Four Strikes and You're Really Out
Pentecost is the season for learning and maybe for unlearning too. In the text before us, Jesus tells us 3 times, "Do not be afraid." Yet, when we read this text especially the part about acknowledging Jesus before men and being disowned by Him before God, fear rises in our hearts. You would think after 3 strikes fear would be out. You would think Jesus telling us 3 times that we don't need to be afraid would be enough, but it isn't. Fear is a tough batter. It hangs in there. It won't go away easily or quietly. It's take four strikes before it sits down.
Jesus begins by telling us that we will be persecuted for speaking His Word. Some of you have experienced this already. You've been called "judgmental" because you refused to admit that all religions pray to the same God. You've been called "unloving" when you explained closed Communion. You've been called un-patriotic when you've spoken against prayer services where Americans from different religions each pray to their gods. Jesus sweeps away any fears in this area saying literally in Greek, "Don't even get into this business of fearing." "Don't even start." Fears that come upon us when we say what Jesus' says are unnecessary.
The vilification or rejection we feel when we speak a Word of God, is proof that we are members of the same household as Jesus. Jesus makes a play on Words. He says He's the Head of the House, but His enemies call Him "Beelzebub" which means "Head of the dwelling," but it's also the Old Testament name for Satan. If they call the Head of our House Satan, it's only natural for them to call us living in the house evil names. Early Christians were called "odor of the human race," "atheists," and "treasonous."
But I know what happens. When you speak the truth of Jesus and rejection or ridicule in someway comes back at you, you're the one who feels bad.. You start to feel scared because maybe you shouldn't have said it so strongly, should've held your tongue, been more tactful. Jesus drives such fears out of our souls by assuring us that these truths He's given us in His Word are meant for the broad daylight not dark rooms, aren't just for our ears but for shouting from the roof tops.
Fear misses on it's first swing. It fails to make us afraid by calling us names. Names will never hurt us, but the other side of that saying is true too: sticks and stones do. That's what fear comes at us with now, and Jesus startles us by telling us: those who persecute us with Words can indeed harm our bodies. When hundreds of pastors met at the Council of Nicea in 318 all of them had physical scars on their bodies for speaking the Gospel with their mouths. Since the Gospel first went out, it has been greeted not just with hateful words but harmful actions. Right now there are Christians who are being beaten, mutilated, tortured and murdered for their confession of Christ.
Yet, Jesus says, literally, "You can stop being afraid of that." Why? "Because while they can indeed harm your body, they can't harm your soul." In 1920s Madison County, Texas, the Klu Klux Klan was strong. The Lutherans wouldn't join. Klan kids chased home Lutheran kids from school and beat them with slats from chairs engraved with KKK till it raised welts in that shape on their bodies. The Klan came on horseback and in hoods with torches one night. They told a Lutheran father with 6 kids they would kill him unless he joined the Klan. He said, "You may kill me, but you darn sure can't eat me."
This Lutheran father had learned the truth that the devil and his minions can inflict lots of harm and suffering on our bodies, but having done all that they can do nothing to our souls. St. Ambrose said it this way: "We don't fear him who can carry away our clothes,...but cannot steal us." Say you're swimming at Barton Springs. You have your suit underneath your clothes. You leave your outer clothes on the bank while you swim. Would it really hurt you if someone took your shorts and shirt? You don't go to Barton Springs afraid of that happening, do you? So what; they got your clothes; big deal. The persecutors of Christians who rip the flesh, shock the body, and even kill it get nothing more than clothes.
Strike two...wait a minute; fear appears to have got a piece of this one. Just when we relax in Jesus' Words, "You can stop being afraid of those who can only hurt the body," fear appears to get a hold of us with Jesus' words, "Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." How's that? St. Augustine said it this way: "Let us fear prudentially that we not fear vainly." That means, if you're going to start being a afraid, then at least fear someone worthy of it. Fear the all powerful God, rather than a defeated devil and his thugs.
By commanding us to be afraid of God, Jesus is doing what an ancient doctor did to stop a man from drinking. He forbid the man from drinking any alcohol except from this one cup. He told the man he could drink as much as he wanted but only from that one cup. Weeks went by. Then one day the doctor showed up and smashed the cup. Jesus commands all of our fears into the one cup labeled "God." Rather than be afraid of everything else: when you'll die, how you'll die, what you kids will do, what they won't do, whom you'll marry, if you'll marry, be afraid of only God. Jesus puts all our fears in the "God" cup and then smashes that cup in the last part of this text by concluding, "So I want you to stop being afraid." Fear got a piece of the ball, but it's foul. Strike two.
Fear has 2 strikes on it, but it's still acting cocky because Jesus said that those who oppose us for His sake can harm our bodies. "Look what I can do to you. I can send cancer, disease, auto accidents, and natural disasters into your life," says fear. "No," Jesus assures us, "You're not at the mercy of Satan and his fears; your bodily needs, yea you're very bodies, are in My hands."
Don't misunderstand. Jesus doesn't promise that Satan will not be allowed to touch our bodies. He can; he does; he will, just as sparrows do indeed fall to the ground sick or dead. But not one sparrow falls apart from the will of your heavenly Father. Likewise, not one thing comes into your life apart from the will of your heavenly Father, and your Father knows what you can never know. He knows the number of hairs on your head, a number that changes daily, in some cases faster than others. You cannot know this. If we can't know such a simple thing as the number of hairs on our head, what makes us think we can know the far more complicated thing of what is really good for our heads?
Yes we don't know if we need sickness or health, good days or bad, success or failure, but we do know we're more precious than many sparrows. God the Father didn't send His Son into the world because sparrows were lost, but because we were. God the Son didn't take on feathers and wings, but flesh and blood. God didn't choose sparrows over His only beloved Son, but us. Rather than punish the sins of thought, word and deed you do in your body, God punished the Body of His Son. Rather than pour out your blood drop by painful drop on a cross, God shed the innocent Blood of Jesus one hellish drop at a time in your place. Tell me. If you had willingly let your child suffer and die so other people could live, how could you not love those people dearly?
God loves you for Jesus' sake much more than many sparrows, so let me ask you. Are the sparrows flitting around in your backyard ever afraid? Do you think you could make them? If you reminded them about the cat or the boy with the BB gun, would they start trembling on their little legs? If you pointed out that a sparrow doesn't live anymore than 3 years and that there were diseases that could kill them much sooner, would they stop their merry chirping? No, the Psalms tell us they look confidently to the hands of their heavenly Father for every good thing. If sparrows can live that confidently, that happily, that carelessly, that is without care, how much more can you who are worth more than many sparrows to God?
Strike three. Fear should be out, but it doesn't walk away from the plate. It argues that it tipped that last pitch though it completely missed. Fear insists on one last pitch to hit, and it appears to connect in the last paragraph. "Whoever acknowledges Me before men, I will acknowledge Him before by Father in heaven. But whoever disowns Me before men, I will disown him before My Father in heaven." Though we have 3 clear "don't be afraids" from Jesus, this last paragraph starts us shaking. Haven't you failed to acknowledge Jesus before others? Haven't you disowned Him before others? I have.
First stop hearing imperatives where Jesus isn't speaking them. Stop making a command out of what Jesus simply gives as a report. Jesus is not ordering here but telling. He is stating truism, a principle, a truth: He will never fail to acknowledge before God those who acknowledge Him before men. Likewise, He will not fail to disown before God, those who disown Him before men. This is a truism. However, there is comfort in this truism. It's found in the little word, "in."
There are 3 "ins" in the first sentence in Greek. "Whosever acknowledges in Me, before men, I will also acknowledge in him before My Father in heaven." The three "ins" go together: in Jesus, in us, in heaven. Lest you think I'm making much out of little. Hear St. Chrysostom, a Greek father of the Church in the 400s. This man whose native language was Greek said we should notice Jesus' exact words; Jesus said not rom above we make confession. Where do we get grace from above? From the means of grace. Baptism, says Paul puts us in Christ. Absolution puts our sins away from us in Jesus' name. Communion puts us in Jesus and Jesus in us. No one in Jesus, says Jesus, ever fails to acknowledge Him or He them.
The last sentence teaches this too according to Chrysostom. It doesn't say, "Whoever disowns in Me, I will disown in Him," but simply, "whoever disowns Me, I will disown Him." This shows that only the person not in Jesus is the one capable of disowning Him. Not having the grace of Jesus the denial of Him automatically follows, but having the grace of Jesus in the Means of Grace: Baptism, Absolution, and Communion: the acknowledging of Jesus automatically follows, and Jesus' acknowledging us before the Father in heaven automatically follows that.
You are secure in Jesus: what can make you afraid now? You're Baptism can't be undone. Your sins once put away in Jesus by Absolution can't come back upon you. The Body and Blood of Jesus in you by Communion can't be torn out of you. Fear has struck out. Not in 3 strikes but 4. And after 4 strikes, you're really out. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost V (6-23-02), Matthew 10: 24-33