Posts Tagged ‘encouragement’

What does it take to be number among the disciples?

June 24, 2017

 

 

Pentecost 3 – 2017

Matthew 10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who notices a sparrow fall and who has numbered the hairs on our head. Amen.

You no doubt know that there are tricks to public speaking that are used to gain and to keep the attention of the audience. In the first century only about 1% of the population was able to read, so the gospels were not written to be read, but to be heard – (often in just one sitting). The gospel writers did not simply pull together a life of Jesus. The gospels and their component parts are very carefully structured in such a way as to ensure that their listeners would be gripped by the story and continue to focus on what they were hearing. Because few people could write, it was equally important that the stories about Jesus’ life and teaching were told in such a way that they would be remembered.

We heard last week that the author of Matthew’s gospel carefully structured Jesus’ teaching into five sermons or discourses each of which contained material that had a similar theme. Within at least two of these discourses is an internal structure that aims to unify and emphasise a central theme.

The technical term for this structure is a chiasm. In simple terms a chiasm is the repetition of ideas in reverse around a central theme. A chiasm is used for emphasis and for clarification. It serves to draw attention to the central point that is the focus of the passage and which gives meaning to the whole. One way to think of it is an arched bridge. The footings on either side are the same and the spans on either side mirror each other and hold up the central arch. A simple example of a chiasm is found in Luke chapter 4 – Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth. Jesus stands up, receives the scroll, unrolls the scroll, reads the scroll, rolls up the scroll, hands back the scroll and sits down[1]. The reading of the scroll and its content is the central point surrounded by actions in reverse order.

Matthew 10 is an example of a much longer chiasm. The chapter is complex and repetitive, but it begins to make sense when we see that Matthew draws his material together around a central point. The use of a chiasm bolsters and supports this key point in the same way as the footings and spans support the arch of a bridge.

The best way to understand what I am saying is to see what it looks like in practice.

After Jesus calls and names the disciples, the following structure unfolds

A. vv 5-15: The sending out of the disciples: how they should travel and find hospitality; how to respond to acceptance/non-acceptance

B. vv 16-23: Prediction of persecution; being brought before the courts, inner-family betrayal and encouragement in the face of these.

C. vv 24-25: This is because they can expect to be treated in the same way as Jesus.

 D. vv 26-31: Exhortation: “Have no fear.” They are worth so much to God that they can depend on God. (In this        section the disciples are told 4 times that they need not be afraid.)

         C’. vv 32-33: If they confess Jesus on earth, he will confess them.

     B’. vv 34-39 Division in families is to be expected; family loyalties must take  second place to the following of Jesus.

A’. vv 40-42 Those who welcome them will be richly rewarded because they are actually welcoming the risen Lord who is sending them, and ultimately the one – God – who send him[2].

Seen in this light, it is relatively easy to see that the central point around which the remainder circles is the exhortation not to be afraid. At the extremes we have comments about the disciples being accepted or not. The second and second last point warn of divisions (even within families) and the third and third last point stress a believers relationship with God to whom, the centre assures them they are of such value that God knows even the hairs on their head.

It is important to remember that this gospel is, as I mentioned last week, being written after the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. It is a time of change and trauma, a time in which both Jew and Christ-believing Jews are trying to work out and to establish their identity in a new and vastly different environment. For those who believe in Jesus there is the added confusion and pain associated with the increasing intolerance of difference and exclusion that is directed towards them from their fellow Jews. This may well have extended to their expulsion from the synagogue. What this means is that those who consider themselves to be the disciples of Jesus are being increasingly isolated from their ancestral faith, from their fellow Jews and ultimately from their families and their friends. Ideas of acceptance and rejection and division even among families would have been extremely pertinent.

These words, addressed to the Twelve in the gospel, must have brought great reassurance and comfort to those who were experiencing the very things that Jesus predicted. To understand that they were just as likely to be rejected as to be accepted, to know that they their experiences united them to the one whom they followed, that their loyalty to him would be repaid by his to them and above all to be reassured that they had no need to fear because they were so valuable to God would have helped them not only make sense of their experiences, but would have given them the courage to stand firm in their faith and to continue to proclaim the gospel in the face of any and all difficulties.

The sort of fear that must have gripped these first Christians, may be matched by those in places such as Egypt and Nigeria today in which simply holding the faith is enough to place one in mortal danger. To know that their persecution is part and parcel of being a disciple must surely give them strength. To know how precious they are to God must help them to understand that there are worse things than death.

We who have no knowledge of such terror and who practice our faith in security and comfort must ask ourselves why it is that we do not draw attention to ourselves, why it is that we do not illicit a negative reaction from those around us. Is it because we have accommodated ourselves so well to our surrounding culture that we no longer stand out as being different? Have we watered down our faith to the point where it is no longer offensive to non-believers? Or is it just that we avoid conversations in which awkward questions might be asked or in which we might be asked to defend our point of view?

Whatever the reason, it is important to consider (20th century disciples of Christ) whether we are so far removed from the situation of the first disciples that Jesus’ instructions and words of encouragement mean nothing to us, or whether we have removed ourselves so far from the risks and dangers of discipleship that we can no longer really call ourselves disciples.

What does discipleship really mean and what will it take for us to be numbered as one?

 

 

[1] The longest and most complex chiasm is the entire book of Revelation.

[2] Adapted from Byrne, Brendan, Lifting the Burden – Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church today. NSW, Australia: St Paul’s Press, 2004, 87.

Stand up and be counted

June 21, 2014
Meriam Ibrahim and her two children in jail

Meriam Ibrahim and her two children in jail

Pentecost 2 – 2014

Matthew 10:24-39

Marian Free

 

In that name of God who constantly reminds us that there is more to our existence than this life alone. Amen.

It is impossible not to be touched, saddened and outraged by the situation of Meriam Ibrahim a Sudanese woman sentenced to hang – ostensibly for abandoning her Muslim faith. Meriam’s Father is a member of the Islamic faith and her Mother is a Christian. Meriam claims that she has always been a Christian and that therefore she has not abandoned Islam and is not guilty of apostasy. Her claim however appears to be falling on deaf ears and it seems probable that the Mother of two small children will hang for refusing to renounce her faith. Half a world away, in the comfort of a country that has been primarily Christian since its inception, it is difficult for us to imagine the courage and the faith that would lead a young woman to risk her life rather than to deny what she believes.

We are nearly half way through the year and only now are we able to really come to grips with Matthew’s gospel. In fact, even though it is the year of Matthew, it has been three, nearly four, months since our consecutive reading of this gospel was interrupted first by Lent and then by Easter. It is then, a good time to look at the gospel as a whole so that we can begin to appreciate its parts. The Gospel attributed to Matthew appears first in the New Testament, however most scholars agree that Mark was the first to be written. The consensus is that Mark was written first and that Matthew used Mark’s work to write his own. Evidence for this is found in the fact that basic content of Matthew is the same as that of Mark. Matthew has filled out the material used by Mark in two ways. In the first instance, the author of this gospel appears to have had access to some teaching that was circulated widely enough to be known by both Luke and Matthew – they both include sayings that are not found in Mark. Secondly, as some material appears only in Matthew, it seems clear that he or his community were privy to teaching known only to them – including the parable of the ten bridesmaids and the parable of the sheep and the goats[1].

Matthew’s gospel stands out from the remainder as it is the most Jewish of the Gospels and the one that most clearly identifies Jesus as the one who fulfills the Old Testament. In Matthew Jesus is first and foremost a teacher which may be the reason that Matthew organizes Jesus’ teaching into five sermons the best known of which is the Sermon on the Mount. It is almost certain that Jesus’ preaching did not consist of a string of unrelated sayings, but rather that Matthew gathered them and placed them together. Apart from the introduction (the birth narrative) and conclusion (the passion and resurrection), Matthew’s gospel is made up of five parts each of which consists of a narrative section and a sermon. In other words, the story that Matthew is telling about the life of Jesus is punctuated with blocks of Jesus’ teaching.

Today we are reading a portion of Chapter 10 – the sermon which concludes part two of the gospel – Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. To set the sermon in context, we need to remember that at the beginning of this chapter Jesus has set apart twelve of his disciples and given them authority to cast out demons and to heal. Having done that he sends them out to proclaim that the kingdom of Heaven has come near. In other words, Jesus has shared with the twelve both his authority and his ministry. This is an enormous privilege, but it comes at a cost. If the disciples are to be Jesus’ representatives, they must expect that, like him, they will experience rejection and persecution. (“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” Jesus says.)

The sermon in chapter 10 is addressed not to the crowds, or to the disciples in general – but specifically to the twelve. If they are to share his ministry they must expect to share the consequences of that ministry. Jesus says: ”I am sending you out as sheep amongst the wolves.” This does not mean that they should be timid or afraid – the Holy Spirit will give them words to say and Jesus reminds them how precious they are in the sight of God. If they remain true they may lose their life, but nothing can kill their soul – not even death can separate them from God.

For generations Jesus’ warning has seemed to be directed specifically at those early disciples or to those in the early church who faced persecution and martyrdom. How comforting it must have been to know that the Holy Spirit would be with them when they faced their accusers, that whatever situation they confronted, they were so precious to God that even the hairs of their head were numbered and that if martyrdom was to be their lot they would lose their body, but not their soul. Words such as these must have provided comfort then and they must surely offer hope and consolation to Meriam and to others in her situation today.

Times are changing. In an increasingly secular and multi-cultural Australia we can no longer take for granted the privileges and benefits that have accrued by virtue of our belonging to the predominant faith. There are challenges to our practices and beliefs on a number of fronts – religious education, the presence or not of Santa Claus in kindergartens, the presence or not of Nativity Scenes in public places and whether or not churches that provide social services are to be considered charities and receive the tax breaks associated with such practices. In some places the Christian faith is met with ridicule, in others with indifference and in yet others with outright hostility.

In a nation in which loyalties and beliefs are changing, it may be that there will be a time when we will have to defend what we believe. At best we may have to stand up and be counted and at worst we may have to consider what is more important – security in this life or in the next. Should we, like Meriam, be put to the test, let us pray that we will heed Jesus’ words to his disciples and find the strength and courage to hold fast to our faith no matter what oppositions confronts us and no matter how tempting it is to try to save our skin.

[1] An interesting exercise is to place Matthew, Mark and Luke side by side to see how they have used material known to them all, what sayings occur in Matthew and Luke and what is unique to Matthew or to Luke.


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