I have a friend who is a preacher whom I admire. Once when we were talking about preaching he told me that I should always look to find what the good news is within the reading for the day. I have to say that, given today’s gospel reading, I have failed to find the good news within it. If I only had this passage to use in order to convince someone that following Jesus is a good thing, I don’t think I would have much success!
However, it makes sense to have realistic expectations when embarking on any venture. The venture of faith is no different. I have heard of people being told that if they become Christians all their problems will disappear. Sickness, debt, mental health problems, unemployment will all be swept away in an instant. Just say the magic words and it’s guaranteed. Imagine the shock and dismay when they find that this is simply not true. The ups and downs of life are still there, although I know that sometimes people do have miraculous experiences which completely transform some aspect of their lives.
There are costs involved in being a disciple of Christ and here Jesus highlights a big one: division. He who was hailed as the Prince of Peace is saying here that there will not be peace as a result of his ministry. This division will be felt particularly within families. Each family tends to develop its own way of doing things, its particular approach to making decisions, or using money, or bringing up children. If some members of the family choose to follow Jesus, and do it whole-heartedly, there is a good chance that they will feel the need to decide differently from others who have not made that choice. If they had previously behaved just like everyone else, that is likely to bring a great deal of stress and disagreement into families. However, in order to follow Jesus as we should, a loyal relationship with him must have priority over all other relationships, even blood relationships such as between parent and child. Following Jesus is costly.
We know that it’s not only families who are divided by faith in Jesus. Whole nations are divided over matters of faith. In many countries there is violence towards those of other faiths. In Nigeria churches have been attacked by those who believe everyone should be Muslim. Many Christians have died as a result. The same issue affects many other countries. It’s hard to avoid being aware of the fate of Christians from Iraq and Syria who have had to flee their homes in the current crisis. Even those in less extreme situations may face being disowned or killed by their families if they convert to Christianity from another faith. Even between Christians there can be division over matters of doctrine. Jesus spoke the truth when he said that he came not to bring peace but division.
With such a ‘wonderful’ prospect on offer, why would anyone bother with faith? Yet God has called people into relationship with him from the beginning of time because it is the best thing for them. He particularly reached out to the people of Israel, who are likened to a vine in both the psalm and the reading from Isaiah. God is the vine grower and provided everything needed to allow his people to flourish, just as vines need to be provided with the right conditions. God’s people had every opportunity to live good lives based on justice but many chose to refuse. The result was that they were abandoned to the natural consequences of their choice. Instead of being like vines which were tended and protected, the people were trampled on by life.
Nevertheless, in every age there have been those who have taken the opportunity to live in relationship with God. The chapter of Hebrews lists many of them and what they were able to achieve by having faith. Faith allowed the Israelites to cross the Red Sea away from danger. It helped Rahab to escape when Jericho was attacked. Faith has helped leaders to win battles and wars. Faith mattered so much to these people that they were prepared to suffer whatever came their way – persecution, imprisonment, torture and death because they took the long view of what it meant to have faith. They believed that God had promised them a better future, something worth suffering for.
I remember my father often said that we should not ask other people to do something that we ourselves would not be prepared to do. In other words, we must lead by example. Although God as the vine grower provided everything necessary for his people, the vine, to flourish it might be said that it’s all very well for God to expect people to follow his ways but that it’s too difficult for human beings to do. He answered that in the incarnation, when God came to live among us as a human being. Jesus faced suffering on the cross for the sake of us all. As he was talking to the people about what following him would cost them, he was looking forward to the far greater suffering he would endure as the ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith’.
As we read in Hebrews, there is a great cloud of witnesses who have taken Jesus’ example seriously and now surround us with their encouragement as we do our best to also follow him. Rather like the spectators at the Rio Olympics, they are in the stands cheering us on as we too run the race of life. Like them we are advised to let go of everything that might hold us back, whether that be family ties, ambition, fear or a host of other things. We are not to give up but to persevere, like the runner who keeps his or her eye on the finishing line. We are to keep our eyes on Jesus because he is the one we are running towards. He’s waiting for us with a white garment to clothe us in as we cross the line to the roar of the crowd.
Despite the cost of discipleship, faith really is good news to those who are prepared to listen and act.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor