The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7a)
22 June 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
With Easter coming as late as it did this year, our Lectionary has thrown us today into the deep end of Matthew’s Gospel. And after several weeks of looking on at the resurrection, ascension and Spirit outpouring with wonder, treated as guests of honor, we are led around the corner to the servants’ entrance, handed our mops and scrub brushes and asked to get on with the messy job ahead. As often happens in our Lectionary, the lesson starts off abruptly, an interruption in the middle of a larger story. It is the story of Jesus’ authorizing, empowering and sending the twelve on their first mission. Mark and Luke include this story as well, but with a difference: where Mark and Luke also describe the return of the twelve and their report to Jesus, in the case of Matthew, their return is not mentioned—there are no U-turns allowed. This open-endedness in Matthew’s version creates a special effect: Jesus describes the mission of the apostles and the response of Jewish people to it in terms of both the now of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the not yet still to come, which begins with Pentecost and stretches onward to include us.
But the whole story of Jesus does the same thing: that is, it also begins abruptly, interrupting another larger story. And we need to understand that interruption to understand our Gospel text. It begins with Moses asking to see God’s glory, which God did for him, but said, “But you cannot see my face.” Fast forward to the few centuries before the Messiah’s appearance, when the people of Israel live in foreign lands and even in their own land are oppressed by foreign pagans. Holiness is maintained by keeping distance, keeping pure from contamination. God is so holy, so distant from human impurity and imperfection that even his chosen people cannot utter his name. The Tetragrammaton, the four letters of the name told by God to Moses, “I am that I am,” is not spoken. And when, in reading Torah aloud at worship, the appointed reader comes across the holy name, he says, “Adonai,” a lesser name of God which can be spoken aloud. Tradition has it that when the sacred scrolls were copied, each time the scribe came across the Holy name, before and after he copied out the 4 Hebrew letters, he stripped off his clothes and bathed. During this time the rabbis began to produce the Targums, paraphrases of the Scriptures and commentaries so the people, who were losing their Hebrew, could better understand their Sacred text. And this sense of holy distance from God was woven into their writing about God: instead of referring directly to God, they referred instead to “the Glory,” or “the glorious one.” Distance meant holiness.
Well, Jesus interrupted all that. Jesus was a scandal. He turned holiness onto its head. He desecrated all that was held to be holy. Challenged all the rules by which people maintained distance—distance from those considered impure, and the appropriate distance from God that signified piety. Jesus came among his people not as a general, gathering an army for revolution—the typical expectation of Messiah—but doing miracles, creating another impression altogether, and people, some at least, were making him out to be God’s Son. The keepers of the holy distance had only one option: to assign his miracles to the power of the prince of demons.
Our text begins on an ominous note—“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves”—and ends on one that chills the bones—“whoever denies me before men, I will deny before the Father.” Hard words addressed to the apostles: and within these threatening brackets are words of danger and betrayal even within one’s own home; warnings of persecution and fleeing from town to town; words of ultimatum for those who preach the gospel of the kingdom—words associated with a cost to be paid. Scandals are often costly. Words of mission, a mission that takes up this scandal. These are not the waters we like to navigate; better to ascribe these words to primitive religious minds; to consign this sort of story to the archives of history. But I don’t think we can. What we have here is the underbelly of something Father Blume said rather more positively about life after Pentecost: he said, “nothing will ever be the same again.” And it is that very difference (with a capital D) that shapes Jesus’ teaching here. Father Blume also described the Pentecost Spirit-outpouring in terms of being kicked out into the world to embody the love of Christ in the power of that Spirit. He did not, however, tell us what that world, our world, could be like. In Jesus, though it may sound trite, everything is different: old things pass away; new things take their place. That comfortable distance that defined Jewish piety is replaced by an “in-your-face” proximity to God; a scandalous proximity to God. We could consider this from various angles—and the rest of the New Testament does—but what the twelve are confronted with as Jesus sends them out is taking ownership of this scandalous difference and the decisions that this entails.
What Jesus is describing in graphic and frightening language here—he will pick up this theme again in the Olivet Discourse of Matt 24; the Little Apocalypse of Mark 13; Luke 21; and the entire book of Revelation is given to this theme—is the episode in God’s epic, redemptive narrative, which came to be called “the Messianic Woes”—a period of unimaginable turbulence, travail, and suffering before the appearance of the triumphant Messiah. This belief developed naturally in the crucible of Jewish suffering in the three centuries before Christ. The image of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, and the theme of the righteous who suffer in the Psalms helped them make sense of their suffering. And as it turned out, they were right: the times were bringing on the Messiah. But they were also wrong, for this was a Messiah with a difference, one who broke the mold, who would be consumed himself by these woes, willingly. This was a scandalous notion for pious Jews. In the verse following our text, Jesus quotes from Micah, one of these woeful texts:
“Do not think I came to bring peace upon earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Son turned against father, daughter against mother; brother will turn over brother to death, and a father his son; children will have parents put to death.”
And as he does, he writes himself, the Messiah, into the times of woe, making his very presence a part of the cause. Everything is different. The lost sheep of the house of Israel to whom the twelve are to proclaim the arrival of God’s kingdom, their countrymen, have now become wolves. Family members have become enemies; they will be rejected and hated by all; they will flee from town to town; they will be dragged as criminals into the courts of men, Jewish men, after all, they are perpetrators of a monstrous scandal. And one might think with such a warning from Jesus to his trusted twelve there might also be served up some sympathy, some compassion. But everything is different. Instead these visions, which range from distressing and depressing to terrifying, are combined to calculate for them the cost of discipleship. Here is the calculus of Messianic difference: “The disciple is not above his teacher; it is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher; if the Scribes and Pharisees called me Beelzebul, they will also call you Beelzebul and worse.” In short, “they will treat you just as they treat ME.” Why?; because I have shown them the face of God, and they are scandalized, horrified. I have trampled on their holiness.
There is a kind of dark humor at work in Matthew chapter 10. Jesus gathers the twelve around him: well boys, this is what you’ve been waiting for, the keys to the kingdom. What begins in verse 5 as a noble mission, an optimistic, rousing call to ministry (go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, preach, heal, raise the dead), takes a quick turn to the austere (take no money, etc.); from there to warning; and onwards to rejection, betrayal, outright danger, and finally death. Everything has changed—the extreme possibility, loss of life, is now brought within the range of normality. But they are not to fear those who can kill the body—human evil can only go so far. If fear must come into play, then redirect it instead to the One whom you need not fear, the One who has authority over body and soul. This is a revaluation of human life; let us make no mistake. But it is not a devaluation—as if life is cheap after all—it is rather a re-estimation, a redefinition of human life in the knowledge that every human life is precious to God.
In Jesus’ missionary briefing, we have, with no holds barred, that distinctive, New Testament weaving alternation of the language of mundane realism with the Other-worldly, apocalyptic language of eschatology, where light, love, and life have become possible in Christ in a world still enmeshed in darkness, danger and death. And Christian existence, then and now, is lived out in the space of that overlap. As this text moves in and out of these two registers of language, producing what must have been a puzzling and contradictory scenario for these twelve called to mission, Jesus describes for them, with a clarity that cannot be missed, the difference, the scandal his presence has brought into the world. It would reach its scandalous height when God the Son was nailed to the cross. But the point of the Gospel lesson today is that within this world of messianic difference, scandalous difference, our decisions, our actions, our faith make an eternal difference. Before the briefing is over, the disciples will be told to take up the cross for themselves—an offer of full partnership in the Messiah’s scandalous firm. We’ve enshrined the scandal in our creed, our liturgy—it’s right up there behind me, above the altar—the scandalous act by which our God intervened in the human tragedy to save us. And for us, the scandal of the cross is a wonder. But the words we will soon pray together—“And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in”—these words sound tame enough, but they contain within them the stuff of a scandal once we take them outside into the world.
May God give us grace to live into our full partnership in Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2014 Philip H. Towner