Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Sheep in Serpent's Clothing

Child's Riddle: How many legs does a sheep have if you call its tail a leg?
Answer: Four--calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one.

Preacher's Riddle: What do you call a wise sheep?
Answer: You don't. There's no such thing.

On Friday, the church celebrates the Conversion of St. Paul, the saint for whom our parish takes its name. The first two readings on this feast day (Acts 26:9-21 and Galatians 1:11-24) tell the story of Paul's dramatic moment on the road to Damascus, when the risen Jesus met him, blinded him, and redirected his fervor from the persecution of the church to the spreading of the gospel. The gospel lesson (Matthew 10:16-22), of course, does not feature the "untimely born...least of the apostles" by name, but it does show us what Jesus thought of Paul and those like him who handed his disciples over to councils and dragged them before governors and kings, and it gives a rather unsettling observation to those who eventually would be persecuted in Jesus' name: "The one who endures to the end will be saved."

Jesus predicts terrible hardship for his disciples: "They will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me...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." Jesus knows that this will happen. He anticipates the hardship, suffering, and death that his followers will endure because of him, yet he sends them out anyway. Part of me wonders who was crazier: Jesus for sending them or the disciples for agreeing to be sent.

But notice how Jesus sends them: "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." That's a confusing mix of animal images about as unsettling as a Turducken. Jesus sends his followers out like sheep amidst wolves but exhorts them to be wise like serpents and innocent (or simple-minded) like doves. Instead of the wolves in sheep's clothing that the disciples would meet in the religious leaders of their day, Jesus sends them out as sheep who have the minds of snakes and the simplicity of pigeons. What does that even mean? 

Sheep are still sheep. Wise or not, they don't put up much of a fight, and they're a lot slower than wolves. Jesus isn't sending his followers out to defeat their persecutors or even to run away from them. He sends them out vulnerable yet discerning and with child-like focus. When (notice Jesus doesn't use the word "if") they are handed over to be beaten and killed, Jesus wants his followers to recognize what is really happening and not lose track of the truth. Jesus wants us to understand that the hardships we encounter because we follow Jesus are not a sign of our defeat--of God's abandonment of us--but a confirmation of our discipleship.

What has following Jesus cost you? Maybe it's nothing. Maybe you, like me, come from a place of great privilege, a culture and society in which your version of Christianity is widely accepted and celebrated. But maybe not. Maybe you've lost friends or family members because your conscience got the best of you and you just couldn't keep quiet any more. Maybe you missed a promotion or were not offered a job because you followed Jesus into places that make other people uncomfortable. Or maybe you've experienced the struggle of trying to believe in God and not being able to explain why the God you worship would let terrible things happen to so many good people--perhaps even you or people you love. And what does Jesus say about that? "See, I am sending you out as sheep surrounded by wolves, so be as discerning as snakes and as single-minded as pigeons."

Salvation isn't finding the answer to life's unanswerable questions or receiving vindication from those who treated you unfairly. Salvation is persevering to the end. "The one who endures to the end will be saved," Jesus says. That isn't a conditional statement; it's a declaration: those who endure will be saved. Be vulnerable to the world for Jesus' sake, and recognize that your struggles are not empty. Do not lost your focus. Stay committed, and see these signs for what they are--signs that you are following Jesus on the path that leads to salvation.

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