Never alone on our journey of discipleship: a sermon on Matthew 9

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

Fathers, my apologies.

There is a painful irony in the fact that today’s gospel reading, on Father’s Day of all days, talks about father’s betraying their children to death and children rising up against their parents.

This is in no way, a reflection upon you or the kind of day you are going to have.

It’s important, as we reflect on today’s gospel reading, and indeed all of the Matthew’s gospel, to remember the context in which the gospel was written.

Matthew’s gospel was written for a community of disciples of Jesus Christ, who were also Jewish.

And because of the Matthean community’s belief in Jesus as the Messiah, even through they worshipped in the Jewish synagogue…

…most biblical scholars think that, at the time today’s gospel was written, the Jewish religious authorities had just forcefully removed the Matthean community from the synagogue.

The more difficult themes of Matthew’s gospel: a deep distrust of the world and severe judgement for nonbelievers…

…these themes most likely stem from the painful experiences of the Matthean community at the hands of their neighbors, friends, fellow church members.

To be removed from the synagogue, meant, as Jesus says to his followers today, that parents and children were likely divided from one another…

…. that members of the Matthean community likely were flogged in the synagogues,

…that they likely were hated by others because of what they believed.

And so, even though we, generations later, hear harshness and severity in Jesus’ words…

…for the original audience of today’s gospel, they would have heard Jesus’ words as comfort and understanding.

As an awareness of all they had suffered because of their faith.

And yet, even though we live in a time and a place, a country where, as Christians, we are not often persecuted for our faith…

Today’s gospel still is, for me, one of the most difficult of Jesus’s discourses.

Today’s gospel reading is part of what is called the “Missionary Discourse,” the sermon where Jesus tells his disciples what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

And it’s not an easy message to hear, regardless of the time and place in which we live.

Jesus is brutally honest about the difficulty of discipleship.

“Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals or staff.”

It would seem, from Jesus’ words, that we enter into the world of discipleship with tools of faith, gifts from God…

but not so much the worldly resources on which we so often depend.

“See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

The work of discipleship, it seems, often runs counter to the impulses of the wider world.

Jesus’ disciples can expect some resistance to their message, maybe even hostility.

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.”

And perhaps even, the most difficult part of all this to hear:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers few.”

Put another way, no one will do this important work of God, except for God’s people.

This is our work to do; it is our responsibility, indeed our calling.

We can not avoid the difficult work of discipleship as followers of Jesus Christ.

Now I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound like good PR for growing the church.

Why, on earth would people even choose to be disciples of Jesus?

Especially if following Jesus means we go out into a hostile world that resists the Good News,

that we go out scarcely supplied, that we may cause pain to the people we love and we bear a deep and unshakable responsibility for the outcome?

Who would willingly sign up for that?

Well, all of us here today have.

So have countless others, all over the world, across time and space.

And the reason for this is the ultimate point of discipleship.

Before Jesus lists the hardships his disciples will face in their mission, Jesus also tells them today what their mission is:

“Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”

This is what the disciples of Jesus can accomplish.

If we want to translate Jesus’ imagery of unclean spirits and disease into our own time and place, put succinctly….

Discipleship is about offering healing and liberation.

This is what disciples of Jesus do.

They offer healing and liberation.

Healing from the things that keep us from living fully as God’s people.

Sometimes that may include physical healing, but more often it is spiritual healing.

Healing from our own sense of guilt or shame or anger.

Healing from hopelessness or despair.

Healing from the pain of loneliness.

The flip side of that healing is our liberation.

Once free from our own guilt and shame, we are liberated to offer compassion, forgiveness and mercy to others.

Once free from hopelessness, we share the Good News of God in Christ with the world.

Once healed from the pain of loneliness, we invite others into the loving community of Jesus’ disciples.

Once healed, we help to heal and liberate the world.

This is the great gift of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ: we both receive and offer healing and liberation.

And this is why we do the work of discipleship, in spite of the difficulty.

Because we ourselves have experienced what it means to be healed, what it means to be freed.

We have the power to offer that healing and liberation to others.

We shouldn’t underestimate that power that we have from God.

As hard as it may be to wrap out minds around this, being sent by Jesus into the world means in some sense that we are sent as Jesus out in the world.

Not that we can claim to be perfect as Jesus Christ is perfect, but the authority and power of Jesus to offer healing and liberation…

has indeed been given to us as disciples of Jesus Christ.

As today’s gospel says, “Jesus gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”

We may like to think that the task of discipleship is impossibly difficult, or that we are unworthy or ill-equipped to do it…

but the truth is, God has given us all we need to do the work God calls us to do.

We have nothing to fear, and everything to gain from the task before us.

Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning includes this famous line:

“We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character,

and character produces hope , and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

We often hear this line as a kind of progression, that we need to suffer in order to have endurance, or that we need to have character in order to have hope.

This phrase has been used to justify all kinds of human suffering, that somehow God causes us to suffer because it is good for us.

This is not what Paul means.

This line is not, in fact meant to be read as a linear progression.

Instead, it is a circular, all encompassing reality of how we live as God’s people in the world.

All these things are true of God’s people, all at the same time.

Yes, we suffer as human beings in the world, but we also endure.

Yes, we may have strength of character, but we also, always have hope.

We are, as Paul says, fully justified by our faith, and we have the gift of God’s love and spirit poured into us.

We are never alone on this journey of discipleship.

God is always with us, as are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we have all we need to do the work that is before us—To be disciples in this world.