Matthew 10: 24-39
When did you first learn how to ride a bike? I would guess that most of us learned how to ride a two-wheeler without training wheels before we were in First Grade, or at least shortly thereafter. Think about it. Learning to ride a bike is a major milestone in most people’s lives – at least it is in a kid’s life.
Now I don’t remember all the details of my own experience, but I do remember this brownish colored bike with chrome fenders – with lots of rust and dents – that rattled when I rode it. The good thing was that it was a bike that was not too far off the ground. I remember the training wheels, and how secure it felt to know that they were there.
Then came the big day when my Dad took one of those training wheels off. And I was left with only one. To be sure, that felt a little shaky. But I quickly learned that if I felt myself tipping over, I could always lean the bike over to the side that had the one training wheel, and I felt secure once again.
Then came the day – the really big day – about a week later – when my Dad took off the other training wheel. I knew – I absolutely knew – that I was not ready for this. I was scared.
“Daddy, I can’t ride without my training wheels.”
“Don’t be afraid. I won’t let you fall.”
“But Daddy. I don’t know how to do this.”
“Don’t be afraid. I’ll hold onto you. I won’t let you fall.”
Well, I got on. My father held onto me just as he said he would. Actually, he didn’t hold on to me, he held onto the back of the seat of the bike. You know, kind of grabbed me kind of like this – and away we went.
“Daddy? Daddy, are you there?”
“Yes. Don’t be afraid. I’ve got you. Just keep peddling!”
Down the sidewalk we would go, over and over and over again. Each time I would cry out, “Daddy? Daddy are you there?”
“Yes. Don’t be afraid. I’ve got you. Just keep peddling!”
And with each trip up and down the sidewalk, my confidence is growing, until – “Daddy? Daddy are you there? Daddy? Daddy?”
“Whoopee! Look at me!”
I was riding – I had learned how to ride – my bike.
Although I had trusted my Dad to hold onto me, at some point, he needed to let go. I needed to step out – or in this case – peddle on – in faith. I lost my fear. I was no longer afraid to ride my bike. These days, I still love to ride. And I guess you could say, I have been “out spoke-‘in” ever since.
Something like that is happening in our Good News reading from the book of Matthew today. Jesus has called to himself twelve disciples – twelve men to come to him and follow him. He has taught them. He has been a mentor to them. Like a father – or a mother – teaching a child how to ride a bike – he has held onto them – kept them close beside him – building up their faith and courage – until he lets go – and sends them off to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
Were they scared? Scared to go and proclaim the Good News? Well, maybe. But listen to what Jesus tells them. “Don’t be afraid.” In fact three times – in a scant 6 verses – he tells them, “Do not be afraid.”
You see, in Jesus’ day – and certainly in the first few centuries of the history of the Christian church – it wasn’t easy to be a follower of Jesus Christ. And that’s why these words that Jesus shares with his disciples seem somewhat alien to us in 21st Century America. He warns followers and would be disciples that following him – in other words – being a Christian – is not going to be a cake walk.
Listen again to what He says: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.....to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother...one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Huh? Does that sound strange? I submit to you that this is one of those difficult sayings of Jesus.
So just what is Jesus saying? Jesus isn’t talking about the challenges of family life that we all experience once in awhile. He isn’t talking about rebellious teenagers or Moms and Dads who just don’t understand what it’s like to be a teen these days. He’s not talking about having in-law problems. No.
Jesus is talking about what life may be like for Christians when other members of the family either could not care less about God, or are vehemently opposed to the things of God. And when the church was young, it often happened that when a person came to Christ, he or she may have been the only member who was a Christian within that family. And sometimes – they were treated as outcasts – even in their own family.
Quite frankly there are some of us here who can relate to that. We might not be seen as outcasts – but there are families today where not everyone is a Christian – or at least those who don’t care to practice their faith as a part of a worshiping community.
And lest we forget, the early church experienced periods of persecution. Even death. Being put to death because of one’s faith was a real problem in the life of the early church. And that’s why Jesus says.
“Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of what might happen to you just because you are a Christian.”
“Don’t be afraid of those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.”
The words of Jesus are just as true for us today, even though, quite frankly, in 21st Century America, Christians have little to fear from others. But it is not that way in every place in the world today.
Let me tell you a story. Imagine that you’re a woman in Sudan. Your Muslim father abandoned the family home when you were young. Your Christian mother raised you. Eventually you married a Christian man and gave birth to a boy. Then, two years later, while you were pregnant with your second child, you get thrown into prison. A Muslim judge convicts you of apostasy – in other words – for leaving Islam – which carries a death penalty. In addition – you are charged with adultery – for marrying a Christian. For that your punishment is to receive 100 lashes.
This is the nightmare of Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag.
On May 15th of this year, the judge told her, “We gave you three days to recant, but you insist on not returning to Islam.” And then he issued to her a death sentence. To this Meriam boldy replied, “I am a Christian, and I never committed apostasy.”
Meriam was eight and a half months pregnant at the time, and caring for a 20-month old son, Martin, inside the prison. Having since given birth, she is now caring for two children under age 2 in prison. Her husband, Daniel, has been able to visit his family but has been unable to get Meriam and their children freed. Thankfully, because she is a new mother, Meriam has been given a two-year reprieve on her sentences. There is an inter-faith group working to have Meriam’s death sentence overturned. But it will take time, effort, and prayer.
And you’ve seen in the news that in Nigeria – 200 girls – 200 Christian girls – were kidnapped from their school by Muslim extremists simply because they are Christians.
And in Iraq – again in the news – another radical Islamic named ISIS seeks a violent overthrow of the Iraqi government.
Archbishop Amel Nona, the Chaldean bishop of Mosul, discussing attacks on churches in Mosul, reports, “…in the 11 years following the 2003 US-led overthrow of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, Christians in Mosul had declined from 35,000 to 3,000 and that “now there is probably no one left…all the faithful have fled the city. I wonder if they will ever return there.” This same radical group ISIS has been linked to the murder and torture of Christians in Syria.
When I hear about and read about situations like these in other parts of the world, first, I am thankful that we live in this country, where these kinds of attacks against Christians just don’t occur. Second, I wonder – and I can only wonder – what it must be like to suffer this kind of violence and persecution simply because one happens to be a Christian. And third, I ask myself, what would I do if I were persecuted like Meriam – like the girls of Nigeria – like the Christians of Mosul and other parts of Iraq – what would I do? Would I remain faithful to my faith? Would I remain faithful to Jesus Christ? Standing up here in front of you it’s safe to answer those questions. I pray that I would have the strength and the courage of Meriam to hang on…, and to remember the words of Jesus, “Do not be afraid,…I am with you.”
I suppose in comparison the challenges – maybe even the fears we face – are nothing compared to those of Meriam, and Archbishop Nona, and other Christians in various places around the world. And yet, our fears – our challenges – are still very real.
So no matter what kind of fears or challenges you may be facing today – maybe it’s your health – or that of a loved one. Maybe it’s your job or your financial situation. Maybe you’re in a family situation that isn’t what it ought to be. For you high school graduates, it might be the challenge of leaving home for the first time. And yes – maybe – just maybe – someone’s giving you a hard time because you go to church – in other words – because you’re a Christian.
Let me tell you something. In our moments of fear, it’s nice to know that we have a God who grabs us by the seat of our pants – who holds onto us and keeps us from falling. Like learning how to ride a bike. You will never learn how to ride a bike until you learn to let go of your fear. Through it all, God hangs on
And that’s Good News. Good News – no matter what your situation – Good News from Jesus who says to you and to me today, “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid. God is with us. God is our strong salvation – our refuge and our strength. Of what – or of whom – shall we be afraid? Amen
 Eric Mataxas, Breakpoint, June 12 and 13, 2014.