Paul Olsen

on the way…not there yet

Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

I have been a Christian all my life.
I grew up going to church and Sunday school,
went through confirmation,
attended bible camp.
I am well-trained in theology,
thoroughly instructed in the Bible,
with years of experience as a pastor,
hundreds of sermons,
saved by the grace of God,
and I treasure my faith in Jesus Christ.
But I still find it difficult to speak openly in public about my faith,
to tell, actually to tell someone that I believe in Jesus
and would follow him anywhere.

Except, of course, for you—
I love to talk to you about my faith, do it all the time.
It’s easy as pie to talk to my congregation,
people who already (mostly) agree with me;
I can always circle a few of my closest kin
and know that they will affirm me and support me;
or at the very least, whatever criticism they might have
will be mild …and mostly worthless…
and they’ll probably just keep it to themselves anyway.

Or—knowing that you will disagree with me,
knowing your political or religious views,
your opposition to everything I value and love and believe to be true,
the things I would die for before I’d change my mind about them—
I’d probably just keep my Jesus-love to my self.
Knowing how polarized we are already,
I would never befriend you,
never trust you,
never be so vulnerable as to lay bare the weakness of my argument;
I would never listen to you
(even though that might be my best witness to you).

Why is that?  Why is that the same with you?
Why would I rather hate you—in the nicest Christian way, of course.

I know—these things are personal,
and nobody talks about personal things with just anybody.
But it’s not private—indeed, faith in Jesus by its very nature, is public;
a secret faith would be a contradiction in terms.
After all, how can you love your enemy privately?
How can you love your neighbor and keep it a secret?

Well, Jesus says to me, what’s the big surprise, Christian?
I told you it would be hard;
it was hard for me, too;
but I told you it would be enough for you to be like me.

Just before this in the gospel of Matthew, it was a different story:
Jesus was full of amazing promises;
Jesus was proclaiming the good news of the kingdom,
and curing every disease and every sickness;
and then giving you the very same authority
to cure every disease and every sickness.

You go and
cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons!
Jesus tells you to do that:
Be like me!   Be like your Teacher!   Do what Jesus does!
If Jesus cures every disease and every sickness,
then you go out there and cure every disease and every sickness.
Wow!   Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Be like Jesus—be a healer in your world!
Wouldn’t you like to a healer in the world today,
and don’t we need you to be our healer
in the broken, hurting world?
Isn’t that how you’d like to see yourself—a healer, heroic;
misunderstood, maybe, but heroic, you know?

Of course, the focus is not on ourselves;
as much comfort there is in this passage for disciples of Jesus,
for us, the church, the circle of the righteous and the good—
this isn’t about you,
this is about the stranger, and the enemy,
about “they” and “them” and the “others”
who are hurting as much as they hurt you,
and need your healing.

You are a disciple, after all, you are sent to them;
nobody in the kingdom of God heals himself or heals herself.
The command, actually, is cure others;
to have compassion on others,
on the harassed and helpless crowds around you.
The focus is on others, not on self.
All of this courageous, bold discipleship
isn’t about the righteousness of our cause;
it is about the love of others,
the love of those other than ourselves.

We pray for each other; we need each other to pray for each other.
I need you to pray for my healing; you need me to pray for your healing;
a broken, hurting world needs you to pray for them.
It is not enough that I pray for me,
I need you to pray for me, and you need me to pray for you;
and it Is not enough to pray for you,
I need to pray for the world God so loves,
or I haven’t really prayed at all.

That is always the way it is in the church, among the people of God;
that is always the way it is with the gifts of God—
they are no good for you, they are only good for others.
In the church, in the body of Christ,
we pray for each other in Jesus’ name,
and in Jesus’ name we heal each other
and become healers to a harassed and helpless world.
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

But now, right on the heels of all that, Jesus says,
If they have called the master of the house Beelezebel
[if they have called Jesus a devil],
how much more will they malign those of his household.
So go ahead, heal somebody, pray for somebody,
but don’t expect any credit for it.
Go ahead, be like me, follow me, Jesus says,
but if you do, I can promise you
not peace, but a sword.
Be a healing presence in this world, like Jesus was;
but expect to suffer for it.

Expect that it will set you against…father,
or mother, or mother-in-law;
just so you know—following Jesus could disrupt
your own household, your marriage, your family.
Those are the people you want to impress, not the ones you don’t;
those are your friends, family, comrades in arms…
don’t be afraid of losing them
be afraid of losing your enemies,
but don’t be afraid of losing your beloved.

Now, I ask you:  Who, in their right mind, would want to be a part of that?

It’s true, of course—
ever since Jesus rose from the dead there have been saints
who have suffered, and been persecuted, and died
because they followed Jesus and loved others.
But nobody chooses to be a martyr;
in the Christian faith, if you choose to be a martyr,
you are not a martyr, you are just dead.
So if this passage makes you uncomfortable,
if this is someplace you do not want to go,
if this is something you do not want to experience,
something you would avoid if you possibly could—
that’s good.

Do not wish for this.

Butdo not be afraid.

It is almost impossible to talk about these words of Jesus
to comfortable Christians like us
whose greatest threat is that people will simply ignore us.
According to Jesus, suffering is a sure thing for Christians,
and yet I can pretty much assure you that
if you don’t wander too far from home
nothing like this is ever going to happen to you.

If you invite somebody to church,
if you tell a friend about your hope in Jesus,
or bring up how much your faith means to you,
or if you tell someone at work that you’ll pray for them—
the worst that’s likely to happen
is they might think you’re too religious for them,
some kind of righteous fanatic,
annoying, but harmless,
and they’ll just ignore you.
You might be…uncomfortable;
but that’s is a far cry from getting flogged, or betrayed to death,
and it is not really persecution at all.

All the same, it’s pretty hard to hear from Jesus that,
on the one hand, you’ll be as successful as Jesus ever was,
and on the other that, if you do, you’ll suffer for it.
To hear on the one hand about healing and answers to prayer,
and on the other about lurking dangers and deathly possibilities.
To be sent out with all the power and authority of God,
but then realize you are being sent
not to your friends but to your enemies,
those you are the most polarized from,
those you least want to spend any time with.
And to hear that it’s just not safe to follow Jesus,
and if you are safe,
you probably aren’t where Jesus wants you to be.

It is hard to seek the healing of others,
because you can’t do it in hiding:
it is hard to love your neighbor, let alone your enemy,
because you can’t do it and keep it a secret at the same time.

And yet…
Have no fear of them…
Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

In the midst of all these dire warnings about unsafe discipleship,
Jesus keeps coming back to the one promise that counts:
Your Father—your Father God, who cares for you
as much as God cares for “them.”
Your Father God, who is so concerned for his creation that
he keeps track of every single sparrow,
who is so involved with your life that
he would bother with such details as the hairs on your head.

So go ahead, be bold:
Pray for the sun and the moon and the stars; God cares for you.
Pray not only for yourself but for others, with others,
tell them you are praying for them; God cares for you.
Love your neighbor, even your enemies; God cares for you.
Ask for your own healing, and seek the healing of the nations;
God cares for you.
Hold on to that—hold on to God’s incredible love for you,
and let God’s love conquer your fear.

You are not promised that you will get to be
blissfully comfortable all the days of your life.
But what comes through loud and clear,
in everything Jesus says is that God is God,
God is in control, God is present, and God cares—
it matters to God what happens to you,
and you can trust God’s care for you.
God is God, and God cares for you—
build your life on that, not on your fears.

Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

As if Jesus was telling you not to be afraid
and then tries to scare the hell out of you?
And I quake again,
because I have occasionally managed to acknowledge Jesus before others,
but I also have denied Jesus,
and it’s anybody’s bet which one I’ll manage today,
and what if the balance in the end tips toward denial?
Will God still care then?

And then we make that old mistake we always seem to make
when we read the Bible—we think it’s all about us,
when it fact, it’s all about God.
This whole passage is not so much about us as it is about Jesus.

It is enough, Jesus says,
for the disciple to be like the teacher—to live like Jesus.
This is what it will be like for those who follow me, Jesus says;
and then every single thing he says about us
is exactly what happened to him:
Jesus, maligned;
Jesus, losing his life
at the hands of those who kill the body
but could not kill his soul.

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather
fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell,
Jesus says—
and we tremble to think God could destroy us in hell.
But we forget that Jesus endured death on a cross and descended to hell
in order to destroy death for us,
because they could not kill the Spirit of life that was in him.
And when Peter denied him not once but three times,
Jesus did not deny Peter before his Father in heaven.
instead, Jesus sought him out
and made the same promises to him that he makes to us:
You are forgiven,
you are called to the adventure of an unsafe discipleship,
to heal others, to tell others this good news
that God is God, and God is present, and God cares for you,
and nothing can separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

But here is the thing:
In another church somewhere
another sermon is being preached;
preached about “us,”
and in that sermon
we are the “they” and “them” and “other.”

And someone is considering it worth the cost that,
for the love of Jesus,
they are to endure being hated by you,
that you oppose them,
and when you are with “us,” you ridicule them.
Somewhere another pastor is preaching
that to stand up for Jesus is to stand against you.

And why not; why shouldn’t they?
That’s the problem with Jesus:
you can use Jesus to say anything you want,
hold any position, make any judgment,
make yourself look righteous and the “others” look evil.

I believe it was theologian Duane Priebe who said,
‘Every time you draw a line between yourself and others,
you can be sure Jesus is on the other side of the line.’

So remember who is speaking here,
whose secrets you are telling and whose light
you can only hope to God might shine a bit through you;
who it is you are acknowledging.

Remember who it is that loves
your father, or daughter, or mother, or son,
or daughter-in-law or mother-in-law.

Remember whose beloved these are,
those so strange and foreign to your beliefs and values and ideals.

Remember that hate is not your option;
separation and ostracization and polarization
and choosing up sides is not an option for you;
judgment and righteousness is not an option.

But confession is.
Forgiveness is.
Gentleness is.
Love—actually to love them—is an option.

Remember this;
otherwise, whatever it is you are witnessing to,
it isn’t Jesus,
and you’re on the wrong side of the line.

Remember that these little ones
to whom you are sent for the love of Jesus
are your God’s beloved.



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