St Mary West Derby, Morning Eucharist 22/06/2008
Jeremiah 20.7-13, Matthew 10.24-39
"Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it," said Jesus, in one of the hardest passages of scripture for any follower of Christ to honestly embrace.
"Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." It puts us in a spin, this, not unlike the spin which Jeremiah was in when reflecting, as we heard, on his own mission and ministry. Jeremiah found that obeying God by speaking out for what he felt to be right, made him 'a laughing-stock', caused people to whisper about him behind his back, made his friends watch for him to trip up and fail.
"Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." We may be wary of such language especially as words very like these have been used over the years - particularly by political and military leaders - to exploit and abuse people; for instance where people are persuaded to go and fight for their country in conflicts which are plainly unjust or militarily irresolvable, or even dare I say it in church organisations which exploit people's willingness to serve by loading them with more and more tasks, squeezing every last drop of energy from them until they just cannot give any more, break down or give up.
But we serve a God of grace, who loves us. A God who will not exploit or abuse - just the opposite in fact: a God who will free us and affirm us, a God who will encourage us and nurture us, a God who values us so much that he even knows the number of hairs on our head, a number which is always changing, meaning that God is constantly attentive to each of us and our welfare.
So how can we resolve these contradictions?
Jeremiah resolved the contradictions by being clear that he had God with him all the time, fighting for him, overcoming those who opposed him. If God calls me to a struggle or a conflict then I can be absoloutely certain that God will be with me all the time, committed to me all the way.
Jesus resolved the contradiction by tempering his hard words with a promise, which he expresses in Luke's gospel:
Then Peter said, 'Look, we have left our homes and followed you.' And he said to them, 'Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.' [Luke 18.28-30]More in this age ... which likely doesn't mean more consumer goods or wealth, Jesus is no desperate salesman enticing us with shiny rewards. He's talking about something far more substantial, eternal life, the life of the kingdom, where living the life of obedience and service to God enriches us at the very depth of our beings, strengthens our character, builds our relationships, makes us creative with our hands and hearts and heads, introduces us to people, places and ideas which enrich us and help us keep growing ... eternally.
"Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it," said Jesus. He's talking about a sort of martyrdom but not necessarily the sort of martyrdom which befell Alban, first recorded Christian martyr of the British Isles who the church remembers today because he was executed on 22 June in the year 304, for first sheltering a Christian priest fleeing persecution and then disguising himself as that priest to be arrested in his place.
"I am a Christian, and am bound by Christian obligations," said Alban: words which unfortunately sealed his fate. But he clearly found liberation in those words, not oppression. He found eternal life. Alban's legacy was the foundation of a great church in what is now known as St Alban's, whose people played a key role in the spreading of the gospel through Britain in those early centuries, and continue to, today.
We also are Christians, and are bound by Christian obligations. But the sort of martydoms we are called to are quite different to Alban's, and closer to the ones Jesus was discussing: putting him before anyone else, even our very closest ones, is a sort of martyrdom; giving up things that are dear to us but may in fact be holding us back from a fuller, richer life in God, that's a form of martyrdom.
We are Christians, and are bound by Christian obligations. My prayer is that we might find liberation in these words, not oppression.
"Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." My prayer is that we may embrace the fullness of the liberation of eternal life which Jesus means us to hear in this awesome turn of phrase.
I didn't actually preach the Alban / martyrdom section as I remembered part way through that people attending 8.00am BCP services don't want to hear long rambling sermons, but I've kept it in here to save it up for next time.