In this morning's Gospel reading, we hear one of the hard sayings of Jesus. He tells us, "Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword."
This isn't exactly comforting news. After all, I thought that Jesus was supposed to be the Prince of Peace. And here he is telling us that he's not coming to bring peace but a sword. And then he goes on to describe all the family strife that's going to transpire because of him. What the heck are we supposed to make of THAT?
Well, first, I think that a little bit of context is helpful. Jesus' words this morning are to his closest followers. The 12. They are the ones we heard about last week - when Robin York reminded us that they were ordinary folks, sent on a "mission from God." They were sent to the folks Jesus called "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" and their task was to "cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons."
We get a sneak preview of this problem of "no peace" in last week's readings when Jesus says, "If they don't welcome you, shake the dust from your sandals and leave that town." There is clearly something about Jesus' message that some will find threatening, if the 12 need an escape plan!
So Jesus tells his closest followers that it's not going to be all sunshine and roses, following him. He warns them that the message that they bring won't always be welcome. That some people, on hearing it, will not call them heroes, but Beelzebul - Satan. He tells them that it's possible that their families, their parents, their children will turn away from them. It's possible that the Gospel message will not bring always bring joy and peace, but strife and discord.
This family strife happens to Jesus on more than one occasion in the Gospels. Members of his family, fearing for his sanity, come to try to silence him. Jesus responds to those telling him that his family has come to try to dissuade him from his ministry by saying that his family are the ones who do God’s will.
You can see this lack of peace in some of the stories about Jesus. Jesus treated vulnerable people, those shunned by society, with great compassion. Remember the story of the woman who was caught in adultery? She was about to be stoned to death when Jesus came upon her and her accusers. Rather than joining the crowd, he suggested that those without sin should be the first to throw stones.
But, in an exchange typical of Jesus, he also held her accountable. When her accusers had vanished, Jesus said to her, “Now, go and sin no more.” This compassion for sinners created conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders.
Other “no peace” moments in the early days of the church had to do with the question of who this “Jesus movement” was really for. Were Jesus’ teachings meant to be solely a reform of Judaism? Or, were they intended for the wider Gentile world, as well? Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the birth of the church at Pentecost, the question of who was really welcome in the early church became a HUGE one.
No one wrestled with this question more than Peter. Initially, he saw himself as a faithful Jew - and looked at Gentiles with disdain. But following a dream in which God revealed that nothing God made was unclean, Peter was invited to the home of a Roman centurion named Cornelius, and discovered that the Holy Spirit had preceded him.
Peter became a passionate witness for a mission to the Gentiles, despite the fact that many other followers of Jesus disagreed with him. The Acts of the Apostles relates the many conversations and councils held to decide the question - and how contentious they were.
It’s clear from reading the stories of Jesus’ own ministry, and of the early church, that striving to faithfully follow Jesus can lead to strife and division.
So, what do Jesus' words this morning mean for us? I think that there are two messages. One message is a caution and the other is an encouragement.
First, our world these days is one filled with strife and conflict. After our recent presidential election, I saw people from both political parties declaring that they could no longer interact with a parent or a child, a friend or an old college roommate, because of their political views. We call the people with disagree with idiots or snowflakes, extremists or libtards, hatemongers or commies. The words Spawn of Satan were even bandied about. We are seeing a rise in hate crimes and violence against those who are seen as different.
Let me be clear: Jesus is not encouraging this kind of behavior. I don't think he's telling us that it's OK to demean people or break relationships because we disagree on political points. He's certainly not encouraging violence. Jesus called his first followers to love one another - and to pray for those who might be considered enemies. Dismissing those we disagree with as snowflakes or extremists doesn't fall within the call to love.
Jesus warned his followers, "Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword." What he didn't say was that they should take up arms and fight. (In fact, he said, "Those who live by the sword die by the sword.").
But he did warn them his followers that following him and being faithful to him could lead to division. Here's how that might play out for us living today.
Jesus is encouraging us to take faithful stands. As we’ve already seen in my examples this morning, much of what Jesus taught: welcome for the stranger, acceptance of the sinner, healing for the sick, and food for the hungry, wasn't particularly popular in his own day - any more than it is now.
Jesus is calling us to be faithful. Be faithful to Biblical teaching. Be faithful to his call to love. And to do that whether or not we think it's going to be popular with our friends and family.
There are currently some pretty contentious debates happening in our country: What's our national responsibility about health care? How do we assure that every child in our country is fed? Who is really welcome here? How do we treat people who are different from us? Do black lives really matter?
How do we decide where we stand on these issues? How do we make sense of the ferocious debates currently going on?
As Christians, our call is faithfulness to Jesus and his teachings. We are called to return again and again and again to the words we find in scripture. And then we are called to use those words to inform our views and plans for action. Even if those views aren't popular with our friends and family. Even if those actions create tension in our relationships.
Let me be clear - Conflict isn’t ever the goal! Unfortunately (and this was Jesus’ point), it might well be a byproduct of our faithful and prayerful discernment and action.
At the end of the day, our highest calling as Christians is to follow Jesus and his teachings. Our mission from God is made clear in His teaching: love God and love neighbor. Treat the stranger with compassion. Welcome the sinner. Heal the sick. Cast out demons.
This morning’s teaching from Jesus isn’t an easy one. It’s frankly a passage I’d rather forget was in Matthew’s Gospel! But it’s an important one that serves to guide us in our discernment and in our decision making. And if others disagree - well, we’re to (metaphorically) shake the dust off of our sandals because our highest loyalty is to Jesus.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the word Gospel means Good News. And there are, alongside this hard teaching, words of comfort and consolation. Jesus reminds his disciples of their value in the eyes of God. God has numbered the hairs on our head. God values us more than many sparrows. And when we take up the cross of proclaiming our Gospel values, we might lose something in this world, but we gain new life in Christ.
My friend Christine at Brave and Reckless has posted a poetry challenge. While I'm not usually a poetry writer, this one spoke to me. Our instructions were to write about a life experience using only 10 objects. Immediately, I thought about celebrating the Eucharist. Here's my poem:
Brown pottery plate, with spiral center
Freshly baked bread and sweet port wine
Ancient words, spoken aloud
Hands hold bread and bless