Perfect freedom

You will be persecuted.  Count on it.  Objections will come from unexpected sources.  Those who you think should be your allies will cry out against you.  That is the price Jesus’ disciples will pay – in every age.

But it’s not fair, you say.  We’re the good news brigade; we are the messengers of God’s love; who could object to that?

Well, as it turns out, there are plenty of people who object to love as a public policy.  There’s no profit in love – nothing to be gained. Love’s power is not accumulated but shared.  And we are a species that covets power for ourselves.  Love overlooks differences, and we are a species that find some comfort in differences; they give us ways to measure ourselves – and those measurements let us feel superior, or unique …

It is to these realities that Jesus speaks through Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus, the prince of peace, comes “not to bring peace to the earth, but a sword…”

Matthew wants this made perfectly clear; the ‘good news’ that Jesus represents  is so radical, families will be divided; the very fabric of society will be torn apart.

Remember that Matthew is writing to a community of faith that is in the difficult process of self-identification.  Jesus resurrection is two generations in their history.  The message of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed; the notion that Jesus was more than just a talented teacher; the spirit-led lives of those first disciples; all these have left their mark on the countryside.  The proclamation and witness of those who knew Jesus personally has begun to separate their devotion from the religious practices of the children of Israel.  Their differences are tearing families apart, and maybe Jesus’ words can help soften the blow.

But this talk of difficulty and division is also part of  Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ sending the twelve out to learn their trade.  They are sent out “like sheep among the wolves” (v. 16) and it is certain that not everyone will be overjoyed by their presence, or convinced by their teaching.   Again, Matthew’s experience speaks to us; Jesus message does not meet the expectations of the religious establishment of the day.  Love, and justice, and new, abundant life are not always compatible with the steady, solid, “normal” understandings of ‘the way God works’.

God’s people have often struggled with ‘the way God works’ – our brief glimpse into the life of the prophet Jeremiah is a good example.  Jeremiah has been called to speak the truth to a nation which has lost its way – Jeremiah warns of the judgement of God, even as he offers hope in and beyond exile…but the truly religious – the priest Pashhur, for example -will not hear it.  The priest strikes Jeremiah and places him in the stocks, but Jeremiah continues his mission.  He complains about it – in this morning’s reading – he recognizes that his proclamation has made him a laughing stock; he has tried to keep silent, but the call from God is irresistible.  He must  ‘explain God’ to his fellow citizens because he is convinced of God’s ultimate goodness, to be revealed in God’s own time.

What seems to bind these episodes from this morning’s readings together is the notion of God’s freedom.  Freedom to act (or not act).  Freedom to speak or be silent.  God’s freedom is something we don’t give much consideration because we are usually concerned with our own freedom.

In our freedom, we have formed ideas and created rules.  Our freedom lets us judge one another and honour one another.  We can think for ourselves, thank God – and often that is what causes us the most trouble.

Jesus sends his friends out among those who have, in their freedom, made up their minds where God is concerned.  They are not interested in giving the poor or the weak any special consideration.  They have constructed social boundaries and made rules for social systems; boundaries and rules that God, in freedom, choses to ignore.  Jeremiah is sent into the presence of the powerful to tell them that their time in power is over – that God, in God’s freedom, is about to ‘do a new thing’ among them (and with them and to them).  It won’t be pleasant, but it will – ultimately – be beneficial.  This kind of proclamation – speaking the truth to those who believe they understand the truth – is costly and disruptive; it is peace at the point of a sword.  And it is the business of the church of Jesus Christ.

When we encounter God in perfect freedom – when we see, in Jesus life, death and resurrection, God’s freedom at work healing and forgiving and overcoming even the darkness of death – our ‘personal freedom’ seems pathetic by comparison.  The rules we make and defend, in our societies and around our religious ‘truths’, offer no hope when compared to the hope revealed in Jesus.  And it is God’s freedom that liberates us to offer the gospel – to live in equity with the poor and the oppressed – to speak a peace that brings no peace to those who believe they have all the answers.

Often enough, our response to this challenge will sound like Jeremiah’s lament, or like the pleading of the Psalmist to “rescue me from sinking in the mire…”  We might complain that our faith ought not to change our lives too radically – we want familiarity and freedom. But the truth of the gospel will not be tamed.  God’s freedom is perilous and thrilling.  The truth of the resurrection is that none of the boundaries that we use to create our ‘freedom’ are left standing, and God will work in ways that make us uncomfortable.  And that continues to be good news, because only in freedom – free from our expectations, free from our rules and regulations, free from our fears and limitations – in perfect freedom God is redeeming us all.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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