Just before celebrating the Eucharist – the priest would remind the congregation how much God loves them:
Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him.
COME unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matt. xi. 28.
And - God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. St. John iii. 16.
If these are the comfortable words – then today in the Gospel – we have the (un)comfortable words.
In the midst of the Gospel from Matthew – Jesus reminds us that we are of great value –
But that’s just about the only thing in the Gospel for this morning that is comfortable.
The rest of it, I think, stands in stark opposition to the ways we often think about Jesus –
And yet – here it is. Some of the most difficult sayings we have on record
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother.
Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
This week – as I was thinking about this text – I paid special attention to the images of Jesus around us. To the way that Jesus is portrayed.
And I noticed how many billboards there are in this area that say things like, “I love you, Jesus” or “Jesus is coming.”
There were a few signs I saw this week that focused on repenting – that sort of came off in a scary way – Jesus is coming so get it right, kind of thing.
And then – out on a visit to see someone this week – I saw a kid in one of those t-shirts that was really popular a few years ago –
The cartoon caricature of Jesus on a surfboard and the text of the shirt reads “Jesus is my homeboy.”
My point is that we are surrounded – constantly barraged – with images of Jesus.
And in large part – they tend to fall into two categories.
On one side of the spectrum we have this Jesus-friend kind of figure.
This Jesus is a pacifist, a peace-maker – a spiritual teacher – a distant friend – who we can call whenever we need him.
Someone we can talk to about whatever’s going on in our lives – knowing that he’ll always love us.
This is a Jesus who is easy to stay in touch with – but not one who is terribly present in our moment-to-moment living.
He’s above it all – waiting for us to pop up into the clouds almost – and join him on his quest for spiritual truth – and peace.
This is a Jesus who is sort of generally – convenient. And appropriate.
One who doesn’t make a whole lot of claims on our lives.
In fact – other than sort of loving or neighbors…and kind of trying our best…it’s kind of hard to figure out what this Jesus wants of us.
On the other side of the spectrum is a very different image of Jesus.
This is the Jesus we often see on billboards – one who is quite a bit….well, he’s scary.
He’s always watching us. Knows what we’re doing all the time – and he’s not happy about it.
This is the Jesus who reminds us that if we don’t repent and get it right, that God might still love us- but that we’ll be lost.
And I think there are lots of folks in the world who are quite happy to portray this Jesus a little bit like an angry club leader.
He decides who is in and who is out – who matters and who doesn’t.
And all the while – he’s noticing what you’re doing and counting your sins.
This is an image of Jesus who trades in guilt – and for whom our trying – even our profound desire to do right – is never quite enough.
Both of these images of Jesus are dangerous – because they don’t take into account the fullness of who he is.
Because they aren’t balanced.
And in the end – they both show a desire to make Jesus who we want him to be – to suit some sort of human purpose - which…really doesn’t work – at least not for very long.
These might be uncomfortable words this morning – but they’re still important.
As Jesus prepared his disciples for the early church – he knew that they would have to live through some very difficult things.
He knew that their faith would divide families. And nations.
He knew that for some of them, their very lives would be demanded of them.
And he knew that there would be some who would fight –who would do anything to prevent the world from truly experiencing the peace of the Gospel – the safety of God’s love – and the equality of God’s mercy.
And he expected – that despite all of this – the disciples would take up their cross and follow him.
This Jesus – the real Jesus – makes very real claims on their lives – and on ours.
He is not distant. Or far off. Or unclear about what he expects of us.
He is still clear about his love for us – and his desire to be with us – there is love in the balance, here.
But he expects us to get our priorities in order.
And you can start at the top of the list.
God – is the first word.
Jesus expects that at the top of your list of priorities – the top of your list of things to do – the top of your list of the most important relationships in your life –
Jesus expects in every case that the first word- the first name- there is God.
Before family. Before friends. Before any other kind of allegiance – or relationship – there is God.
That is a very present – and real – and concrete demand.
And Jesus knows – as he said to the disciples – that this isn’t always easy.
Sometimes it isn’t the popular choice.
Sometimes in trying to do the right thing – in trying to put God first – in trying to love our neighbor second – there are people who don’t understand this.
And who can’t detach from the things of this world.
And Jesus knew that enduring the consequences of those choices wouldn’t always be easy.
There is nothing convenient about putting God first – about following Jesus first.
And there is nothing “appropriate” about it either – when we do it right, it tends to fall very much outside the lines of “appropriate” behavior because it has always included radical hospitality – radical love – radical inclusion.
And yet he’s very clear – whoever denies me before others, I also will deny. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
This is about priorities and expectations – and how we set up our lives after we’ve chosen to follow Jesus.
It doesn’t mean we don’t love our families – and our friends – it doesn’t mean we don’t feel allegiance or offer respect to other things –
But it means that disciples – following the real Jesus – will in all things put that relationship with God first.
Disciples – following the real Jesus – will in all things put following Jesus at the top of their list.
These are tough words. But they’re words we have to look at.
Because as much as we believe Jesus can be our friend – and our confident – and our support – Jesus is also the Messiah.
God in human form.
As much as we believe that Jesus is a spiritual teacher – who offered us the opportunity to love each other – and to live in peace –
Who preached liberation and equality – who defended the poor and the oppressed –
Jesus is also someone who makes concrete claims on our lives.
He doesn’t just want to be a friend we talk to from time to time.
This isn’t intended to be a casual, friendly relationship.
It is intended to be THE relationship.
The most important part of our lives.
And like all relationships – it needs tending – and prioritizing. Like all relationships – we have to choose to work at it.
To spend time in prayer. To spend time at church. To actively choose to put God first – to listen – and love. To pick up the cross and follow him.
Very real, concrete, expectations of our lives. And of our hearts. Amen.