Beginning From the End
When a kid is excited to let you know something, you often have to say, "Wait; start at the beginning." Well there are some things best understood by starting from the end. This is text is one of them. That last paragraph is where Christians face what they're ultimately afraid of: Denying Christ before men. How easy this is to do; how useful is this to do. But denying Jesus before men today means being denied before the Father in heaven forever. And fear is the key to that and this text.
There are plenty of reasons for Christians to be afraid. If they call the Head of the House "lord of demons", what do you think they'll call you if they find out you live in His house? A 2017 blog of mine references those yard signs confessing civil religion. You do realize by implication they believe our kind of Christianity, Bible-believing, historic, conservative, believes health care is for the rich, black lives don't matter, women don't have rights, some humans are illegal, and science isn't real? History documents that Christ's disciples were called imposters, odor of the human race, and atheoi (without god) was used a synonym for Christians (Nicoll, I, 165). This is the college kid who got a summer job at a logging camp. On return, his pastor asked him, "What did those lumberjacks say when they found out you were a Christian?" "Oh," replied the young man, "they never found out."
Ouch! Really. What about Hebrews 12:4 "nanny-nanny-boo-booing" you for you're whining because you have not yet confessed to the point of shedding blood? What about 1 Peter 4 doing the same for your considering "the fiery trial" as something strange happening to you? It's now debated whether the girl at Columbine who was asked if she believed in God was shot and killed or shot and survived, but what would you answer when staring down the barrel of a gun. Bang! If you don't deny. Damnation if you do. Or what if a Covid-19 vaccine is kept from those of us violating the civil religious rights of women by opposing abortion and not ordaining them, of LGBTQ for not marring them and for calling homosexuality sin?
Will we confess out there what we do in here? Will the Bible passages we pitch back and forth in the liturgy from mouth to ear, like the one that denies evolution is true, "Our help is in the name of the Lord Who made heaven and earth." Will we dare shout that from the rooftops? Dare we be the baby chick dyed an Easter color knowing when placed back among the yellow chicks we'll be pecked to death for believing such unscientific things as a virgin conceived and became the Mother of God, that a Man is God, that sins can't be paid for by men or just forgotten by God, that sex outside of marriage is damnable sin, that the Devil is real, and guilt can be ignored but never escaped?
There are plenty of reason to fear; there are better reasons not to, says Jesus. Three times Jesus says, "Don't be afraid." And He gives the reason each time for not being afraid, but doesn't say it the same way. First, He says don't even begin to be afraid; "don't go there", we would say; or don't even start. Stop the horse of fear from galloping away with you by jumping off. God's truth will be vindicated. It will be unveiled in the end that you were no fool for believing that God created the heavens and the earth in 6 days, became Man to live the holy life you needed to and die the guilty death you deserve to. Once you start being afraid of confessing what God has clearly said in His Word it's Merle Haggard's snowball rolling downhill headed for hell. Once you've been really spooked by something, you're on edge thereafter. "Don't even start," says Jesus.
The next "don't be afraid" is a present, active, imperative and means you can stop being afraid now, today. Every other place in Matthew, the use of soul refers to the entire person. Like us saying, "150 souls perished in that plane crash." So here it's unique when Jesus makes a distinction between body and soul (Gibbs, 530, fn. 8). Liberal Christianity says the immortality of the soul is a doctrine we get from paganism, Plato, or Eastern Religions. No, we get it from Jesus. Jesus says you can stop being afraid right now because while Covid-19, crime, age, weather, or accident can kill your body, they can't kill your immortal soul. St. Ambrose said, "'We do not fear him who can carry off our clothing; we do not fear him who can steal our property but cannot steal us'" (Davies, II, 206). But what about Jesus saying, "Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell"?
Yes, what about that? It's like the story of the ancient physician who wants to stop a man from drunkenness. He brings him a clay cup and says, "You can drink as much as you want every day from this cup, but only from this cup." Weeks go by. The physician comes, takes that cup, and smashes it. Here, Jesus says, "Rather than fear men, devil, or death, fear God alone." And then He ends paragraph: "Don't' be afraid you are worth more than many sparrows to God." The cup is smashed; the One thing you are to fear He says, "Fear not." This "fear not" is also present, active, imperative. It's a policy command. You are to make it your ongoing policy not to be afraid. You will never be abandoned by God in Christ. Jesus mentions the cheapness of sparrows and says yet not one of them falls to the ground without their heavenly Father's knowledge and consent.
There is a Rabbinic legend, that could date from after Christ, that relates how a Rabbi had hidden in a cave from his persecutors for 13 years. One day he observed that when a bird-catcher laid his snare, they escaped or not, according to a voice from heaven saying, "Mercy" or "Destruction." He reasoned that if even a sparrow can't be caught without heaven's bidding how much more safe was the life of a man (Vincent's, I, 61). Jesus reasons: God numbers your hairs not a sparrow's feathers. And you're worth far more than a sparrow to Him. His only Son was not sent to take on the flesh and blood of a bird; He didn't suffer, bleed, damn, and die for the sins of birds; You are worth more to the Father than the life of His only Son; so your policy can be: never be afraid.
Now we're back to the end. All the reasons to be afraid have to do with remaining in Christ. Left to myself I won't. I will most certainly deny like Peter did when "persecuted" by a young girl's questions. Like Judas, I will betray Jesus not for the world but just for a few pieces of it. Like Paul I will think persecuting those who follow Jesus is serving God. These are my great fears, and the only remedy is to be in Christ. Paul mentions being "in Christ" 153 times. So are you in or out? Baptized into not just the Father and the Holy Ghost but into the Son, absolved in Jesus' name, bodied and blooded to Jesus, Christian, are you in Him or not?
The concept of being in" is there in Jesus' last words of this text. Only Young's Literal Translation translates the in' that the Greek has. Jesus says, "Whoever confess in Me before the people, I will also confess in Him before My Father in heaven." This construction conveys the idea of confessing Christ out of a oneness with Him. There's an identification of the confessor with the confessed, not a mere formal verbal acknowledgement (Ibid.). This was seen by Chrysostom in his Homilies on Matthew from 386 A.D. He saw that the in' connected with confessing Christ and the lack of in' connected to denying Jesus meant that a person confesses by the power of God's grace in Christ where the person denies Him by his own power (34.3, NPNF, 10, 229). The tiny dancer in Elton John laughs at the Jesus Freaks handing tickets out for God. Jesus in us should freak us out in a good way, a powerful way, a fearless way.
But we have to back up a little. You realize where this all ends? It is the profoundest of statements to say that what you think of the Man Jesus, not God Almighty, not the God that most everyone will let you talk about, not the God far away in heaven, or within the walls of a church, or your private life, but what do you think of this guy out here in the world is what matters. Is He true God begotten from eternity and true man born of the Virgin Mary or not?
I hope you confirmed Lutherans recognize this from our confession of what the Second Article of the Apostles' Creed means. Because in that first paragraph we answer this question that has eternal consequences and therefore ramifications for every single day of your life and particularly your death. We say, "I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord." This Man Jesus who is mocked openly in society today; this Man Jesus who is denied to be God in any sense, this Man Jesus who is nothing more than a first century Jew to liberal Christianity, is my Lord. He's the One I bow before. He's the One I worship and adore whether He comes to Me in the Waters of Baptism, in the Words of Absolution, or into Me in His Body, He gives to me as Bread and in His Blood, He gives to be as Wine. With Thomas we say, "My Lord and my God" to the Man Jesus.
The problem with the end of our text is that you hear it as all imperatives. Kind of the like the Who song: "You better, you better, you bet." You better, you better, you bet be confessing Me before men amidst Covid-19, civil unrest, political upheaval, and personal problems. It's all on you; you're all alone with whatever faith you have or don't, with whatever resolve you have or don't, with whatever positive feelings you have or don't.
No, no a thousand times no. First, there are no imperatives in the last paragraph. Second, go read Colossians 1. The hope of your eternal glory is not a vaccine for Covid-19, not an end to racism, not giving peace a chance, or a tiny dancer named Hope, Courage, or Love tiptoeing in you. Paul says the hope of glory is Christ in you. I'm telling you that God's mighty miracles Baptism, Absolution, and Communion make Christ in you a reality, a certainty, end of story from the beginning. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (20200705); Matthew 10:24-33