Readings: Jer. 20. 7-13; Rms. 6. 1b-11; Mt. 10. 24-39
Our readings for today speak about what happens when we follow the Lord. In a word, ‘conflict’ happens. ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ At first hearing, we are probably taken aback by this statement of Jesus. Surely, ‘meek and mild Jesus’ does not want conflict! We may believe that Jesus is ‘out and about’ with the people, but surely he is meant to heal them, help them and support them.
All of these things are of course part of the mission of the Lord, but his mission is also a prophetic one which should disturb us. In preaching the Gospel, Jesus inevitably comes into conflict with the religious and political authorities of his day, who want to keep hold of their power and maintain the status quo for their own ends. Something has to give, and we can be sure, it won’t be Jesus. He is prepared for the battle, and indeed, prepared for the sufferings and eventual death that will result from this conflict between God and the ways of the world.
Just like Jesus and his kingdom, the Gospel message is not of this world, but it is for this world. Not being of this world, means that it does not mix well with the ways of the world. It is a little like oil and water in a glass. Once the mixture settles, you can see the two separate layers as quite distinct substances. And, so it is with the Gospel. It does not dissolve into the mixture which is the world and its ingredients. No, it comes in from the outside and unsettles the mixture. So, If this happened to Jesus, we should not be surprised that as we follow Jesus and go ‘out and about’ with him on the way, that we too come into conflict with the world. If we don’t, perhaps we should ask ourselves, how seriously am I taking my Christian vocation? Have I undergone a true conversion or am I living off a cultural inheritance that I have never properly assented to? Each of us, should review our faith from time to time to allow this questioning to unsettle us out of what may have become our ‘dogmatic slumbers’.
Poor old Jeremiah in our first reading is an exemplar, a classic case study, if you will, of the conflict that results from the contact between the message of God and the worldly messages of man-made religion and corrupt political authorities. Jeremiah is prophesizing about the consequences for Israel of not observing the covenant that God has made with them. Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and Judah, the Southern Kingdom, will be invaded by foreign powers, and Jerusalem will be destroyed. And so it will turn out to be. The Jews will be sent into the Babylonian exile and deprived of their territory, their freedom, their religious ceremonies in the Temple and their own King. All because of their infidelity to the message of the covenant, the agreement between God and God’s people, for how the Jewish people are to be faithful to God.
But Jeremiah is, like practically all of God’s messengers, reluctant to accept his commission. He spends a lot of the time complaining about it, as recounted in the Book of Jeremiah, and asking God to give the job to someone else! He would rather have a quiet life and to leave all the conflict with the authorities to others. But, he reluctantly accepts his vocation as a prophet and becomes one of the great prophets of the Old Testament.
The conflict between Jeremiah and the authorities is repeated between Jesus and the authorities of his day. This is why families will be divided, ‘son against father, daughter against mother’ and so on. We should not think that because Jesus is the Son of God this was an easy task for him. I am sure, he too would have found it easier to have a quiet life and not to enter into the unsettling conflict which the preaching of the kingdom entailed. But fidelity to the covenant in Jeremiah’s case, and to his vocation as the Son of God to preach the kingdom in Jesus’s case, meant that both Jeremiah and Jesus accepted the inevitability that life would not be a ‘walk in the park’ for either of them.
But what exactly is it that causes this friction? Surely the world wants to get on with things too. Well, clearly it does, but it does so on its own terms. The world, and we should include us in this, wants to follow its own path. A path which primarily serves itself and makes itself the centre of things. The problem with this is that when the world makes itself the centre of things, when you and I become the focal point around which everything else has to fit in, God is pushed to the margins. God literally becomes an object for our consumption. We make God an ‘aspirin’, when we have some pain, an ’ATM’ when we are in need, or simply a shoulder to cry on when life gets tough. This was how the Israelites treated God and time and time again, prophets like Jeremiah came along and said, remember that God is your God and not an object for you to manipulate at will according to what pleases you at the time. This way of relating to God is what we can rightly call a magical approach. Faith becomes a conjuring trick, a slight of hand that we can execute at will, as we attempt to manipulate God into doing what we want. The roots of this attitude probably lie in childhood as we learn to manipulate our parents or guardians into doing what we want. In religion, this is an infantile approach to God and it has been rightly condemned as such by a whole tradition of atheist thinkers who consider religion tout court as infantile. In this, they clearly over-egg the pudding, but there is some truth in it, and we do well to listen to it.
However, the friction which occurs in the life of Jesus, is due to his following in the prophetic line of those prophets like Jeremiah, who reminded people that unless you allow God to be the centre of your life, you will simply put yourself or something or someone else at the centre and so reduce God to being merely a god, a thing to be manipulated. Remember, we all worship someone or something, but is it God? This is the question a lively faith should ask itself.
Now, I don’t know about you, but left to myself, I would rather prefer a quiet life. I don’t like conflict, it upsets me, especially when I lose it! But, if we are to accept our Christian calling and to follow Jesus as he goes ‘out and about’ with people, we should be prepared for it.
At its heart, the conflict is always about something or someone else being at the centre rather than God. This could be family, and for most people, this is perhaps the most difficult one because it is so natural to put family above everything else, and this is why our Gospel sayings are so hard for us to hear. It could be any number of things which are not able to be the centre. For the Jewish authorities of Jesus’s time, it was their power to control the lives of people and to make a profit from this which was at the centre.
Our second reading from Romans today, offers us helpful guidance as to how we are to understand the fact that it is God who should be at the centre, through the notion of Baptism. St Paul tells us that ‘all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so too we might walk in newness of life’.
Baptism, our entry into the body of Christ, the church, is the best way for us to understand the conflict that results from God being at the centre. Every fibre of our being fights to survive and resists the death which we are invited into through baptism. In other words, the origin of the conflict we experience in preaching the Gospel, is the resistance we have, by nature, to dying. Dying with Christ in our baptism is not natural, it is what we might call a supernatural reality, which raises our mortal natures to their divine destiny as sons and daughters of God with Christ. This death to self is the way in which God returns to being our centre. I say return, because God always was at the centre, but our adult mind tries to make out that it is otherwise. Baptism, as St Paul describes it in The Letter to the Romans, frames the fundamental conflict of life as the battle with all kinds of desires, which inevitably tend to put someone or something else at the centre of life. Only when all these other things are displaced from the centre, do we really experience what it means for God to be the centre of my life. Only then, do we really embrace the baptism which we have professed.
So, let us pray that each and every one of us may embrace our baptismal calling to die to sin, so that we may rise with Christ in the glory of God’s grace. This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.