Second Sunday After Pentecost
by Stuart Bond
Zwingli wrote at the time of the Reformation when Christians were literally experiencing the text as their households and hamlets became divided over the emerging Protestant church. He notes that some cry out saying, "I wish the Gospel were not preached. It sets us at variance among ourselves." He cites Matthew 10:32 and goes on to say, "In these words, Christ gives us strength not to consider the vexation of those who will not be convinced of the truth; and, even though they are our nearest and dearest, are not to be worried." He concludes "So wherever it is a matter of God's honor, of the belief or of hope in God, we should suffer all things rather than allow ourselves to be forced from this." (1)
Luther, too, examined this text. His continual emphasis on grace had exposed him to the charge that he expected nothing of Christians. He took the occasion of Passiontide in Coburg in 1530 to address these "false fanatics." He affirms our suffering for Christ on the basis of discipleship rather than for salvation: "Though our suffering and cross should never be so exalted that we think we can be saved by it or earn the least merit through it, nevertheless we should suffer after Christ, that we may be conformed to him. For God has appointed that we should not only believe in the crucified Christ, but also be crucified with him, as he clearly shows in many places in the Gospels....Beyond this, it should be the kind of suffering which we have not chosen ourselves, as the fanatics choose their own suffering." Luther realizes that "everyone must have his cross and suffering." These are "the colors of the court" of Christ. (2)
Centuries later, Christ's words sounded as John Henry Jowett begins his message The Love that Honors Christ (3) by saying, "I know no word in the New Testament scriptures which has given more needless distress to the hearts of gentle people than these." He is concerned that Christ seems a jealous person. Further, these words seem to put him in opposition to all that is good. "Here is a young mother singing in the first wondering rapturous dawn of her motherhood, and bending over her first born in the yearning, nestling, brooding warmth of ineffable affection. Do you think our Savior would enter into that sacred temple and look with disapproval on that wistful, dreaming love and utter the cold and chilling word, 'over-done?"' Jowett resolves the problem by understanding the limitations of human love, and the call to Christian love. He takes Browning's poem 'Pippa Passes', wherein a mother tries to dissuade her child from his passion for justice and liberty. "She would love God out of him. She incites him to delay, if haply his holy fire may smoulder and die out." She loved him more than she loved the freedom of the man, more than she loved God. "And now, perhaps, we are able to state the teaching in a positive form. All love that tends to purify, and ennoble, and elevate and Christianize the beloved is love that honors and crowns the Lord. If in my love for my child I seek to love her into Christliness, then in a most deep and glorious sense my love for my child is subordinate to my love for the Lord...If I love with a passion for truth, a passion for holiness, a passion to glorify Christ in the life of my beloved, then do I honor Christ, then do I worship Christ, then do I crown him Lord of all."
In the modern era Paul Tillich addresses this text within his message 'Do Not Be Conformed.' (4) He notes that Jesus' words in Matthew 10:37 are "the most radical statements of non-conformity; and even Paul sounds almost conservative in comparison with them. It is astonishing that a faith which is based on words like these has been used in the course of its history as a most successful tool for conformity inside and outside the family relations." Why? Because, in general, things are not so black and white anymore. "...the question of conforming or not conforming arises in innumerable small moments of our daily life; and in each moment our answer is a risk, burdened with struggles within our own conscience. We do not know with certainty whether our non-resistance is based on a wrong surrender of ourselves or whether it is an element of love and wisdom which keeps us conformed to the group."
True to Tillich's existential roots, that is the dilemma we must face. The Gospel does not call us to absolutely know. Rather, we are to act. "Every Christian shall be strong enough to risk non-conformity, even in the radical sense in which Jesus describes it with respect to one's family."
This text seems to go from the ultimate commitment, giving up one's family and very life, to the smallest act of obedience. It closes with a promise of reward for doing something as simple as offering a cup of cold water. D. J. Burrell offered this example from the Civil War. "During the battle of Fredericksburg there was a little patch of ground that was occupied in turn by the contending forces. It was covered with the dead and the dying; and all through the afternoon of a weary day the cry was heard, 'Water, water!' A Southern soldier begged his captain to be allowed to answer those piteous cries, but met with refusal. 'No; it would be certain death.' He persisted, however, saying, 'Above the roar of artillery and the crack of the muskets I hear those cries for water. Let me go!' He set out with a bucket of water and a tin cup. For awhile the bullets sang around him, but he seemed to bear a charmed life. Then, as the Federals beyond the field perceived his purpose, the firing gradually ceased. For an hour and a half there was an armistice, while the soldier in grey, in full sight of both armies, went about on his errand of mercy...The Lord also came from heaven to bring the cup of cold water to dying men....But the firing did not cease when he came to us with the water from the well beside the gate at Bethlehem; his mercy toward us cost him his life."
James Hastings seems to put the two extremes of sacrifice, the great and ultimate versus the small and daily, into a proper perspective. "Real goodness can never be confined to great acts only...It blazes out in some great piece of sacrifice or self-renunciation, but it shines with a persistent light in the exquisite self-forgetfulness of a life that desires only to do the will of Jesus. David consecrating great wealth to the building of a temple, and a poor widow casting two mites into the treasury; Moses delivering a whole people from cruel bondage, and a simple unknown man giving a cup of cold water only to one who is hot after life's fierce battle - all these manifest one and the self-same goodness, which is the heart's love and loyalty to God flowing through all our deeds and consecrating them all." (5)
1. Zwingli, "Choice and Free Use of Foods" in Twenty Centuries of Great
Preaching, Volume II, 1971. 2. Martin Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther, 1905.
3. John Henry Jowett, "The Love that Honors Christ" in The World's Great Sermons, G. Kleiser, editor, 1908.
4. Paul Tillich, "Do Not Be Conformed" in Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, Volume X, 1971.
5. James Hastings, St. Matthew, 1914.
Source: The Sermon Mall, June, 2011. Published by Theological Web Publishing, LLC
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