A Sermon on Matthew 10 by Joe Ellis, June 21, 2020
I’ve been thinking a lot about division lately — probably not a huge surprise given the global political climate. That seems to be a hallmark of our time — division. In different conversations I’ve had this past month, I’ve been struck by how our church family is a little microcosm of the wider culture. We’ve got a huge array of political and cultural perspectives in our fellowship. This is impressive given the fact that our church is only 90 people strong on our best pre-Covid Sunday. We have friends in our fellowship who think that the government has adopted a measured and healthy response to COVID. We have friends who believe that our government has over-reacted signifcantly, and has taken far too much control in limiting our freedoms. We have friends who are deeply sympathetic of the Black Lives Matter movement. We have other friends who are critical of the proposal to cut funding to police departments and are deeply concerned of what will happen when a culture vilifies those who’s duty it is to serve and protect. We have friends in our fellowship who fall on either side of the liberal/conservative coin. I’ve been struck by how easy it is to disagree on things that have very little to do with our local lives. For example, I sometimes get nervous when I’m in a conversation with someone who doesn’t accept the claims of global warming science, even though that person might have a lifestyle that is far more ecologically sustainable than mine. I’ve also been struck by how often we can work together on local issues, and that our global differences in perspective usually have little or no bearing on our ability to work together. I’ve also been surprised by how easy it is to equate towing a certain party line with being a good Christian. There is a strong temptation to fit into our culture, and be a Christian. We can feel pulled to have our faith fit neatly within our political camp. The result is that labels can come quite quickly to Christians who fall outside of our political ideology — we can label those other Christians as liberal, conservative, weak or watered down, backward, or paranoid… I could go on. There is a strong temptation to let our political camp define what it means to be a good Christian. The chapter in Matthew we just heard speaks powerfully into all this.
It starts with the 12 disciples that Jesus sends out. Jesus calls His twelve disciples and He gathers them to send them out on mission. Matthew lists them all by name. There are two names on this list that we should pay attention to. On the one hand, we have Matthew the tax collector. As a tax collector, Matthew worked for the Roman government to collect taxes on their behalf. Matthew would have collected taxes from his people, the Jews. He almost certainly collected too much taxes and would’ve pocketed the extra. Working for Rome, Tax collectors were viewed about as attractive as the yellow grime underneath your toilet lid. Sitting right alongside Matthew, Simon the Zealot must’ve felt spotless. Simon distinguished himself by his strong belief that he and his fellow Jews should fight for Jewish independence from Rome. If Simon had a label for Matthew, it’d probably be sellout. Matthew may have said Simon was in political denial. But those labels have been swallowed up in a much larger label — disciple of Jesus. The labels Tax Collector and Zealot are relics of their old lives. What matters now, what defines them now, is that they are disciples of Jesus.
Unfortunately, this new Identity does not make it easy to fit in — anywhere. They won’t fit in with the leaders of the Jewish synagogues, instead of fitting in, they’ll be beaten. They won’t fit in with the political elite, the governors and kings. Instead they’ll be dragged before them and held prisoner. They won’t fit in with their family members. They will be betrayed. The most common aspect of the disciples’ relationship with the surrounding world is that they will not fit in. When you read Acts, it’s striking to see that the only place followers of Jesus can feel safe is amongst their church family. Jesus tells us not to be surprised. This should serve as a strong caution when we find ourselves overly identified with a particular camp, when we feel a strong pull to fit in. If we can’t be critical of our political camp, when we can’t appreciate another perspective, when we feel as though our political side is the Christian side, and anyone who sees differently is out to lunch, I wonder if we need to give ourselves a check and ask, “how is it that I feel so at home in this group when Jesus never felt at home in any political group?” After all, He did say, “A disciple is not greater than his teacher, nor a slave greater than his master… If they called the head of the house “the prince of demons”, the members of my household will be called by even worse names!”
So, what is special about these people that would mark them out for so much conflict? There is only one thing: they are disciples of Jesus. That’s the only thing that makes them peculiar. Their first loyalty is to Jesus. When Jesus called the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, he found them working, they were fishermen. He said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and they followed Jesus. The same happened with James and John. They also left their nets, their boat and their father to follow Jesus. Their primary identity became disciples of Jesus. Jesus calls us in the same way. Today we might not so much need to leave our nets as to set aside our devices. Today, we are inundated and flooded with information. There is far too much content to consume. As a result, we can devote ourselves to becoming disciples of our trusted news outlet, or podcast, or youtube channel. We even use Jesus’ language of discipleship — we say, “I’ve been following this person”. Furthermore, there is no shortage of people who are calling us to be their disciples, and they use Jesus’ language. They say, “Follow me!.. On Facebook, instagram or twitter.” And it has never been easier to follow them. Our devices and bluetooth earbuds make it so that we don’t have to leave our livelihood behind like Peter did when he left his nets. We can follow who we’re following when we are in the bathroom, on the road, or at the table with our family. Every waking moment. Jesus calls us not to make our home in this world, but to be His disciples. Jesus calls us to be His disciples. That’s different than being disciples of people who talk about Jesus. Jesus calls us to have our identity formed through relationship with Him — Let’s start by setting our devices aside, at least for a portion of the day, in order to encounter Jesus directly — this may be through prayer, through Scripture, through stepping back from the demands of life and all the things competing for our attention, and giving our attention singularly to Jesus. I’m not saying there’s not good content out there. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen or read some of that content. It is a good and important thing for followers of Christ to be engaged. But if that content replaces actually being a disciple of Jesus, that’s a problem.
In spite of Christians not really fitting in anywhere, the world needs disciples of Jesus. Aside from getting beaten and abused by the surrounding culture, look at the impact Jesus says His disciples will have: they are to heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, cast out demons. They are to tell rulers and unbelievers about Jesus, about His Kingdom. Jesus’ disciples are to describe what His Kingdom is like, and to live it out in their actions. Disciples of Jesus are to be like beacons of light in a hurting, broken world. Jesus’ words to his disciples are no less true for us: “what I say to you in the dark, tell in the light, and what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the housetops. You will be hated by everyone because of my name.” Let’s actually be His disciples. Let’s each of us listen to what He says to us in His Word, and let’s live it out locally in the public square, no matter what the consequences.