Now please pray for me as I venture to speak of some of Jesus’ ‘hard sayings’ in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Scholars date the latest redaction of the book of Judges to 28 centuries ago when it twice recorded this sentence: “In those days there was no king in Israel…(and) every man did what was right in his own eyes”. (17:6, 21:25) The result was that the 12 tribes of Israel fought among themselves, Manasseh and Benjamin were nearly wiped out, and foreign captivity and exile was Israel’s reward before she returned to the Lord of the Sinai covenant and came home. I have been reminded of the book of Judges by current events in our country.
And I’ve remembered the 1960s and ‘70s when bumper stickers carried the popular slo-gan “Question Authority”. University students, whose parents were paying $30-40,000 a year (about half of today’s cost), were embracing anarchy and confronting and resisting anybody and anything that represented authority external to themselves. You may remember that, insisting on affirming their atomic individuality, they simultaneously dressed identically in tie-dyed tee-shirts, torn and frayed jeans, well-worn sneakers, and regurgitated the accepted nihilistic narrative. Some went boldly where students had not gone before and argued that, since they paid tuition they could tell professors what they wanted to learn and how to teach it. So they challenged what was being taught in seminars and lectures, objected to required readings, and protested the papers they were assigned to write. My response to all this was to quote a sentence by Matthews’s Jesus who said “No pupil ranks above his teacher”.
In today’s gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples that there is no place for autonomy in his kingdom. Specifically he taught them that our love for God can be neither eclipsed nor out-done by our love of any other thing or person. Earlier Jesus had taught them that our treasure lies wherever our heart’s desire is fixed. In the “Great Litany” we pray to be delivered “From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil”. So in sum, when ‘push comes to shove’, our Lord tells us that tough choices have to be made and his followers are called to die to earthly affections. He wants folks he can depend on.
Today’s section of Matthew’s gospel follows Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and consists of instructions Jesus is giving his disciples in anticipation of his own death. He knew that continu-ing without his physical presence would be difficult for them, that they were not likely to be wel-comed on their missionary journeys, that they would be at risk of being whipped in the synagogu-es and accused of blasphemy before judges and kings, that in fact they would be in mortal danger like sheep in the midst of wolves. That circumstance is the context for his saying ‘I will acknow-ledge before my Father in heaven everyone who acknowledges me before other people’. He was telling his disciples that he expected them to remain faithful and to continue their public witness even in the face of danger because he would protect them and be their spokesman and defender ” when what we regularly pray for occurs, viz., “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.
But for those of us who love our parents, our spouses, and our children, it’s hard to think that God might ever require us to deny or reject them in order to affirm our complete loyalty to him – and that, incidentally, is why these are called ‘hard sayings’. It’s natural for us to love our-selves and those who love us and we think, ‘maybe it’s hyperbole that Jesus turns our conven-tional priorities inside-out’. But it’s unlikely these declarations are exaggerations because there’s no room in them for negotiation. So Jesus adds to this ‘hard saying’. While “Everyone will hate you for your allegiance to me…whoever endures to the end will be saved…(and) Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven”. [v.33]
A case in point is that here are several countries in which the church is forbidden to evan-gelize; but Jesus’ message has nevertheless survived in them. Su Xueling (Ueling) was the dau-ghter of a Chinese communist and knew nothing of Jesus until she was in her 30s. But when her husband was dying of cancer, a nurse suggested that she might find solace in Christianity. So, while struggling with grief and debt and trying to make a living selling noodles door-to-door, she visited a church. One thing led to another and Su (Ueling) became a Christian. Through friends, she began to raise money for a noodle factory – and when her business opened she named it ‘Gos-pel Foodstuffs, Ltd.’ and printed ‘Gospel Noodles’ on her packages. Her business prospered, she donated money to start a seminary, the seminary prospered and grew to 200 students. Then the government shut down both the school and Su’s noodle factory. But instead of restarting her fac-tory, Su raised money to start a private school. Nobody knows the number of Christians in China now because many of them still belong to house-churches that worship underground – but the gospel is alive and Christianity is spreading in China despite persecution. Jesus said, “I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven everyone who acknowledges me before other people.”
It’s axiomatic that being faithful is not easy. Sometimes we have to say that the rich are stealing from the poor. Sometimes we should tell medical care insurers they could better spend their profits by increasing benefits and lowering premiums than by sponsoring golf tournaments and treating special interest clients to cruises. Nowadays we need to tell both the media and our representatives in Congress to stop being so inflammatory and vulgar and divisive in their rheto-ric and show some civility and decency. Of course, when Christians do the right thing they fre-quently find themselves in hot water. Maybe that’s among the reasons Jesus said, “I will ack-nowledge before my Father in heaven everyone who acknowledges me before others”.
In Germany pastors are called ‘German shepherds’. Franz Hildebrandt and Martin Nie-möeller were German pastors and friends. And they are among my heroes. Franz Hildebrandt escaped the Nazis, emigrated to the US and taught at Drew University, and he and I soon became friends. When our family spent a sabbatical year in Edinburgh, I discovered that the family had moved to Edinburgh. His wife was a Scot and he had become the interim pastor of a Church of Scotland congregation there. Week after week, Franz Hildebrandt was ‘hands down’ the best preacher I have ever listened to. Simultaneously pastoral, biblically knowledgeable, and theolo-gically sophisticated, his sermons were powerful and mesmerizing – and his parish became our church home.
When Hitler came to power, Martin Niemöeller was a Lutheran pastor in Berlin where early on he protested Nazi interference in church affairs and Nazi persecution of Jews. He elect-ed to remain in Germany – and began the movement that was later known as the ‘Confessing Church’. Distinct from the Reichskirke, which was the pseudo-Christian face of the Nazi Party, the Confessing Church was composed of pastors and congregations who opposed Hitler and his policies. In 1938 Hitler had Niemöeller arrested – and as he was being led down a long corridor to the courtroom where he would be tried, he said that he heard a voice quietly quoting in Latin a verse from Proverbs: Nomen Domini turris fortissimo,” said the voice – ‘the name of the Lord is a strong tower.’ Niemoeller interpreted this as a call to have courage – that he was like a sheep among wolves. ‘Nomen Domini turris fortissimo’ – ‘the name of the Lord is a strong tower’.
I’ve visited Dachau, where Niemöeller was imprisoned and where so many thousands died – but he survived 7 years in that concentration camp and helped to rebuild the church in post-war Germany. This is one of many sayings for which he is justly famous: “First they came for the communists – and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists – and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews – and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Finally, they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out.” Jesus said, “I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven everyone who acknowledges me before others”.
I am always stunned and sobered when I read these sayings of Jesus – and I’m also fright-ened – because they remind me of the variety of ways in which I have failed to love God with all my heart and mind and soul and strength. I’d reckon that you are also challenged by them. Jesus says that we are not to love any thing or any body more than we love God – that in the measure to which we have permitted any other love to override our love for God, we are unworthy of God’s love. And we confess that all of us have failed that test. All of us have sometime loved some thing or some body more than we loved God – and some of us regularly persist in doing that. So it’s sobering to wonder: if terrorists were to seize control of the world – or just of the US – and threaten to behead us, how many of us would continue our faithful witness to Jesus?
We know in our heart of hearts that God has not always been the most important person in our lives. That’s a damning confession – and by it none of us is worthy of God’s love. To be stripped of any pretense to righteousness – to have our sins laid bare – that’s apparently what it takes to prepare us to accept the mercy of God. St. Augustine’s wonderful aphorism puts it this way: God always wants to give us something, he said, but cannot so long as our hands are full.
Some Episcopalians nowadays say that acknowledging our sins and wickedness and say-ing the burden of them is intolerable is just too severe – we can’t be that bad. But Jesus knew that our souls, much like nature, abhor a vacuum – and that acknowledging our sin leaves us drained and empty. I suspect that may be that’s why Paul’s wonderful condolence in Romans 8 is today’s epistle – to remind us that the judgment that follows acknowledgment of our trespasses is not condemnation but the free gift of God’s forgiveness. Just as Adam’s trespass led to con-demnation and death, so Jesus’ righteousness leads to acquittal and life. Just as acknowledging our sin is terrifying and sobering – so is receiving God’s mercy comforting and reassuring. The question today’s readings put to us is ‘what will you do to acknowledge Jesus before others’? God willing, we will do as Franz Hildebrandt and Martin Niemöeller and a host of other disciples have done. We will acknowledge and confess God before others. Amen. So be it.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.