Matthew's community was experiencing serious persecution. It would be decades before Christians were even called Christians and would be persecuted solely "for the name." Nevertheless, Matthew's followers were getting into trouble for the same reasons that Jesus and Paul did.
Sarah Dylan Breuer, an Episcopal priest from Cambridge MA, conducts a workshop called "Speaking the Truth in Love: Practical Skills for Reconcilers." She believes that there are essential skills that are foundational and vital to the process of reconciliation. Matthew’s (Matthew10: 24-39) Gospel selected for this Sunday calls to mind those skills.
The first skill requires that we keep an open mind, listen and be as fully “present” to the process of sincerely trying to understand one another. The second skill is to be in touch as much as possible with God's love. We want to really know and experience God’s extravagant and unconditional love.
When Jesus teaches that we "Call no one father on earth, for you have one father -- the one in heaven,” he is referring to the earthly paternal powers that we may allow to enslave and have dominion over us. Matthew’s community deferred to God’s infinite love and wisdom and not to the ruling powers of the time. They were taught and believed that God gave every human being the ability to make their own decisions. Each had gifts to offer the community and they didn't need to ask anyone's permission to do so. As such, they built pockets of communities within their overarching Christian community, based on Christ’s teaching, into a radical new order that looked more like chaos to many and therefore threatened to undermine the order of the Empire.
And so their neighbors, their friends, and sometimes their own family turned them in, hauling them before governors as agitators to be flogged, or worse. We can only imagine that being betrayed by those so close to us would wound as deeply as any physical punishment.
The one thing that Matthew wants his followers to remember isn't something they're supposed to say or some particularly compelling case that they should make to their accusers or the authorities. It, more than anything else, is that they need to embrace how very much God loves them. This is good advice for anyone living in Christ's reconciling ministry.
Sooner or later, if you're a part of that ministry, you'll find yourself making contact with very deep wounds, and wounded people. And all wounded creatures are liable to respond to any overture out of pain, confusion, and anger. A person who comes back at them with more of the same is only going to speed up the spiral of violence, with disastrous results. What we want to do in a situation like that is to be present and loving; that's the only way to disrupt that spiral of violence. That's very hard to do, though, when someone is right in front of you either threatening violence or saying something that would normally provoke a "fight or flight" response…something that's sure to happen eventually if you're trying to be an agent of healing.
In a situation like that, we're understandably tempted to withdraw -- to "check out" mentally if not remove ourselves physically…or to strike back, or both. I think part of what makes those temptations particularly strong is that contact with another person's deep wounds often reminds us of our own wounds and vulnerabilities that we've tried to forget. That's why reconcilers must remind themselves moment to moment to stay grounded in God's love. If we remember how much and how unconditionally God loves and values us, we won't be thrown off-center by anyone's attempts to make us feel as worthless. Rely on the power of God's love to heal, and we won't have to flee from things that remind us of our own vulnerabilities and wounds. Recall what God's love looks like in the flesh…in the person of Jesus, and we will know how to respond. Be in touch with that love at the very core of our being, and we will be able to respond with authenticity and with love no matter what we face.
Don't worry about what to say. There's a reason Martin Luther King called the result of nonviolent resistance "beloved community." It is the community of those who know, who proclaim, and who embody the Good News that love is the fundamental, powerful, and inevitable Word through which the universe was made and lives, and for which it is destined. We have seen the Word made flesh in Jesus, and we see it embodied in and among us. That can't be stopped by violence. Bringing violence to bear against God's love only creates more opportunities for God's love to disrupt the spiral of violence and build a beloved community.
Thanks be to God!