Some things that we read in the scriptures can cause us quite a lot of unease and perhaps the very first line of the text today might be one of those. Jesus is telling his disciples that anyone who chooses their own family over him is not worthy of him, and many of us might find these words rather challenging and uncomfortable.
Of course, we have to see this instruction in its context. It is accompanied by two other sayings one about taking up the Cross and the other stating that those who find their life will lose it but those who lose their life will find it.
We can see that these three sayings are related. They are simply different ways of saying the same thing. They are telling us that we must put Christ and his Gospel above everything else. By using what might seem to us to be rather extreme sentiments Jesus is trying to get us to realise the absolute importance of choosing eternal life. He is telling us that this is the most important choice we have to make in life and that to put anything else before it is mere foolishness.
Jesus is telling us that it is more important even than our own earthly life or our family. Our task is to take up our Cross and to follow him wholeheartedly; nothing less will do.
What Jesus presents to us is not always going to be an actual choice. We are not being called on this very minute to choose between our family and the Kingdom. But we need to very clearly understand that in certain extreme circumstances it might come to that. Normally, our family will be quite supportive of our desire to follow Christ’s Gospel of love and we will not be forced to make such a desperate choice.
We need to understand that what Jesus is doing here is preparing his disciples for the day when that choice will have to be made. He knows that all bar one of them will die a martyr’s death. He knows that as the various persecutions launched against Christianity by the Roman Emperors begin to occur his disciples are going to have some very tough choices to make. And he realises that he has to prepare the disciples now so that they will be ready for the day when they will have to face having to choose between their loved ones and the Kingdom.
Christians down the ages have faced times of extreme persecution. Many have given their lives for the faith or suffered extraordinary deprivations for the sake of Christ. In our own day we too are suffering a new kind of persecution and we have to be very sure that we understand precisely what form it takes otherwise we will not know how to defend ourselves against it. We will not experience the kind of persecution our forefathers faced when they endured more or less overt discrimination for being a Catholic.
Today what we face is a different kind of hostility, it is more hidden and better disguised. It is presented first of all as indifference; we are told that no one cares about faith anymore and that it is superfluous in the modern world. We are told that the secular world is quite indifferent to matters of faith. Those who influence society give the impression that our beliefs are simply quaint and amusing.
But we shouldn’t believe what we are being told because actually the values of faith are being consistently undermined and put under attack. There is present in society at large a deep seated, if disguised, hostility towards matters of faith in our modern society.
For example we have recently seen that politicians who stand up for their faith are exposed to ridicule; and we understand very well that the ultimate aim is to eventually hound them out of mainstream politics.
Actually there is becoming less and less room for faith in our media-centred world. In state schools faith has become a taboo topic which is never to be discussed. This is not just a religious deprivation but a cultural one; young people are growing up who cannot even recite the Our Father or are unable to recognise an obvious biblical quotation when they are presented with one. This is a deliberate policy aiming to detach the mass of the people from their Christian roots.
Today society regards all religions as the same and they are treated as a sort of refuge for those whose thinking is backward and unmodern. There is a continual erosion in many important areas of life. We can see how faith based morality is being constantly rolled back not just in areas of abortion and euthanasia but also in the areas of bioethics and sexuality.
You can see this erosion in tiny things such as how euthanasia is now always described in the media as ‘the right to die with dignity’ instead of what it really is namely the increasing desire in society to kill old people. The language which frames everything as a human-right is also insidious. It makes it very difficult to disagree with anything which is generally regarded as a right whether it actually is a real human right or not.
It would take more time than we have here to discuss all the ways in which faith is under fire in the modern world. But it is important that we are not under any illusions that our beliefs are certainly under attack and that the powers of evil are hard at work trying to undermine faith whenever and wherever it is to be found.
The last few lines of the text before us today are a bit more uplifting: ‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me.’ Here Jesus is affirming his disciples and we see that despite his warnings he is not afraid to give them hope.
His disciples are certainly going to need hope in the years to come. They will be facing tough times and the persecution that they face will lead ultimately to death but assuredly in its wake will come the martyr’s crown. Hope is going to be their crucial defence against everything that their persecutors will throw at them.
We must recognise that the challenges we face are different to theirs. The attacks on faith today are much more insidious and subtle. They involve the tricky use of language and the outright deception of millions of people. The values we hold dear are twisted and used against us. Language is given new and strange meanings so that we find we cannot explain ourselves any more.
We need to be on the alert for this new form of persecution. We need to talk to each other about these things so that we are better equipped to deal with these new attacks on our faith and on the Gospel values that we hold to be so essential for ourselves and indeed for the whole world.