Grace and Discipleship
People today talk a fair bit about role models, and the importance of having them in their lives. We have mentors, tutors, life coaches, motivators – the list goes on. Some of us will follow the latest fashion icon; this summer no doubt there will be plenty of young and not so young boys emulating their football heroes. Gardens and parks will be full of Suarez, Messi, Rooney and the like.
There is something in our need and relationship to a role model that I think ties together with what Matthew is saying in todays reading, and what Paul later offers. The reading from Matthew tells us of the sending out of the Apostles to go and do what Jesus has been doing; “preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing every disease and sickness” v35. Perhaps this could be considered to be one of the most radical messages in the New Testament. Why, well it seems that it is clearly assumed and understood that Jesus’ followers were not just expected to sing praises to him, they, and we are instead expected to go out and live our lives imitating Jesus.
The scripture uses commands such as raising the dead, healing the sick, casting out demons. Jesus’ focus was on freeing humankind from spiritual imprisonment and the intellectual and social imprisonment of being poor and powerless. It is interesting that the spiritual imperative does not exclude the social imperative.
In this sense, raising the dead, cleansing the leper, healing the sick and casting out demons may well have related to dealing with ideas and beliefs that people are unclean and therefore should be excluded from society for fear of contamination. Exclusion from society in 1st Century Judea meant that one could not join in corporate worship of God. So we see an exclusion in a spiritual dimension as well Today, we kid ourselves that in a secular society we have moved beyond all that. But have we?
Exclusion today is a major factor in poverty of physical resources, poverty of mental health and loneliness. Exclusion has led to spirituality without religion, or to put it another way, spirituality without community. In other words, my version of God is right, and what works for me is good because it feels good. Exclusion feeds fear and paranoia, feeds radical extremism, and violence against others and self. I want to Illustrate this with the story of Meriam Ibrahim, a young Christian doctor who is currently languishing in prison under sentence of death in Sudan. Despite the fact that she was brought up a Christian, Sudan law dictates that all children born in the country are Moslem, and she has therefore been found guilty of apostasy. The verdict is 100 lashes and hanging , but only after 2 years so that she can wean her newborn baby whom she gave birth to a few weeks ago while still shackled in chains. Such is the end product of fear and paronoia, when a real person is threatened with her very life.
So who can we turn to? Well not surprisingly, considering this is a sermon in a Christian community, I will argue that Jesus gives us the moral compass to navigate these issues. The sending out of the disciples can be seen in the context of the earlier teaching given in Ch 5 in the sermon on the mount, which need to be seen as less a set of unattainable rules and more an inspiration to follow the ideal of Jesus to a realization of God’s grace and a motivation to reach upwards to God in the full knowledge that we may never actually get there, at least in this life. In other words, if we reach for God, He will reach out and catch us with open arms. It is an invitation.
It is the inspiration to walk by faith, an invitation to get out of the boat and walk on the water (Matt 14). And you will remember Peter reached out to Jesus when he became afraid, and what did Jesus do? A leading Commentary says this of the sermon on the mount: “it’s primary purpose is to instill principles and qualities through a vivid inspiration of the moral imagination. What one comes away with is not an incomplete set of statutes, but an unjaded impression of a challenging moral ideal. That ideal may ever be beyond the grasp, but that is what enables it to beckon it’s adherents forward” Brothers and Sisters, we never reach the end because we are always moving forwards. And so the disciples are sent out to learn and teach and learn by doing.
Paul is aware of the temptation by the time he is writing of people using Christianity to further their own status in society. The so called “ super apostles” at the church in Corinth. Paul rejects this theology of success and reminds us of that which is at the core of our faith. Nothing less than reconciliation with God, brought about by the suffering of Jesus on a tree. The mark of a true follower of Jesus is not seen in terms of power or wisdom – scriptural language for status or position – but in degrees of sacrifice and suffering. Paul reminds us of what Jesus told his followers in Matthew, that as followers of Jesus, we will very likely suffer hardship and tribulation. We will suffer for our friends sakes but that the reason this is worth it is that we can rightly have a real and foundational hope in our eventual salvation.
If we have been reconciled with God through Jesus’ death on the cross, then how much more will God save when we come to see him face to face. It is OK then to live in an absence of earthly rescue. This means to live with a chronic illness, to suffer chronic pain, to suffer depression and not be healed. It is not a mark of sin or a lack of faith, rather we follow in the footseps of Jesus himself, taking our own unique cross to follow him to his Father, the source of life itself, to the full power of resurrection. But, how can we be certain of this, in the midst of suffering?
It is this. God loved us whilst we were still sinners. The ultimate Grace of God’s work is that reconciliation between us and God is the most necessary part of life, however we are totally unable to achieve it on our own back. We need the Holy Spirit as our guide and advocate.
So in summary, God in Jesus calls us to emulate him. Only of course we just can’t manage this off our own back without the gift of the Holy Spirit and accepting that gift from God every day. When we do follow Jesus’ way, we are reconciled with God, with the result that we will probably face some sort of alienation from society, often fellow children of God who are lost and who no longer recognize us and therefore become fearful of us. Do we then stay close to Jesus and step into the risk, or do we slide back into the comfort of status and power? The twin strokes from society that act to make us feel good and safe.
The thing is, human constructed security is a con. It is not real. So whatever the risk, however scary it may seem to climb out of the boat, however terrifying the thought of taking up our cross is, we can only do one thing. That is follow Jesus, follow his early apostles and go out into the world and be Jesus to the world. To go out and cast out fear, to give sight to those who cannot see beyond the tip of their nose, to bring back to true society those living on the outskirts, to offer lives to God as a willing and living sacrifice.
And who knows, the lame will dance, the deaf will hear the whisper of God, the demons will be thrown out
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit