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The Cost of Witness
Fr Dennis Smith, June 22nd, 2014

Jesus’ encouragement to his followers to act fearlessly comes in the context of sending them out to proclaim good news to the lost sheep of Israel; giving them authority to cast out unclean spirits and heal diseases; and warning them about future persecution.

Matthew uses Jesus words also to remind the Church of his day that being a disciple isn’t a weekend break, but a long haul, a vocation to be borne through bleak as well as rewarding times. As followers of one who faced opposition himself and suffered crucifixion for announcing the Kingdom, they cannot expect anything different from their master. They are therefore to rise above their natural fears and look beyond them to the future fulfilment of God’s promises.

Another of the lectionary readings recounts Jeremiah’s struggle with his sense of call. “O Lord, you have enticed me and I was enticed; you have overpowered me and you have prevailed. I have become a laughing stock all day long: everyone mocks me.” It doesn’t undermine the personal and heartfelt cry of the prophet for us to be aware that his words come to us in the shape of a liturgical prayer whose form as a lament is the same style as many of the Hebrew Psalms. As such, it gives a vocabulary to the whole worshipping community to be honest in prayer and to struggle to understand what is being asked of them as covenanted partners with God. “O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind …. to you I have committed my cause.”

To work in an unresponsive or hostile environment, whether society or the church, may cause people to lose their nerve and reassess their calling. Yet in the gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid, their needs and shortcomings being covered by God’s protection and embrace.

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master. It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, the slave like the master.” Why should followers of Jesus be spared the clash of earth and heaven which he experienced? Even human loyalties (son and father, daughter and mother, daughter-in-law and mother-in-law) may be tested.

Discovering what our Christian calling might mean for us in a range of different circumstances inevitably presents us with some difficult choices, not least where obedience to God reins us in.

In one London suburb, on Good Friday, people from several local churches unite to take part in a walk of witness through the central shopping area to the Methodist Church where an open-air service is held.  In recent years, due to cuts in public services, the police haven’t been able to accompany the procession, so it’s been left to volunteers to make sure that the walk of witness takes place safely.

Usually the pace of the procession is set by someone beating a drum, but it was noted that people were bunching six or seven abreast, because they were walking too fast, ignoring the drumbeat and almost overtaking the cross being carried at the head of the procession.

There’s always a risk of wanting to get ahead or by-pass the route of the one we follow, and, over the years, the Church has had to repent may times when its desire for power and influence has undermined or compromised its calling to serve the weakest in society and identify with the poor.

The Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyamon once wrote a book of meditations called “No handle on the cross” which wryly described the inefficient way in which God set about saving the world. Koyama suggested that a smart, well-proportioned lunchbox would be an easier receptacle in which to convey the gospel, rather than staggering under the weight of the cross, which is badly designed, not conveniently portable, unattractive and hard to promote as an attractive lifestyle. Yet Jesus says “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, the slave like the master.” It’s enough to follow him in the way he has walked, and in the way he has chosen for us. But is it sufficient?

The reassurance we find in today’s gospel, to disciples, or to a struggling church, is striking, but Jesus’ words take us beyond personal assurance into the realms of public proclamation. Matthew looks beyond the earthly life of Jesus with a promise that there will be future time when “nothing is covered that will not be uncovered and nothing secret that will not become known.”

Far from being a threat, this is a cause for rejoicing. From the vantage point of Jesus’ resurrection, the truth will out, and the essential connection between his suffering and God’s purpose to set creation free will become widely known. In the meantime, even the risen Jesus depends on the testimony of those who believe. He didn’t stage a public appearance to end speculation that he is alive, but embodied his story in the life and testimony of the church.

Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that their baptism is an ongoing sign of their union and identification with Christ in his death and resurrection, and that the fusion of death and life, suffering and hope is to be proclaimed publicly and demonstrated through the witness of their lives.

Etty Hillesum, who came from a family of secular Jews, began to discover God during the most severe period of Gestapo activity in Amsterdam during the Second World War. She was already interested in religion, having read widely from Jewish and Christian sources, but she came to realise that simply reading about it wasn’t enough, and describes in  her diary two consequences for her of following her particular spiritual path.

First, she felt an overwhelming desire to kneel – even though this was foreign to her nature. She didn’t know, initially, to whom she was kneeling, but it was something she felt compelled to do. Later, after her arrest, and while waiting to be deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she subsequently died, she wrote in her diary of her gradual realisation that, in this world, “someone has to take responsibility for God.” She felt that someone, in the midst of the horrors of the Gestapo destruction in Holland “has to live as though the Gestapo is not controlling the Universe. Somebody has to live as though things are just different …. and that someone, unfortunately, seems to be me.”

While the cost of being a witness is demanding, the whole enterprise springs from God’s relationship to us in Jesus; it’s nurtured by the ongoing conversation between the gospel and our life experiences; and the opportunities which come our way to testify to the hope that is in us for our times and for the time to come.

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