The sword, Perpetua, and the Christian identity.

Proper 7A: Genesis 21:8-21; Matthew 10:24-39. St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Lake Jackson.

Anyone notice the family troubles in today’s readings? 

This is a harsh and painful scene inside (and outside) Abraham and Sarah’s household.

And then we hear Jesus’ words in Matthew … about bringing a sword and turning family members against one another.

Ah, c’mon Jesus! Why did you have to say that?

I recall hearing this gospel — in this very space — as a young girl. I loved my family. I recall hearing this gospel as a moody teenager, experiencing the normal tensions of growing up. And I recall hearing these words as a young adult, finding my way forward in life. 

And at each stage, I remember thinking: huh? What? Jesus, this doesn’t sound like you … or what I think you should sound like. 

This passage perplexed and puzzled me.

For all of us, at some point in our lives — or maybe even right now — experience the struggles and heartache of family. Life together can be wonderful and the source of much joy. It can also be challenging and conflicted. And depending how families handle that, sometimes they stop speaking to each other. 

So here’s an important pastoral word today: Jesus is not piling on. 

In this very passage he speaks of God’s love and care for you: God knows when a sparrow falls to the ground – and you are of more value than many sparrows. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. 

So what do we make of this passage in Matthew? Placing it in its context will help us a lot.

First, in its narrative context: it is part of the “Missionary Discourse,” in which Jesus gives instruction to his disciples and sends them out. Including a heads-up on what to expect. 

Three times Jesus says: do not be afraid. So, it sounds like fear is something we should expect … and it will be important not to be overwhelmed by it, but to look to him and trust in him

Second, we recall the historical context of this gospel. Scholars date Matthew as written between 80-90 Common Era, and therefore includes the cares and concerns of the Matthean community from which it emerged. 

Remember, Jesus was a Jew and his followers were Jews. By the time Matthew is written down, tensions had formed between the Jewish faith that Jesus was born into and the Jesus movement  — which first looked like reformed Judiasm and became Christianity. Painful divisions within local faith communities and families happened because of this.

And if that wasn’t enough, the values and commitments of the Jesus Movement were different and often in conflict with that of the Roman Empire. 

The emergence of Christianity in its distinctiveness, had the effect of severing family ties … like a sword.

A dramatic example of this is the faithful witness of a young woman named Perpetua and her companions. They lived in Carthage and were martyred in the year of 203.

Perpetua was educated and came from a wealthy family. She could read and write and we know her story because she kept a journal. 

Perpetua and her companions — those who worked in her family’s household — were preparing for baptism and were living the Christian faith.

But then came the day that it was necessary to pay tribute to the emperor — profess him as Lord and burn incense in his honor. And Perpetua and her companions refused.

Remember, the Roman Emperor claimed to be divine. The titles “Lord” and “Savior” belonged to the Roman Emperor. And the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome, was only peaceful if you were a Roman citizen. 

So, imagine going around with a “Jesus is Lord” bumpersticker on your 1st or 2nd century cart …  That is a dangerous statement to make, in fact a treasonous one! To proclaim that Jesus is Lord, simultaneously asserts that Caesar is not.

This is what Perpetua asserted and it landed her, and her companions, and her baby (yes, she was a mother) in prison. 

Her accounts from prison are deeply moving. She shares the words of encouragement that she and her companions exchanged, comforting one another through their fear.  

She also recorded a couple of powerfully symbolic dreams, which included a reunion with her deceased brother who had suffered from a terrible affliction, but now he stood before her healed, at a fountain of living water.

Perpetua’s father came to visit her in prison, to plead with her — just pay homage to the emperor. You are making your mother and brothers sick with grief. And what about your baby? What are you doing Perpetua? Have you lost your mind? You have so much to live for. 

She pointed across the room to a water pitcher and said: What is that? A water pitcher. You can tell me it is a lot of different things, but it is still a water pitcher … 

“I am a Christian.”  

How can I be anything other than that? 

Her father countered: you are a daughter, and a sister, and a mother…

“I am a Christian.” 

The Christian identity over-rides all other identities. It  informs our lives, our loves, our daily decisions. And, at times, it can cut like a knife … 

Perpetua and her companions faced the wild beasts in the arena. And Perpetua’s earthly life ended when a soldier’s sword pierced her throat. 

Perpetua’s witness is nothing less than Jesus’ first commandment (Matt. 22:35-40): love your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all of your mind.

Historical accounts reveal from this time forward, the words “I am a Christian” became the proclamation of the Christian martyrs … which sometime left executioners and spectators puzzled.

If I could preach to the young me, sitting over there puzzling over this gospel passage, I would say: this is not about you neglecting your chores and annoying your parents. And it’s not about fighting with your sister and the growing-up stuff that gets you in trouble with your folks. And I would tell my older self: this is not about disagreeing with your mother-in-law about the holiday schedule or the right way to cook a chicken.

No. This is about your deepest identity — your baptismal identity …

“I am a Christian.”

It can be an uncomfortable identity at times, and put you at odds with the powers that be, with Caesar, and lead to some heated dinner table discussions, and more.

So, Jesus in Matthew tells us: do not be surprised when it happens. And do not be afraid. God cares tenderly for you and for the whole human family.

Never doubt that you belong here. Instead encourage one another in the life and identity given to us a baptism: 

I am a Christian.

+++

The video version of this sermon can be found here.

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