Once a year, we Christians do a house to house collection for Christian Aid, trying to knock on every door in our area, asking people to give money to help the poor and starving of the world. This surely is a good thing to do, so I was shocked a few years ago, in the place where I live, when some people suggested that this collection should no longer take place. What shocked me was the reason they gave : they had found that some people were being rude, even abusive to them, for being Christians, and they wanted to avoid such conflict in the future.
I was shocked because they seemed to have totally ignored the message in our Gospel today, (Matt 10:26-33) and in the many other places, where Jesus predicts that those who follow him will face conflict. Of course, in some parts of the world Christians are used to facing conflict with others, but this is a new thing in the UK, and there are sadly too many British Christians who just want to be private Christians, who just don’t want to face being upset in any way, by getting into conflict with others.
Jesus is fairly brutal with such people isn’t he? He implies that if we fail to “declare ourselves” for him, if by implication we disown him, then he will have to disown us. Of course, we all know that we will sometimes fail this test, that there will be times when we will simply keep quiet about our faith. That’s surely why so many of us are fond of St Peter (who we celebrate this Thursday along with St Paul) because he too, in a moment of fear, disowned Jesus; and yet in the end he was forgiven. Our problem here in the UK is not St Peter’s fear of death of course, but simply our fear of being different, of not being liked. It is however a fear that we have to face, because unless we face the fear, we can never really appreciate why Jesus says to us so many times – again as in our Gospel today, “Do not be afraid”.
Now I’m sure that Jesus doesn’t mean by this that being afraid is wrong. He knows what fear is. We only have to think of him fearful of the pain and death he knew he had to endure, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before he was arrested. Jeremiah too, in our 1st Reading (Jer 20:10-13) also faced fear, and showed us how he overcame it, because as he prayed he reminded himself that God was “By his side”.. and not just by his side, but by his side as, “A mighty hero” – words that Jesus would have known well. So surely the words of Jesus here, “Do not be afraid” are meant to encourage us to face fear, for as soon as we admit we have fear and begin to turn to God to help us face it, the more easy it is to cope with.
Sometimes, of course, conflict ought to be avoided. We will never for example persuade someone to follow Jesus by getting into conflict with them. When someone tells us that our faith is a load of rubbish, it’s better to try to find out what they mean, rather than to simply argue back. It is sad that so many people think all Christians care about is telling people what they should or should not do. “Oh No” I say “That is the religion of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus – the very people he argued with most”
The message of Jesus and his followers, as I am sure you know, is all about love not about condemnation and conflict. That’s surely why he says from the cross, of the people who have crucified him, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”
I sometimes turn the argument round when I face conflict about the faith. Instead of banging on about God, I ask them what they do believe in. Often they then point to acts of great love: those firefighters for example at the dreadful fire in London most recently, or those caring for a dying person, or a father dying trying to save his child… and so on. If they say this kind of thing, we can then say how much we agree with them. Our only difference is that every time we see love, we see God, we see a source of love that sustains and supports all these different acts of love that move us so much.
That’s surely the main message of today. Whatever we have to face, we need to know that that power of love in the Universe, will be with us and within us. Remember that next time a fire engine or an ambulance goes past with its blue lights on. You might make the sign of the cross too; not just to pray for those in trouble, but also a reminder, that there, rushing to care for others, goes love. And if love is there, then so is God.