Sunday, June 29, 2008

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.

Sunday, June 29, we commemorate the martyrdoms of Sts. Peter and Paul. It is unlikely that the two saints were martyred on the same day, so the date of June 29th is generally accepted as the translation of their remains. Around the year 258 under Emperor Valerius, the Christians were suffering persecution. The believers feared that the bones of Sts. Peter and Paul would be destroyed, so the remains were apparently moved temporarily to keep them out of the hands of the persecutors.

Some traditions hold that Peter and Paul died on the same day, perhaps even the same year (64 or 67 A.D.), although the experts do not agree. Peter is believed to have been crucified, and traditionally insisted on being hung upside down because he did not feel worthy of dying in the same manner of his Lord. Paul is said to have been beheaded. Both suffered under the reign of Emperor Nero, and their deaths may have been connected to the great fire of Rome. Though the date commemorates their martyrdom, it is also a celebration of their apostleship.

It makes sense to remember Peter and Paul together, after all, they were called to a very similar ministry. They are each remembered on another day during the church year. Peter’s confession is remembered on January 18th. Paul’s conversion is remembered on January 25th. St. Augustine wrote, “Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles' blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”

In light of this celebration, our texts for this week help us to see our own calling in this world, to share the Gospel message of faith. And yet, the celebration also reminds us of the difficulty following God’s calling in this world. Peter and Paul both died for their faith, martyred at the hands of those who did not know, nor care, about Christ or His people. They rejected the faith which had boldly, but humbly, been proclaimed to them.

Jeremiah understood rejection. At first sight, the Old Testament passage seems very hopeful. Jeremiah was excited about the idea of peace for Israel. “Amen!” he said to Hananiah’s prophesy in 28:2-4. He followed with a warning, however. He reminded them that all the prophets before prophesied about war, evil and pestilence. Who wouldn’t prefer Hananiah’s prophecy? Peace meant that the people would not longer be oppressed and held as slaves. They would be restored to their homeland and the king would rule again. This is a message filled with hope because it promises peace. It is not surprising that Jeremiah would be rejected when faced with a message that contradicts his own warnings. Surely Hananiah is the prophet of God because he spoke the message that the people longed to hear.

Hananiah proved his point with a dramatic gesture. “Then Hananiah the prophet took the bar from off the prophet Jeremiah's neck, and brake it.” The yoke Jeremiah was wearing was much like an oxen yoke and it was a symbol of political submission. Jeremiah told the people that they should submit themselves to the Babylonians and he stood as an example to them with the yoke around his neck. Hananiah was preaching a different message, a message that promised that the yoke of the Babylonians would be broken and they would be free. Hananiah took Jeremiah’s yoke and broke it, not only showing the power of his message against the Babylonians, but also showing that Jeremiah’s power over the people was also broken. Jeremiah walked away.

There are many people who claim to be prophets of God, speaking ‘Thus says the Lord’ with self-imposed authority. They speak a message that the people want to hear and reap the rewards of their pleasure. If anyone doubts their authority, they prove their power by some grand gesture, gaining the trust of the people who would rather hear his word above others. The one who contradicts these so-called prophets are condemned and rejected, just like Jeremiah.

Jeremiah did not fight the prophet. He agreed with the prophet’s words, saying “Amen, I hope this will be.” But then he reminded the people that a prophet’s words must come true for the prophet to be speaking from God’s mouth. When peace came, Hananiah would be proven a prophet. Unfortunately, we learn quickly in chapter 28 that Hananiah is a false prophet. “Hear now, Hananiah: Jehovah hath not sent thee; but thou makest this people to trust in a lie.” He might have broken a yoke of wood, but God responded to the grand gesture by making the yoke of Israel a yoke of iron, unbreakable. While a yoke of wood was a yoke of submission, the yoke of iron was symbolic of servitude. The people could have lived in quiet submission to the Babylonians for a season, but because of Hananiah’s arrogance and their rejection of the truth, they would live as slaves to Babylon. Hananiah prophesied restoration within two years, but he died just two months later.

The Romans understood slavery. As a matter of fact, of all the ancient worlds, the Romans held the most slaves. It was a common practice around the world. Many slaves were taken as prisoners of war, as was the case of the Jews in Babylon. Since the Romans were fighters and occupiers, they had many prisoners from vanquished nations who could serve in their homes, businesses and even the army. The highly trained and intelligent slaves were worth the most money and often served as singers, scribes, jewelers and doctors.

For some, slavery meant a better life than they could ever have lived in freedom. The slaves were usually well cared for, often treated as family. Female slaves were often very close to their mistresses, serving as advisors and confidents as well as servants. Most military men were slaves. Treasurers were often slaves. Condemned criminals were sent as slaves into the mines since that job was so dangerous it meant early death.

Life didn’t always have to end in slavery. In Rome a slave could be freed by the mercy of the master. He or she could buy his or her way out of slavery with money they have saved, so at least some slaves were given a salary or gifts. Though they had no rights as citizens, they were acceptable witnesses in court. They were not allowed to enter into public buildings such as the bath house, but were not held prisoner. They had the freedom to move about the city, especially the domestic servants who went to the market and did other errands for the house. The Roman economy depended on slavery, but most of the slaves were well treated and many were able to get out and live as a citizen again.

So, as Paul wrote to the Romans, they understood the concept of slavery. Many of the Christians who heard the letter were probably slaves. Many of the early Christians were the oppressed and poor, since the message spoke to their difficulties. The slaves were at the bottom of the class structure and so were the Christians, since they refused to live and worship as the Romans. For many slaves, the Christian message was one of hope, one of equality, one of grace even for them. So, slaves found comfort in Jesus Christ and believed wholeheartedly in the Way.

In some ancient cultures, a freed slave could choose to stay with a master. If such a choice was made, the slave was nailed to the doorway of the master’s house, the nail through the earlobe. This was a statement that the slave chose to stay as part of the household, willingly serving rather than forced to serve. In the freedom of choice, the slave became a servant for life, welcomed by the master as part of his household forever. The way would have been much easier for the Jews under Babylon if only they had listened to Jeremiah and understood that God merely sent them to exile for a season. Instead of willingly serving, they were forced into a harsher and harder life under their enemy.

Paul tells us that we are slaves. It is a hard concept for us to understand, we who have never personally experienced the kind of slavery that was experienced in Babylon, ancient Rome or even in our own nation a hundred years ago. We are slaves to other things, sometimes foolish things. We are slaves to our jobs, our schedules, our kids’ activities. We are slaves to our habits and our desires. We are slaves to sin, just as those Christians in Rome were slave to their sins.

We, like them, have been set free, however. We no longer need be slave to sin. We have been given a much better choice, to willingly serve the Lord. We are still slaves, but we have been welcomed by a Master that will treat us well. As slaves to sin, we are bound to suffer the consequences of our sin. As slaves to righteousness, we will receive the fruit of His grace. As we live in His household, we grow closer to our Master and are transformed—sanctified—into the kind of servant He has ordained us to be.

Jesus said, “He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward: and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward.” I’m not quite sure what reward a prophet will receive. In most cases, the biblical prophets—those who spoke of God—received little more than the rejection and persecution of the people. And yet, they followed their calling with the assurance that they would receive the blessing of God. The reward is not necessarily found in this life or this world, it is found in the promise of what will be. So, those who receive a prophet may not receive a reward like gold or silver, but will have the assurance of the promise which is given to the prophet.

I’m not quite sure what reward a righteous man will receive. As a matter of fact, the righteous ones often suffer the same rejection and persecution that the prophets receive. The righteous ones are the ones who refuse to take advantage of others for their personal benefit. The righteous ones are those who end up as door mats and ladder rungs for the people willing to do anything to get ahead. The righteous ones do not boast of their greatness but quietly live as God has called them to live, in a relationship with Him. Those who receive the righteous will not gain anything but a deeper and stronger relationship with God.

To receive a prophet and a righteous man means receiving a reward, but not a trophy or medal. It means gaining a stronger and more personal relationship with the God to whom they are bound. This is more valuable than any gold or silver, it is an eternal gift, one that will last forever. Receiving the prophet and righteous man is a manifestation of the faith which God gives, the faith which saves. The reward, the assurance of true faith, is priceless.

Isn’t it amazing that a priceless gift such as eternal life takes so little to earn? We need only give a glass of cold water to a child in the name of God’s servants to keep that which God has promised. And yet, even this is too hard for us to do without God’s help. We can not give a glass of cold water to a child in the name of a disciple without faith. We can not serve God in this way without believing in the promise that is already assured through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. To receive a prophet or a righteous man takes faith, and only God can give that gift. He is faithful. We can’t lose what He has promised, and so we live in trust. Our circumstances may not be as we wish—we will face persecution and rejection—but God has given us the assurance that what He has said is true. We have hope to get us through the difficulty.

Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.” This quote is found on the website, A Complaint Free World. The purpose of the site is to help people understand how often they complain and how insignificant their complaints really are. You receive a purple bracelet which you wear for three weeks. Each time you notice yourself complaining, criticizing or gossiping, you move the bracelet from one wrist to the other. In doing so, you realize how often you speak words that are negative and unproductive.

Complaining will not change anything. There are times when we have something to say that will make a difference. This might sound like complaining to some, or criticizing, but it is a teaching and learning moment for all. We must still inform others of their mistakes and help them to overcome. Even when we are teaching, however, we are reminded to look at our attitude about the situation. Is this something that can be changed? Can it be changed with a few words? Do we see something wrong because it is not being done our way, or because it is harmful to others? If the situation can’t be changed, how do we react: with grace or grumbling? It is at those times when we can turn to our God like the psalmist and realize how truly blessed we are. As we live in God’s amazing grace, we bless and praise God for all the things that are right and good instead of focusing on the things that have gone wrong.

Peter and Paul were confident in their attitude. Peter felt justified telling Jesus what to say about His future. He denied the possibility that he would fail. Paul was in good standing among the Jewish leaders and went out persecuting the Christians without really knowing, or understanding, what they were preaching. The Jews believed the false prophet instead of listening to the true Word of God. We too fail to be perfect, to be faithful, to be what God has called us to be. Yet, we learn daily about God’s forgiveness and live in His grace as we are able, knowing with assurance that even when we fail God is faithful.

We learn from the stories, from the apostleship of Peter and Paul, that Jesus doesn’t call perfect men and women to ministry. He calls those who hear His Word, receive His forgiveness and go out to do the work to which they were called. How often do we deny Jesus in our daily lives? We all have moments when our thoughts, words and deeds are not according to God’s command and will in our lives. We deny Jesus each time we do not feed the hungry or clothe the sick. We deny Jesus each time we speak against our neighbor. We deny God when we fail to serve those to whom we have sent. However, Jesus loves us, feeds us with His Word, gives us a new chance each day to confess our love for Him and then He sends us out to live and work to His praise and Glory.

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