Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Endurance Revisited

The gospel lesson for today—the Feast of Edmund, King ofEast Anglia—is Matthew 10:16-22. Sound familiar? This past Sunday I preached on the epistle lesson (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13) and pretty much ignored the gospel (Luke 21:5-19). So, when I read the gospel appointed for today and found that it was pretty much the exact same lesson I skipped over on Sunday, I felt like God was giving me another chance…or telling me to get it right this time.

Matthew 10 is a wonderful chapter in scripture. As the chapter opens, Jesus calls his twelve disciples to himself and gives them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and affliction.” But then he sends them out, instructing them to stay in Jewish territory, ignoring the Gentiles and Samaritans, and carrying very little with them. “Live on what you have and on the generosity of those whom you meet on the way,” Jesus seems to be telling them. “And those who accept you and take care of you will be blessed, and those who reject you, well, it would be better for those in Sodom and Gomorrah than for them.” Nice pep talk, huh?

But then we get to today’s gospel lesson. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…” Imagine how nervous and excited and ramped-up you would have been after Jesus gave you that kind of authority and then described your mission in such amplified terms. “Wow!” the disciples must have said to themselves. “This is going to be amazing.” Until he got to the second part. “They will hand you over to councils and synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings…You will be hated because of my name.” It sounds like a David and Goliath story without the happy ending. “You want me to do what?”

Insulated by almost two-thousand years since Christians like these were dragged before councils and put to death, I have no idea what it was like to hear that warning from Jesus. For me (and I think for most other 21st-century American Christians), identifying as a Christian has more to do with stating my assent to a defined set of beliefs (the Creed, the bible, or some other doctrinal statement) than actually following Jesus. But that’s not right. We are disciples. We are followers of his way. We are also apostles or “sent-out-ones.” Simply saying some magic words, “Jesus, come into my heart and be my savior,” isn’t good enough. When we say them, what we’re really saying is, “Here I am, Lord. What would you have me do?” And sometimes the answer we get looks like Matthew 10.

Why did you become a Christian? Or, if you grew up in a Christian household and can’t really remember making a decision to become a Christian, why are you still a Christian? I doubt any of us signed on because we wanted authority over unclean spirits and the power to heal people of any disease or infirmity, but I bet a lot of us became Christians because salvation—heaven, forgiveness, eternal life—sounded like a good idea. In that moment, how many of us accepted the call to give ourselves up in the same way the disciples were asked to?

The life of a Christian is more like Matthew 10 than we might expect. Sure, we’re excited when the opportunity to follow Jesus presents itself. But eventually we discover the challenging part. Maybe it happens right away. Or maybe it happens much later. But I’m convinced that most of us reach a moment when it isn’t easy being a Christian—when it’s easier to give up than to hang in there. Few of us will ever be dragged before councils and synagogues or governors or kings. More likely hardship will strike—addiction, still birth, estrangement, tragedy, death, heartache. Will we persevere? Will we remember that being a Christian isn’t an express ticket to heaven? There is still suffering here, but as Christians we know that suffering is not the end nor is it empty or meaningless.

Jesus says that salvation comes to those who endure. Salvation is endurance. Salvation is perseverance. What it means for God to save us is for us to soldier on despite hardship with our focus still on his promise of glory. It might not be easy to see—especially if we think being a Christian is simply the good parts. But still that hope is out there. 

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