The Second Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. George Pejakovich
Matthew 10:24-39

IN 1968, I WAS AN INFANTRY COMPANY COMMANDER IN GERMANY WHEN THE SOVIET UNION INVADED NEIGHBORING CZECHOSLOVAKIA TO SURPRESS THE MOVEMENT KNOWN AS THE PRAGUE SPRING. WE DIDN’T KNOW IF THE SOVIETS WOULD STOP AT THE BORDER, SO WE SPENT SOME TENSE DAYS WAITING IN OUR ASSEMBLY AREAS LOADED FOR WAR. SOME TWENTY YEARS LATER, I WAS AGAIN IN GERMANY AS AN ARMY CHAPLAIN, WHEN I WAS CONTACTED BY AN ORGANIZATION CALLED LIGHT IN THE EAST, WHICH SUPPORTED THE PROTESTANT CHRISTIAN CHURCHES UNDER THE SOVIET HEEL IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA. SOMEHOW THEY HAD HEARD ME PREACH, AND THOUGHT I HAD A NEUTRAL ACCENT, COMPARED TO A CHEZCH I GUESS. THEY ASKED ME TO DO A VOICE OVER FOR A FUNDRAISING VIDEO FOR THE U.S. IN THE COURSE OF DOING THE VOICE OVER, I REMARKED ABOUT WHERE I WAS TWENTY YEARS BEFORE. ONE MAN, WHO HAD ESCAPED AFTER THE OCCUPATION, GOT A VERY SERIOUS LOOK ON HIS FACE AND SAID, “LET ME TELL YOU A STORY.”

ONE SUNDAY, WHILE WE WERE AT WORSHIP IN OUR SMALL CHURCH, THE DOORS WERE KICKED IN, AND A SQUAD OF RUSSIANS ENTERED POINTING THEIR WEAPONS AT US. THE LEADER, IN BADLY ACCENTED CZECH, YELLED, “ANYONE WHO DOES NOT WANT TO DIE FOR YOUR JESUS, BETTER GET OUT NOW!” AS MANY RAN OUT OF THE CHURCH, THE PASTOR AND A SMALL GROUP OF US WENT TO STAND IN FRONT OF THE ALTAR. THE SOLDIERS LOCKED THE DOORS, LAID DOWN THEIR WEAPONS, AND THE LEADER SAID, “WE ARE CHRISTIANS TOO, AND WANT TO WORSHIP WITH THOSE WHO TRULY LOVE JESUS.” THAT’S HOW IT WAS; WE LIVED IN FEAR. WE NEVER KNEW WHO WE COULD REALLY TRUST AS A CHRISTIAN, AMONG THE ENEMY, AND EVEN AMONG OUR OWN PEOPLE. SO IT REMAINS TODAY IN MY POOR HOMELAND.

AS I READ THE GOSPEL FOR TODAY, I WAS REMINDED OF THIS STORY. I CAN’T TESTIFY TO THE TRUTH OF IT, BUT I CAN SAY THAT I TRUSTED THE ONE WHO TOLD IT. THE GOSPEL REMINDED ME OF IT BECAUSE THE WORDS OF JESUS SPEAK OF THE COST OF BEING A DISCIPLE. JESUS PREPARES HIS FOLLOWERS FOR WHAT THEY WILL FACE IN THE WORLD BY TELLING THEM WHAT THEY CAN EXPECT. HE TELLS THEM, AND US, THAT IF YOU WANT TO BE A FOLLOWER OF JESUS, YOU NEED TO BE FORWARNED, AND THUS FOREARMED, ABOUT WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT FROM THE POWERS THAT BE, FROM YOUR NEIGHBORS, AND EVEN FROM YOUR FAMILY.

MANY PEOPLE GET VERY UNCOMFORTABLE WHEN READING OR HEARING THIS PASSAGE OF THE GOSPEL, AND WONDER WHERE THE GOOD NEWS IS IN ALL THIS. THE ONES WHO ARE MOST UNCOMFORTABLE WITH THIS PASSAGE ARE THE ONES WHO ARE MOST COMFORTABLE. IN THIS COUNTRY, WHICH WAS GENERALLY CHRISTIAN, WHERE ONE’S PLACE IN SOCIETY OFTEN DEPENDED ON MEMBERSHIP IN THE RIGHT CHURCH, AND THE IDEA OF BEING REJECTED OR PERSECUTED FOR FOLLOWING JESUS SEEMED REDICULOUS, THE WORDS OF JESUS SOUND HARSH AND DIVISIVE. FOR THOSE WHO LIVE WHERE BEING A CHRISTIAN IS NOT SO BLANDLY ACCEPTED, AS IN NORTH KOREA, CHINA, NIGERIA, KENYA, SOMALIA, IN 151 COUNTRIES AROUND THE WORLD, OR ANYWHERE THE ISLAMIC EXTREMISTS HAVE TAKEN OVER, THESE WORDS OF JESUS OFFER GREAT COMFORT AND HOPE; EVEN IN THE FACE OF DEATH.

WHEN MATTHEW WROTE HIS GOSPEL ACCOUNT, THE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS UNDERSTOOD EXACTLY WHAT JESUS MEANT BY HIS WORDS, BECAUSE THEY WERE LIVING HIS PREDICTIONS ABOUT THE COST OF BEING HIS DISCIPLE. THE FOLLOWERS OF THE WAY, WHO WERE NOW COMING TO BE KNOWN AS CHRISTIANS, WERE KICKED OUT OF THE SYNAGOGUES, WERE BEING DENOUNCED BY THEIR OWN FAMILY AND NEIGHBORS, AND WERE BEGINNING TO BE PERSECUTED BY THE ROMAN EMPIRE. THEY KNEW THAT JESUS WAS NOT TELLING THEM TO SEVER ALL THEIR TIES WITH FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND NEIGHBORS, BUT THAT BY PUTTING JESUS FIRST, EVERYONE, AND EVERY THING, THAT THOUGHT THEY SHOULD BE FIRST WOULD TURN AGAINST THEM. IN SPITE OF THIS, THE FATHER IN HEAVEN SEES AND KNOWS HOW THEY SUFFER FOR THE SAKE OF JESUS, JUST AS HE SUFFERED FOR THE SAKE OF THE WORLD. TO FOLLOW JESUS MEANS TO PICK UP THE CROSS OF PERSECUTION AND REJECTION, AND FOLLOW WHERE HE LEADS; EVEN TO DEATH. PICKING UP THE CROSS AND FOLLOWING JESUS MEANS TO DIE TO THE WORLD, AND TO LIVE ONLY FOR JESUS. AS PAUL WROTE, “IF WE HAVE DIED WITH CHRIST, WE BELIEVE THAT WE WILL ALSO LIVE WITH HIM.” THIS IS THE GOOD NEWS IN WHAT JESUS TELLS US.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY THAT IF YOU HAVEN’T BEEN PERSECUTED YOU ARE NOT A GOOD CHRISTIAN, NOR ARE WE TO GO OUT OF OUR WAY TO SEEK SUFFERING AND REJECTION FOR THE SAKE OF JESUS. WE ARE, HOWEVER, CALLED TO BE PREPARED FOR IT ALWAYS, AND, WHEN IT COMES, TO NOT BE SURPRIZED AND BROKEN BY IT, BUT TO BEAR IT, JUST AS JESUS BORE HIS CROSS, AND TO CONTINUE TO FOLLOW AFTER OUR LORD. THE MORE WE LIVE THE LIFE OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD IN THIS WORLD, THE MORE WE WILL COME INTO CONFLICT WITH THE WORLD, AND THE DOORS MIGHT BE KICKED IN AT ANY TIME WITH A RESULT SIGNIFICANTLY DIFFERENT FROM THE STORY OF MY FRIEND.

AS DIETRICH BONHOEFFER WROTE IN HIS BOOK LIFE TOGETHER, “JESUS CHRIST LIVED IN THE MIDST OF HIS ENEMIES. AT THE END ALL HIS DISCIPLES DESERTED HIM. ON THE CROSS HE WAS UTTERLY ALONE, SURROUNDED BY EVILDOERS AND MOCKERS. FOR THIS CAUSE HE HAD COME, TO BRING PEACE TO THE ENEMIES OF GOD. SO THE CHRISTIAN, TOO, BELONGS NOT IN THE SECLUSION OF A CLOISTERED LIFE BUT IN THE THICK OF FOES. THERE IS HIS COMMISSION, HIS WORK.” HE THEN GOES ON TO QUOTE LUTHER, WHO EXPRESSES THIS THOUGHT SOMEWHAT LESS ELEGANTLY: “THE KINGDOM IS TO BE IN THE MIDST OF YOUR ENEMIES. AND HE WHO WILL NOT SUFFER THIS DOES NOT WANT TO BE OF THE KINGDOM OF CHRIST; HE WANTS TO BE AMONG FRIENDS, TO SIT AMONG ROSES AND LILLIES, NOT WITH THE BAD PEOPLE BUT WITH THE DEVOUT PEOPLE. O YOU BLASPHEMERS AND BETRAYERS OF CHRIST! IF CHRIST HAD DONE WHAT YOU ARE DOING WHO WOULD EVER HAVE BEEN SPARED.”

SO THESE TIMES WE SPEND TOGETHER EACH WEEK, WHEN WE COME TOGETHER TO WORSHIP GOD, TO HEAR AND SING HYMNS OF PRAISE, TO HEAR THE GOOD NEWS, AND RECEIVE THE PRESENCE OF THE RISEN CHRIST IN THE BREAD AND WINE OF HIS SACRED BODY AND BLOOD, ARE THE TIMES TO STRENGHTEN US AND ENCOURGE US TO GO OUT INTO THE WORLD PREPARED FOR WHAT WE MIGHT FACE IN THE WORLD. TIMES TO FOREWARN US AND FOREARM US FOR PICKING UP WHAT CROSS MAY COME OUR WAY. IN CARRYING THAT CROSS AND FOLLOWING AFTER JESUS, WE ARE THE LIVING TESTIMONY OF WHAT OUR LORD HAS DONE FOR US AND FOR THE WORLD. WE CAN DO THIS WITH CONFIDENCE AND HOPE, BECAUSE WE KNOW THAT IF WE LOSE OUR LIFE FOR JESUS’ SAKE, WE WILL CERTAINLY FIND OUR LIFE ETERNAL IN HIM.
AMEN

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