Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7). Based on Matthew 10:24-25,32-33.
Crown of Life Lutheran Church; Hubertus, WI. Preached on June 18 & 21, 2020.
Fearless Followers of Jesus…
- … imitate him in life
- … acknowledge him before others
You find yourself in a group of people having a very spirited conversation about one of the “hot topics” in the news right now. There is no shortage of opinions flying around the room. But it doesn’t take long before you realize that you are one of few people—maybe even the only person—who holds the position you have in this room full of very opinionated people. The crowd seems outspoken, even hostile against your perspectives. So what do you do? Do you speak up, or do you shut up? Do you dare to disagree, or do you appear to agree at least as far as you can?
In today’s First Reading, the prophet Jeremiah described himself in that type of situation. He had warned the people of ancient Judah that God’s judgment was about to come upon them for their years of rebellion and sin against the Lord. There were other “prophets” who claimed that the future held only peace and tranquility, but Jeremiah remained the lone voice that warned of God’s judgment. Jeremiah spoke up. He faced serious threats to his well-being for speaking up. And even though he acknowledged the hardships that faced him, what was his thought about staying silent? “If I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up I my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”
What makes a person face opposition which such a fearless attitude? How can we discover that kind of fearlessness and boldness to speak the truth about something more important than politics—how can we speak the gospel with fearlessness and boldness, even in the face of threats and ridicule? This is a timely question in this world in which any deviation from ungodly cultural assumptions are met with disdain, not tolerance. And this is a timely question at Crown of Life this weekend as five young confirmands promise that they would rather die than deny the Lord Jesus.
What does it look like to be a fearless follower of Jesus? How can we be fearless followers of Jesus? Our Lord Jesus answers those questions in the Gospel for today from Matthew 10:21-33. We focus our attention especially on verses 24-25 and 32-33.
If Jesus was in charge of the recruitment department of the Holy Christian Church, wouldn’t someone pull him aside and tell him that this may not be the best marketing message he could convey? Do his words make us fearless, or fearful, followers? Step into Jesus’ conversation with his disciples, because even though he speaks these words to the twelve original apostles, he could just as easily repeat these words to us. Jesus describes family members turning on each other and horrible attitudes of hatred his people will experience just because we believe in him? Hatred and persecution are as certain as death and taxes? Why would I want to be Jesus’ disciple? Why would you, our confirmands, want to profess your loyalty to Jesus? Is this worth it? Aren’t there other voices, even in the Christian Church at large, telling me that it doesn’t have to be this way?
If you and I feel those reactions and wonder those questions as we hear Jesus’ words, maybe we should ask ourselves a few searching questions. Why do Jesus’ words cause us such dread? Why do I have these fears? Is there something inside me that would rather not have my life imitate my Savior’s life when it comes to hardship for my faith? Do I really want to follow Jesus fearlessly, or do I just want to follow him without any of life’s fears coming at me?
Jesus has a sobering message for us—not exactly the joyful and jubilant thoughts we would assign to confirmation weekend! Hardship and persecution are realities from which we cannot escape if we are his students. We are not going to live lives that are “above” Jesus. Rather, we live lives as his followers that imitate him in hardships and opposition.
Calling someone the devil is not a compliment! In just two chapters from our reading, Jesus’ enemies will throw the devilishly insulting name Beelzebul at him. The disciples are not only hearing a preview of the way Jesus will be treated by the world, but they are also hearing a preview of how the world will treat them—and us too!
“This is not good news, pastor! May this never be! I want to follow Jesus, but not like this!” Does Jesus’ sober reality-check reveal our own hearts’ tendencies not to follow him fully, not to accept the reality that our lives will imitate his because of the reality of opposition to our faith? Would we prefer to trade in our permanent place in paradise so that we can make our temporary troubles disappear?
Persecution and opposition will come to us as they came to Jesus. But look at Jesus as he endures such treatment! Not only does he endure it, but what he endures was his Father’s plan before the world began to bring about our eternal salvation! False charges against Jesus led him to be charged and sentenced for our sins to follow him fearlessly! The unjust death sentence that nailed Jesus to the cross has silenced sin’s accusations against our denials, because those denials are cleansed from the record through Jesus’ cleansing blood!
If that is the case with Jesus’ persecution, won’t our hardships also work out for our good? After all, “It is enough for students to be like their teachers.” Whatever suffering, opposition, and ridicule we endure for our faith will serve God’s good purpose—the same God who directed Jesus’ suffering and death to win our forgiveness and salvation! As unpleasant as this reality is at first glance, it is one of the most important lessons we need to keep learning as ongoing students of Jesus Christ.
As we continue to learn at the feet of our Savior, he shows us that his fearless followers will face that opposition with determination still to confess him before others. After Jesus spent several verses urging his disciples not to be afraid as they confess their faith, he points out the Father’s intimate knowledge and concern for them, and then concludes, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”
Jesus didn’t have the rite of confirmation in mind when he spoke these words, though they are very fitting for this weekend. Rather, he has in mind our confession of faith in a hostile world. But that world is just outside those church doors! Exit those doors and we encounter world that does not smile at confirmands in white robes confessing their faith, nor church members standing after a sermon and reciting the Nicene Creed.
At first glance, Jesus’ words might sound like some a formula to earn our ticket to heaven. And if that’s what he means, we ought to be very afraid! How often have I kept quiet about my faith when I strongly suspected the people around me were not like-minded about Christ? How often did I just say to myself, “Don’t stir the pot”? These situations are not unrealistic for the next phases of our confirmands’ education, or for what we experience at work and in much of life on Monday through Saturday. When there are so many heated, charged debates in our culture, who wants to add a spiritually charged debate to the mix?
But listen carefully to Jesus! He isn’t giving a formula to get to heaven. He is describing a reality for his people: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” The word “acknowledge” is sometimes translated, “confess.” The word the Holy Spirit chose here implies nothing forced, but something that is willing. Isn’t that happening here today? Five young people who have gone through two or more years of Christian instruction are willing, by God’s grace, to say before you all, “This is what I believe!” We hear God’s Word and respond, “Yes, this is what I believe!”
And Jesus blesses us for the confession that his Spirit has worked in us! The One whose death we confess now tells his Father that he knows us and shed his blood for us. The One whose resurrection we trust tells his Father that he had done everything necessary to welcome you into eternal mansions.
But in the back of our mind, a little voice says, “Yes, Lord, today, in this building, I gladly acknowledge you and your grace. But I’ve disowned you at times too. Am I in eternal trouble when you say, ‘Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven’? For I know that I have been too shy and scared too often to confess you, and I know this is what should happen to me.”
The word for “disown” here is used later in Matthew’s Gospel to describe the way Peter denied Jesus during Jesus’ trial before his death sentence. Peter knew better than anyone that he had not just failed to speak, but even spoke in arrogant denial of his Lord. And after his resurrection, how did Jesus deal with Peter? He forgave him. He called him back to confess his name and to nurture his spiritual lambs and sheep. He restored Peter to his apostleship. And the same forgiving Jesus restores you to be his fearless follower.
If we did not have a Savior whose great love defeated our worst fears—sin, death, hell—then we would have great reason to fear Jesus’ words. But the same Jesus who restored Peter has restored you to be his confessor. Jesus makes us glad to acknowledge that he has acknowledged and met our need for salvation at the cross. He makes us glad to be regular students of his life-giving Word that teaches us how he has given us new life—won at his empty tomb, given in the waters of Baptism, renewed every time we come to his house for his grace and strength, and springing up to eternal life with him.
And not only does he make us glad, but he makes us his fearless followers. He makes us bold to confess and confirm our baptismal faith in him today; he makes us bold to ask for his blessing as we strive to set fears aside and confess him in our lives; he makes us bold to say, “Christ is my Savior, I have peace with God now and I know I will have joy with him forever, and I want you, my friend, to learn about that same peace so it can be yours, too.”
Not everyone in this world may love your confession of faith in Christ or the message of Christ you share with them, but we have a Savior whose love for us inspires us to confess him before others. With God’s blessing, we hope and pray that they, too, will come to know his grace and will be called with us to be fearless followers of Jesus. Amen.