Discipleship Digressions

Matthew 10:24-39

At its core, today’s Gospel is about discipleship. What does it means to be a disciple of Christ?

The word disciple comes from the Latin noun discipulus, which simply means student. When we say we are disciples of Christ, what we are actually saying is that we are students of Christ. At least in some sense.

But in what sense?

The word student is also a Latin word, literally translated, they are zealous; or, they are eager.

Now I don’t know about you, but I used to be a teacher—a Latin teacher, in fact—and I could never say this of all my students: that they were all zealous for Latin, or that they were all eager. Sure, some were eager. But others—usually many more—were not. Yet I didn’t make any sort of official distinction, like the eager ones were students while the non-eager ones were non-students. Oh, I might have wanted to make this distinction. For I might have seen it this way. But to the administration, parents, college admissions counselors, and so on, eager and non-eager alike are both called, simply enough, students.

So, is this what it means to be a disciple of Christ? To be a student of Christ? If so, is it okay if I’m not always so eager a Christian? What if some days I feel eager and other days I don’t? Does this mean I’m only a disciple of Christ sometimes; or that my faith is only lukewarm?

But I have made a digression.

Why don’t we look at the passage itself and see what it says about discipleship?

But when we do so, we find it difficult. It’s difficult to see what it means to be a disciple of Christ in this passage because of some rather hard words, some rather distracting words, some words we might even call digressions.

A first digression then, if you will: Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” What does Jesus mean by these words?

Jesus cannot mean a literal sword, can he? In fact, later in this very Gospel he rebukes a disciple for using a literal sword (cf. 26:51 ff.) to cut off another man’s ear! If he wanted to, he goes on to say, he could call twelve legions of angels to fight a war for him. But violence is not his way. Peace is.

But that’s just it! Jesus’s message of ultimate love and peace does not bring peace in the moment. Rather, his call to be a loving servant in the here and now turns the world upside down.

His message is about the hope of peace, one day; but for now this message is so radical that the immediate result will be upheaval, perhaps even to the point of violent opposition.

A second digression: Are we to fear or not to fear?

Jesus tells his disciples not to fear those who malign his name and those who threaten, even with death. For God the Father knows the number of hairs on your head and cares for even the tiny sparrow. Therefore do not fear those who can destroy only the body. But, on the other hand, do fear God, the one who can destroy both body and soul.

Is the text of two minds on this point? Do not fear; yet fear?

Not at all!

On the one hand, Jesus calls his disciples to be courageous, not to stand down on a decision made for his sake.

But, on the other hand, in the decisions we make for Christ, we must keep our positions in check, so to speak. God cares for each of us intimately; but God is no pushover!

Rather than being of two minds, there is instead something of a tension here. Disciples of Christ are called to make courageous decisions that nevertheless remain subject to change under God’s leading.

And a third digression: What are we to make of the family?

“For I have come to set a man against his father,” Jesus says; “and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “family values,” this is not the passage of scripture that comes to mind. Still, here it is, right here in the Bible. What do we make of it?

Think for a moment about what the family represents. It’s bonds. Love; loyalty; fidelity. Remember the Hatfields and the McCoys? Huckleberry Finn runs into a similar feud: by this time the families don’t even remember what the original dispute was all about. Instead, now it’s all about family bonds. Blood is indeed thicker than water.

So what we’re to make of today’s passage—it seems to me anyway—is that Jesus is calling for prioritization. His disciples should possess love, loyalty, and fidelity for him that surpass even the bonds of family.

Anyway, as I’ve said already, today’s Gospel focuses on discipleship. But thanks to these digressions we haven’t even gotten there yet!

Or have we?

A lone beacon shines through the fog here: a profound truth about discipleship that enables us to navigate our way through these digression-filled waters. This “lone beacon,” this “profound truth,” is simply this:

Discipleship is about radical choices.

Following Christ in the ancient world was counter-cultural. It meant individuals being excommunicated from synagogues. It meant congregations assembling in catacombs, in secret because of their apparent subversiveness towards the established political structure. It meant imprisonment and death for many. It meant making and keeping radical choices in the face of persecution unlike anything we’ll ever know.

But it also meant hope and salvation for a desperate and enslaved world.

So it is today. Following Christ in our world today is counter-cultural. It means repenting of sinful habits and destructive worldviews in favor of loving others ahead of self. It means taking the higher road, maintaining impeccable integrity, doing the right thing even when no one is around to see it. It means having the courage to stand up against the injustices you see in the world around you, whether at home, at school, in the workplace, or beyond.

Christian discipleship is about radical choices.

This kind of discipleship—that makes and keeps radical choices—produces the family-dividing sword and the fearlessness to which Jesus refers.

But all this brings me back to my original digression—not the digressions I pointed out in the text, but the one I brought up at the beginning of my sermon, the one about a disciple being a student in some sense.

I get that being a disciple of Christ requires me to make choices, at times even radical choices, and stick to them. But what about my feelings?

Is it okay if I’m not always a fearless Christian? What if some days I feel eager and other days I don’t? Does this mean I’m only a disciple of Christ sometimes; or that my faith is only lukewarm?

Here’s the thing: these radical choices we are called to make as followers of Christ are nothing more than principles by which to live.

They’re principles that might lead to division instead of peace, yes, as Christ himself says. Yet principles by definition are based on reason, not emotion. We are able to stand upon our principles regardless of how we might feel on any given day.

But, of course, in order to formulate such principles to begin with, in order to establish Christ-honoring principles by which to live in the first place, we must spend long hours ahead of time, before the emotion of the moment overwhelms us. That way, when we don’t feel so eager, or when our faith feels only lukewarm, the principles we live by are already in place.

So what should we do during these long hours of this “before” time?

I think you know the answer already: pray; read; study; engage in spiritual direction; and so on.

These spiritual disciplines should be your routine. And if they are not, they should become your routine. For only in them do we clothe ourselves in Christ, as the apostle Paul exhorts. Only in them do we conform more and more to Christ’s image and worldview. Then, when the emotional storms of life hit—and they always will—we are nevertheless able to stand—even if we don’t feel like it; even if our faith feels lukewarm.

But we’ve come full circle, haven’t we? For these “before” activities—reading, praying, studying, etc.—aren’t these what students do?

May we all be faithful students of Christ!

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