The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 2 July 2017 (Proper 8A-RCL)
A sermon preached at Saint Saviour’s, Pimlico
2 July 2017
It is such an honour and pleasure for me to be back preaching this Sunday at Saint Saviour’s. It has been two years since I was last with you and I am very sorry that I could not visit last summer. I bring to you today greetings from the Episcopal Diocese of New York as well as from our own community at Saint Ignatius of Antioch. The last year or more has been a difficult time in the life of our two nations and cities. Please know that we hold you constantly in our prayers. I look forward to continuing to explore the ways we can be connected with each other beyond our praying for each other and, personally, I hope to be in closer touch moving forward.
Given the world situation in these days, and the potential ways that religious leaders might respond to the crises we face—terror and fire and political disruption—it is interesting to hear Jeremiah’s words:
The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.
It speaks of the false prophet prophesising divine judgement and wrath against nations and peoples, and true prophets speaking of the divine peace that the God of Israel will bring. The terrors we face are not of divine creation. Sometimes they are the result of the raw power of nature coming up against the expansion across the world of human activity. Sometimes ... often, however, they are the work or result of human beings turning away from God’s call to follow the Great Commandment, the call to love God and neighbour, indeed to love God by loving neighbour. What God brings is peace and reconciliation and love. This is what the prophets, the true prophets announce and often times this news is too hard for people to hear and to accept.
We have discovered that more often than not, the call to peace and reconciliation and love is an harder call to follow than the internal, human drive towards self-preservation and self-interest. The powerful often do not want to hear the calls for peace and justice because in a world where peace and justice reigned they might just lose the power they have, or have to share it with others, often others who are different from themselves. Prophesying peace and heeding the words of that prophet can be unpopular and dangerous.
This is what Jesus is talking about in the passage from Matthew that we heard a few minutes ago at the Gospel. The reading, which has been shortened from the old lectionary in the Revised Common Lectionary version we used today, is part of a longer group of sayings about the cost of discipleship.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword .... He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
This passage contains hard sayings and, on the surface, it sounds like it is calling for or predicting either actual or eschatalogical warfare. While the sayings are indeed challenging, what they are actually emphasising is the reality that prophesying peace and love, being a prophet and a herald of the Gospel of Christ, the gospel of Love, of the Great Commandment, will likely get you into trouble. You will come into conflict with others, even people in your own household. Here Jesus is encouraging us to remain faithful to the Gospel even when it is hard. Indeed our hope is that our faith, our lived connection and trust in God in Christ, and the works of love we practice will lead us through any trouble or conflict into a place of reconciliation and peace.
This encouragement is what we find in this morning’s passage:
He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.
Jesus wants to give us confidence that when we receive him, receive and follow his teachings, we are connected with and following God, the source and centre of all reality. There is, to use the grammatical and mathematical term, a transitive quality to the divine operation. Just as later in Matthew’s gospel, in that passage in chapter twenty five about the separation of the sheep from the goats, the evangelist teaches us that by loving our neighbour we are actually loving and giving service to God, here we learn that by following Jesus, we are at the same time following God. It works out further that when we receive into our company and hear and follow the words and example of the true prophets, we are acting prophetically ourselves. The same applies simply to honouring the presence and activity of another righteous person—that is someone who is a fellow follower of Jesus—we ourselves are accounted righteous.
The long and short of it is that, while there are still consequences to our choice to follow the Gospel, it does not take enormous heroic acts and grand gestures for us to do this, to live the Christian life, to be at one with God. We often think that in order to be a Christian it will take some great act of self-sacrifice, some huge step, but we learn here that even in the little steps of faithfully following Jesus, of listening and believing the prophets who preach peace and not war, we are contributing to the life of God, to the life of Christ. Even in these small ways, we are doing the difficult and challenging work of discipleship that can ask so much, that will ask so much of us.
What I am getting at, is that while the Christian life is counter-cultural, going against the grain of so much of what the powerful in our world seem to value at the moment, and puts us into conflict with others, often powerful people, who do not share this perspective, it nonetheless can begin with small steps, small steps that connect us with God and with a whole community of people who share the priorities of love and justice. The work we are given to do is hard, but we do not do this alone. We do it in community, supporting each other, locally here in the parish and across the world through our connections, like those between our two parishes and, in a broader sense, through our connectedness with all other Christians in the baptism and in Eucharist we share.
Let us hear and receive, then, the prophets of peace, let us welcome others who wish to share in this life and in doing so, let us be one with the God who made us, who loves us, and who fills us with the spirit to do the work we have been given to do.
Andrew C. Blume✠
Saint Peter and Saint Paul, 29 June 2017
© 2017 Andrew Charles Blume