the “new” Prayer Book is forty-plus years old now, and the “old” Prayer Book that it replaced only lasted for about fifty years. And the version of the Prayer Book before that only made it for a bit over thirty. But I digress.)
Actually, these “Comfortable Words” are still in the current Prayer Book, in Rite One, but they are no longer called “The Comfortable Words”; now they are introduced with “Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.” (Page 332, if you’re getting bored, or haven’t any idea what I’m talking about, and want to look them up.) But the “Comfortable Words” title goes back to the first English-language Book of Common Prayer, in 1549, four and a half centuries ago. Do these verses from the New Testament make us feel comfortable? Well, actually, I suppose they do, and that’s fine. But probably not exactly what Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had in mind when he compiled the first English Prayer Book. As you’re aware, words shift meaning over the centuries, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. The original meaning of “comfort” is not so much “make feel better” (the general modern meaning) as it is “strengthen.” (The English word “com-fort” comes from Latin through French. Check the OED!) A related example is the still-in-some-use title “The Holy Comforter” for the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit is not a warm fuzzy blanket, but a source of spiritual strength. And what makes us strong may or may not make us feel good. And very often not.
And this, in case you were wondering, or may already have guessed, brings us to the Gospel reading today.
There’s not much very “comfortable” (in the modern sense) about the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel. You possibly may have noticed that today’s reading, from St. Matthew, follows directly upon the Gospel reading last Sunday, which also wasn’t very comfortable. You may recall Jesus’ words last week: “…You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.… Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.” [Matt 10:18,21-22a]
Well, it doesn’t get any better in today’s Gospel reading. “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.’” [Matthew 10:34-36; quoting Micah 7:6]
Oh, that’s comfortable!
We should note that the part about “the man against his father” and so on is Jesus quoting the prophet Micah, where it is part of a prophecy of doom against Israel for her faithlessness. Jesus’ disciples would presumably have recognized that, as would the Christians in Matthew’s community. I’m not sure whether that’s very helpful for us, but it does mean that Jesus didn’t just make these words up on his own! But it is still the case that Jesus is warning his disciples in his mission charge to them (which is what last Sunday’s Gospel reading and this Sunday’s is) that if they are faithful in proclaiming God’s Kingdom, they are not likely to be regarded as rock stars. God’s faithful ones may very well end up in all kinds of worldly trouble, rejected, maybe persecuted, even unto death. It was true for Jesus’ own disciples; it was true for Matthew’s community; it is true for us. I think we need to take that seriously.
No, it is not very likely in this country that faithful Christians will suffer overt persecution, although indifference and even scorn are likely to increase. But there are many places in the world today where Christians are currently facing oppression and even death. As was the case for the first three centuries of Christian history, at least on and off in the Roman Empire, and in other places for many centuries after that, up until and including our own time.
Jesus was not crucified because he went around saying things to make people comfortable (in the modern sense). He certainly didn’t preach a “prosperity gospel.” He said, “Follow me,” and we know, as he knew, where that would lead. Yes, ultimately, resurrection; but first the cross. As we hear St. Paul today, writing to the Christians at Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” [Romans 6:3-4]
Jesus speaks to us to challenge us, to strengthen us, yes, even, ultimately, to comfort us. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” [Luke 12:32] Last week we heard him assure us, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” [Matthew 10:22b] He gave comfort – strength and assurance – to Dame Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” [Showing 13] And to his disciples, including us, Jesus says, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20]