June 22, 2014, Pentecost 2 – You Can’t Be a Little Bit Pregnant
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It is a true saying, and worthy of full acceptance, what a wise doctor once said to me: “It’s not possible to be a little bit pregnant.” There are many things we dabble at in our lives. As children we have favorite colors and foods and toys and friends one day and the next they might be entirely different. One day we wouldn’t wear anything but pink and we wanted peanut butter sandwiches three times a day, and the next day we hated pink and peanut butter was gross. And as we grow older we don’t always grow out of that kind of behavior. As adults we often play at commitments in our tastes or our politics or to clubs or hobbies. I personally must admit that I have a whole trunkful of unfinished projects that bear testimony to my lack of commitment to learning to quilt or do cross-stitch or crochet. It gets more serious, though, when people dabble at their work commitments, unable or unwilling to hold down a job when it gets boring or when they have difficulty with co-workers, and more serious still when people dabble at human relationships: when love is no more than a temporary arrangement until a better offer comes along. We see the devastating effects of that kind of lack of commitment every day, in our families and among our friends and neighbors. It is one of the most hurtful ills that sin has inflicted on us as human beings separated from God; one of the crying needs for the healing power of redemption. The human race, apart from God, is perishing for the lack of anything real and solid to hold onto.
But the kingdom of God calls for something entirely different than the world. The gospel reading today is one of what are often called Jesus’s “hard sayings” because he is calling his disciples to something new: to a radical commitment that doesn’t allow for any dabbling. Just as a person can’t be a little bit pregnant, Jesus tells his disciples that we can’t be a little bit Christian. If we are to follow him, our faith can’t just be among the top ten priorities in our life, or the top five or the top two. The call to discipleship is uncompromising, and these words that we read today, the words he spoke to the Twelve as he sent them out into the world, are sobering, if not downright scary.
“I have not come to bring you peace, I have come with a sword,” he tells us. “Believe me, your worst enemies are the members of your own household, because if you value your father or your mother or your children more than me you are not worthy to be my disciple. If you don’t accept the suffering that comes along with following me, you aren’t worthy to be my disciple. If you acknowledge me before men I will acknowledge you before the Father. But if you deny me before men, I will deny you before the Father. And if you value your own life above following me you will have lost everything.”
We’re not used to hearing that kind of black and white, uncompromising talk from the mouth of Jesus. I certainly feel much more comfortable with teachings on grace and love and mercy and forgiveness. We like “God is love” – but where’s “God is love” in all this? It just sounds terrifying. But the reason we think this is that we don’t understand the urgency of our situation, and of the situation of the world. We don’t really believe, most of the time, that without God we were dead in our sins, and that Jesus Christ came to give us something that we had no hope of attaining without him, and that is real, abundant life. We forget, or we never really understood, that the life we see in the world around us is just a shadow of the life we were created to have, and that we are now citizens of a kingdom where real life is to be had. We don’t really fully believe, most of the time, that our faith is a life and death matter, and not just a choice that makes us happier or more secure or better than other people.
But the plain truth is that no one can live in both kingdoms, because you can’t be both dead and alive. To be alive is to be not dead. And to be dead is to be not alive. To be a follower of Christ is to put him above everything else. And to put anything else before Christ is to not be following him. Life is found only in him, and any other thing we try to hang onto leads only to death. Jesus was sending the Twelve out into a world where they would face ridicule and persecution, torture and physical death, and they needed to know in terms they could hang onto that they had been called into the way of life – the only way of life – that they were being sent out to be lights in the pitch darkness of the world’s night, and that they were being sent out to offer escape to people trapped in the kingdom of death, and that that kingdom, however scary and solid it might look and feel, had no power over them that they needed to fear.
Because in the midst of all this scary-sounding, uncompromising talk, Jesus gave the command that is found more often in the Bible than any other command – and that is “Don’t be afraid.” The line between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God, and the line between life and death, is stark and solid and uncompromising, but within the kingdom of God all that is comfort and kindness and grace and compassion and forgiveness and love is found. And that kingdom is breaking in upon this world to sow all those seeds of life in the”Don’t be afraid,” Jesus told the disciples. “Don’t be afraid of the powers of this world because only God holds your life in his hands. God, your Father, is the only power you ever need to fear. And don’t be afraid of him, because he loves you. He knows and loves every hair on your head and every cell in your body. He cares about the tiniest, frailest creature and he cares about the least detail of your life.” We read a moment ago what Paul wrote to the disciples in Rome: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin…you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” To follow Jesus is to Choose Life: to choose the only real source of life and to refuse all those scams that pretended to offer us life in this world.
And there are two things I want to say about that. First of all, we are not called into the kingdom of life so that we can be the lucky few who get a get-out-of-hell-free card. One of the most amazing things about the kingdom of God is that it transforms everything and everyone it touches. That’s why, when Jesus touched a leper, instead of Jesus contracting leprosy, the leper was cleansed. Or when he took the hand of Jairus’s dead daughter, he didn’t become unclean by contact with a dead body as the Jewish law would have said, but instead the girl sat up, well and alive again. And that is why he calls us to put him before all those people we are tempted to put first – the people we love, our family and friends. Because it is only when we are alive in him that we have life to offer them. It’s a little bit like the stewardess tells you when she’s giving safety instructions, that you have to put the oxygen mask on before you can help the passenger beside you, whether it is your own child or a complete stranger. If we are dead we aren’t any use to anyone. But in Christ we have life and to spare.
And the second, and very important, thing is this. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, but you don’t start out humongously pregnant, either. A child grows in the womb from a tiny little cell to a big, healthy, kicking, squirming baby over many months. And in the same way, we can’t be a little bit Christian. Either we belong to the kingdom of this world, or the kingdom of God. We can’t be both dead and alive; we can’t choose darkness and light both. On the other hand, we don’t start our Christian lives as St. Francis of Assisi or the Virgin Mary. Even Francis and Mary didn’t start out as big Capital S saints. When we are born into the kingdom of God, we are fully and eternally alive, once and for all, but the life grows in us and transforms us little by little; over time we become more and more a light in the darkness and we are more and more conformed to the image of Christ. The life of the kingdom, in short, grows us up into the person we were created to be from before the dawn of time. It’s a process of small things and patience and hard work, of failures and forgiveness and of suffering and sorrow, too.
With pregnancy you have swollen ankles and backaches and stretch marks and clumsiness and labor pains – little discomforts and sometimes really big ones. Growth in the kingdom was painful for our Master and Teacher, and he warns us that we can expect that it will be painful for us as well. If you’ve reached adulthood you’ve probably already learned that. But the truest thing of all is that all our suffering is not the agony of death; it is the fruitful suffering of life, pain that leads to joy and the new birth of a new creation in which there won’t be any more sorrow or suffering or pain or death. Everything that we suffer now for the sake of the kingdom will produce a harvest of joy so great that the birth of a child, which is pretty much the most wonderful thing I have ever experienced it, is only a shadow of it, because it will be the re-birth and restoration of the entire creation and the death once and for all of sin and all its schemes and perversions and cruelties.
And meanwhile the life of Christ is growing in each and every one of us, and we are here to plant seeds of the kingdom every day, everywhere we go, seeds of kindness and compassion and truth and mercy and love, because as citizens of the kingdom of God we have the only source of life for a world that is dying.