3rd Sunday after Pentecost
‘GOD’S HOLY MESSENGERS’
When Matthew wrote his Gospel, the stakes were high for people who chose to accept the good news of Jesus Christ. Being a Christian in Judea in the first century was different from being a Christian in Australia in 21st century. Last Sunday, we talked about how the church in the Western world, including Australia, has lost its former status and role, and how it has now been consigned to the margins. But despite all these, we still have religious freedom in Australia where we can practise our faith freely without fear of persecution or being ostracized.
That was not the case for the people whom Matthew addressed in his Gospel. Many were ostracized by their communities, even by their own families, because of their decision to become Christians. Others lost their lives altogether.
In those times, Christianity was seen as a threat not only by the Jews, but also by the Romans who saw it as a movement that threatened their social order. Its message of radical equality amongst its members went against the Roman way of life. Its refusal to worship anything else besides God in Christ was seen as a threat to the imperial cult that required Roman citizens and residents to worship the Emperor. Indeed, Christians were considered as radicals who tried to turn the fabric of ancient society upside down. Living as a Christian in first century world was thus not for the faint hearted.
This was the historical background of Matthew’s Gospel. Through his Gospel, Matthew wanted to encourage the Christians who lived in the first century by reminding them of Jesus’ own words. He reminded them that Jesus didn’t come to make their life easy. In his own words, Jesus came not with feathers to make their beds comfortable, but with a ‘sword’.
Of course, Jesus didn’t advocate violence. When one of his disciples tried to protect Jesus by cutting the ear of one of his assailants, Jesus ordered him to put the sword back. “All who use sword will die by the sword,” he said (Matthew 26:50-54).
So in our passage today, Jesus used sword as a metaphor. Just like a sharp sword could cut something in half, the gospel had the power to separate truth from falsehood; goodness from evil. But it wouldn’t come without pain. Those who dared to follow Jesus must be brave to pay the price. And those who were not ready to carry their crosses, were not worthy of his name.
One of the most important statements in the Apostles’ Creed is the statement that we believe in the Holy Catholic Church. But what does it mean to say that the church is holy? Does it mean that the church is free from sins? Does it mean that the church has not and will never do any wrongdoing? We acknowledged in last Sunday’s sermon how it was often the church, including the Uniting Church, that needed to be saved from its sins.
Holiness is thus not about being perfect, but about being different; being separated. We are in the world, but we are not to be of the world (see John 17:14-19). The church, the community of Jesus’ followers, must be different from the world. It must provide an alternative way of living that is different from the world’s dominant way of living. It must be faithful not to the powers and desires of the world, but to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But being this kind of alternative community often mean going against the status quo, the establishment of today’s world. And when we go against the normal order of the society, there is often a price that we need to pay.
One political leader in the world that I admire the most is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as Ahok, the former Governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. His story had captured the attention of many people around the world recently. He was the first ethnic Chinese, a persecuted minority group in Indonesia, who held the office of the capital’s Governor. He was also the second Christian Governor in history of the capital of the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world.
Obviously, his status as a ‘double minority’ – he is Chinese and Christian in Muslim majority Indonesia - caused him a lot of troubles. Since the moment he was sworn as the Governor, his political enemies used his minority status as a weapon to overthrow him.
Now, it is not unusual in Indonesia for politicians and celebrities and other public figures to convert to Islam to gain more recognition. Many people in Indonesia use religion so that they can have more access to power and wealth and popularity.
But not Ahok. He chose not to abandon his faith. He often said that if he converted to Islam only to stay in power, than people should question his character and credibility.
And he paid the price for his determination. He, and also his family, often received death threats, some of them publicly. As he mounted his campaign for reelection as Governor, he was charged with blasphemy, a crime punishable to up to five years in prison in Indonesia. He was accused of mocking a verse in the Qur’an when he criticized his opponents who often used religion as a political weapon. He denied the accusation, even though he apologized for what he said.
Two massive rallies, drawing hundreds of thousands of hardliners, were held by his political enemies to demand his immediate resignation and arrest. Militants fighting with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a terrorist group in Syria, warned that if Ahok wasn’t sentenced, they would sentence him with bullets. As the result of all the pressures and threats, he lost his reelection bid, lost the case against him in the court, and was sentenced to two years in prison. Yet he accepted his defeats and sentence and never asked his followers to retaliate against his enemies.
For me, Ahok was a modern example of someone who carried his cross and chose not to abandon it. He once said that all of his problems would be all over if he converted to Islam. But he refused to deny his faith. Rumor has it that he was only allowed to have one book in his prison cell and he chose to carry a Bible.
Indeed, he may have lost to his enemies, but his steadfast character had won the hearts of millions of people, non-Muslims and Muslims alike, in Indonesia and beyond.
When he was still the Governor, he was once asked whether or not he ever feared for his life and the life of his family. He admitted that he had fear, but then he paraphrased a verse from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (1:21): “But for me, living is for Christ, and die is a gain.”
Ahok is an example of someone who dared to pay the price for not conforming to society’s norm and standard so that he could be loyal to the gospel. And there are many characters in the Bible who had also courageously confront the dominant force of their societies as God’s messengers.
One of them was the prophet Jeremiah. He was a unique character amongst the great prophets of Israel. His book contains not only his prophecy, but also details of his personal life.
In Jeremiah’s time, Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonian army. In those grave hours, nationalistic fervor ran high and most people advised the King to defend the city from the invaders. But Jeremiah advised his King otherwise. He told the King that God’s will was for Jerusalem to surrender to the Babylonians.
As the result, Jeremiah was ostracized by his fellow countrymen. He was accused of being a traitor. Some even tried to kill him.
But Jeremiah couldn’t contain God’s words within him. He described the words like fire burning in his body. He must proclaim the words even though he had to pay a high price as the messenger of the bad news to the people in Jerusalem.
No, Jeremiah was not a traitor. He loved his people. He gave them the warning from God because he wanted them to be spared from the disaster that awaited them if they resisted the Babylonian army.
It is said that in the old days, people who worked in coal mines would carry canaries in cages with them. Being little birds, the canaries would die quickly if the mines were suddenly filled with toxic gasses or fumes that could kill the miners. This was the background of the saying: to be a canary in the mine.
Jeremiah had indeed become, in a sense, a canary in the mine. He warned his people of an impending danger, even when telling such a message brought dire consequences into his life.
We too are to be courageous like Jeremiah. We are to be ready to be the messengers of God’s love even when it means that we have to go against the powerful status quo in our society.
In Jesus words, each of us has to carry our cross faithfully. We are to pledge our loyalty not to society’s norms and values, but to the gospel. And only by doing that can we be worthy of wearing the name of Jesus Christ in our life. Amen.
Rev. Toby Keva