Some time back I was traveling on a train. One of the delights of wearing a cassock is that people talk to you rather readily. On this occasion it was a young couple and their pre-school daughter. I was introduced to the delights of Peppa Pig, amongst other things, since she was very proud of her new book. It was a slightly jarring note when it emerged in the conversation that the man was just back from active service and they were spending some of his leave visiting the grandparents. This fellow, who was devoted to his daughter, had just been in battle. It made me think. We all have a variety of sides to us in different roles. His daughter saw one side of the man, his fellow soldiers, another.
We must be careful to respond to people as they are and in particular we must be aware that Christ is not to be fitted into some expectations of ours. We need to know Him as He is.
There is a tendency to construct a sort of sentimental picture of Christ. He is the gentle soul who loves children and whose yoke is easy. But there is much more to Him than that. There is talk about the “hard sayings” of Jesus. The idea is that somehow Jesus’s words do not quite fit the expectation. There is an example in Matthew 8:20:
“Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead.’”
This may be taken at many levels but however you read it, a social duty was secondary to the call of Christ.
The reading today is another powerful example. We have to place him above all other demands. In fact, today’s Gospel misses a section - Matthew 10:34:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword… a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
The prophesied Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) talks about bringing a sword! A sword is a military item; Christ brings war. I wondered if this would be the same had Christ said a Kalishnikov. In one way, yes, it still shocks. In another it does not since a sword is an edged weapon, that serves both to cut and divide.
Christ clearly demands that we place loving Him ahead of anything else. We must love Christ more than family. Christ is simply telling the truth. There will be discord for his followers, people will betray them Most importantly, the demands of God have to come first. We must respond to that call to love Christ more than anyone else.
This is all consistent with Christ’s other teachings, for example: Matthew 22 37-40:
“‘You shall love the lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Loving God is not so hard as an idea; nor is the idea of loving your neighbour. This is all very pleasant and fits well with those charming and sentimental pictures so beloved of earlier times. Yet these are not the full story. We also have the icons of Christ Pantocrator - the Ruler of All - to consider. We see there the face of God incarnate, the Saviour and Judge of all. Christ is not just a sweet Liker of children and cute animals, He is also the terrible (in the best sense of awesome) reality of God Incarnate. It is in this context Christ says these serious harsh sounding words. We are to place Him ahead of anyone else. He is speaking nothing less than the truth. We are not told to deny love to others but Christ has to come first. Paradoxically, the experience of centuries is that loving God makes other loving more fruitful, greater and more powerful.
But please let us seek to know Christ as He is, not as some imaginary version we create from our own wishful thinking. That would mean we are not in a relationship with Him but rather worshipping a form of idol of our own making.
If we do not love God more than anyone else we are not worthy of Him. If we do place something or someone ahead of God we are falling into a form of false worship, of idolatry.
This is something that shakes us out of complacency that challenges the reality of faith and demands a response. Peter went through this challenge, we read it in St. John’s Gospel chapter 21. St. Peter’s love is questioned three times, and Christ tells him to feed his sheep. This was after the famous denial by St. Peter and Christ’s forgiveness. We may repent and be forgiven. St. Peter shows that we get second chances, but let us not take that for granted. Habitual denial gets ingrained. Denying Christ means that he will deny that Person before the Father.
We are also told: “Take up your cross.” To carry a cross was to be condemned. A victim who was to be executed had to carry his cross to the place of crucifixion. This was truly, as it were, a ‘dead man walking.’ There is a vigorous reality here. The Kingdom of God is not to be taken lightly. It cannot be a hobby or a diversion. It demands all we can give.
My “immediate commanding officer” (Fr. Gregory) is quite clear about this. The church is a hospital. We help, support and nourish; we see healings for people in pain and help each other in our struggles. But, the Church is also a barracks and a training ground. The work of equipping ourselves for this is mentioned in 1Thessalonians 5:8:
“... since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”
The theme is also in Ephesians 6:10-11:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes…”
We are a fellowship, a gathering of people called together in the Church, and an army. We are bound together in love for each other and centred on Christ, on our love for Him and His love for us. We fight against all manner of foes, particularly spiritual ones. In that fight we may fall, and do. Yet by God’s grace we may be forgiven, strengthened and fight on.
But let us close on a very positive point. Christ loves us more than we can conceive. Not all of us are called to leave our homes or undertake new roles in strange places. Some are of course. But, in Matthew 19:29-30, Christ says:
“Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
May our love for Christ and our neighbours truly fill our hearts.