The end of John’s gospel has a dialogue between Jesus and Peter where Jesus predicts Peter’s death. “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God). And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.'” (John 21:18, 19 ESV).
As divine fate would have it, tradition says that Peter was fleeing Rome due to the severe persecution of Christians under Emperor Nero. Peter saw the risen Jesus and pater asked, “Where are you going?” To which Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Peter courageously turned around and followed Jesus into the city where Peter was captured and crucified upside down. It’s a grim picture but also a very real call that Jesus gave his disciples. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Following Jesus is not supposed to be whenever it suits us. Jesus is clear about this when he said, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Jesus calls us to follow him everywhere and all the way! This means we follow him into the waters of baptism. It means we follow him in the way we live our lives. And it means we follow him in his suffering and resurrection. Christians cannot write off baptism as no big deal any more than they can write off suffering as something that’s not necessary. Christ commands his disciples to follow him no matter what.
We spend much of our life attempting to be “right” as Christians. We want to know that we have the right answers, the right interpretation of the scriptures, and the right arguments to disarm people with wrong information. It’s great to be a student of the scriptures but our lot in life isn’t to be right. It’s to be faithful. When we are faithful God shows up in the most powerful ways.
The entire chapter 11 in Hebrews is about people who walked by faith. Many of them didn’t know what the future held or the troubles they would encounter. They only knew that God made a promise to them, and they were faithful. Abraham lived in tents for years and years, having no idea where he was going: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (vs. 8).
The author of Hebrews says that there were many people like Abraham who endured suffering or who waited for the promise. God delivered every time. Abraham became a father of many nations. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Noah saved his family and began a new world. Even in their faith, they didn’t receive what they were promised, “since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (vs. 39, 40). We were promised something far better than even those giants of faith. Without our faith, those people from the past are not made perfect. Our faith really, really matters.
In Matthew’s gospel account, he retells a time that the disciples were hungry and began to pluck heads of grain to satisfy their hunger. “When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath'” (Matthew 12:2 ESV). Jesus was quick to remind them of the time David was hungry and did what was unlawful by entering the Temple and eating the bread of Presence, which was reserved only for the priests. He also reminded them that the priests profane the Sabbath in the temple when they make sacrifices.
Jesus then said, “I tell you, something greater than the Sabbath is here. And if you had known what it means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (vs. 7, 8). Jesus’ point (as well as God’s point in Hosea 6:6 that Jesus quotes, is that God prefers mercy over following the letter of the law. We can technically get the law right and not have a good heart. I’ve known people in law enforcement who give family members tickets for very minor infractions. Isn’t it better to show mercy to the innocent than to enforce every law and make their life burdensome?
Jesus is the lord of Sabbath, and he gives us room to practice mercy to the innocent. In fact, he expects us to!
There’s an old idiom: “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” It’s intended to suggest that ignorance is bliss. In other words, the less we know about troublesome things the better off (and presumably safer) we are. Many people live with intentional ignorance, but is this the safest way to live?
As parents, we know that we need to teach our children from birth how to be safe. We “baby proof” houses until a child is old enough to understand how to safely navigate through the house without getting hurt or dying. It takes constant reinforcement to train them to stay away from boiling water, hot stoves, electrical outlets, sharp objects, etc. There are two basic ways that we learn how to avoid dangerous situations–one is by people who warn us and the other is to experience pain ourselves. If we aren’t told that certain things are dangerous or if we luck out and avoid pain for a while, eventually we will succumb to serious injury or death.
What we don’t know can hurt us. This is why Jesus spent a significant part of his ministry warning people about wolves. In fact, John records Jesus’ important words after he warns them about destructive people: “I have said all these things to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:1-2). Had Jesus not warned his followers, they would have been completely blindsided and left high and dry. Instead, they knew exactly what was coming, they knew the signs, and they could at least stand a fighting chance of surviving the grip of wicked people. What we don’t know can definitely hurt us.
Each week we have the opportunity to commune together, breaking bread and drinking the fruit of the vine that represents Jesus’ blood that was poured out for us. Paul tells us that, when we take communion, we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again. Jesus himself said to “do this in remembrance of me.”
When Jesus ate the last supper with his disciples, it was the Passover meal that they were celebrating. Jesus gave new meaning to the Passover meal, because he was now the lamb whose blood was poured out to rescue mankind. The Passover first appears in Exodus 12 when the Israelites were in Egypt. The tenth plague was that the firstborn of all people and animals in the land of Egypt would die. The only exception was for the Israelites who sacrificed a year old lamb or goat and painted their doorframes with blood. That night, God would “pass over” the houses with blood on the doorframe and the firstborns would be spared. They were to use unleavened bread and were told to eat this “last supper” in haste.
In this same story, God institutes the Passover–to be observed every year: “You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever” (Exodus 12:24 ESV). The Passover was to be celebrated both as a family (in the home) and as a congregation (all of Israel was to observe). And it was to participate in the Exodus event and instruct children: “And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’ And the people bowed their heads and worshiped” (Exodus 12:26-27).
In order to understand the Lord’s Supper (communion), we need to understand Passover and how Jesus gave it new meaning under the new covenant. Each week we get to remember Christ’s broken body and the blood he shed to cover our sins and rescue us. And when our children ask “what is the purpose?” we get to teach them about Christ’s love for us!
When Jesus sent his disciples out into the towns, he warned them that persecution was waiting for them. They were going to be drug before courts, experience floggings in their synagogues, and were going to be dragged before governors and kings for Jesus’ sake. This was a very sobering thing to tell his brand-new disciples. Imagine, Jesus told his followers to leave everything behind, including jobs and family, and gave no timeline for how long they would be on the move.
Very shortly after they left everything, he split them up into groups and sent them out into towns, but with a very stern warning: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). Then he warned them of the types of persecution they would encounter along the way. But then the warning gets worse: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (vs. 21-22).
“Pastors resigning” is trending this week on social media because people are realizing how many preachers are leaving ministry this year due to, it is thought, the stresses of the pandemic. I’m seeing some of these people leaving ministry talk about their “persecution.” Trust that internal struggles, tensions, and even in-fighting is not the same as persecution. Jesus clearly defined persecution, and warned his disciples that they would face it immediately. This training proved to be very good, because the early church would face severe persecution and would thrive in that environment.
Perhaps we should better equip each other to face severe punishment. Traumatic experiences tend to cripple people today because forgiveness is used as a weapon, instead of teaching Christians to stand up to these evils of oppression and persecution.
We don’t know much about the seventy-two people who Jesus sent out to preach. What we do know is that he sent them two-by-two, that they were to go ahead of Jesus into all the towns he would be visiting, and that he told them to heal the sick in those towns and proclaim that the kingdom is near. We really have no idea who these people were, what their backgrounds were, or what professions they had. Jesus did tell them not to take anything with them except what was already in their possession.
When the seventy-two returned, they were astounded at what all God was accomplishing through them. “Lord!,” they exclaimed. “Even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (Luke 10:17 ESV). Jesus told them that he saw Satan fall like lightning from the sky, and that he gave the disciples authority over all the power of the enemy. It was an incredible responsibility that they were given. But Jesus didn’t want them to rejoice in this.
“Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Jesus’ warning here was to not get intoxicated with the power they had. Sure, he gave them authority over the power of the enemy. But that didn’t make them invincible. Authority can be infatuating. It can lead to pride and arrogance. It can blind people to compassion. Jesus would rather them remain humble and rejoice that their names are written in heaven. This is a good reminder that our message needs to be seasoned with hope, grace, and must point people to salvation.
Photo byÂ Ged LawsonÂ onÂ Unsplash