SERMON 21 JUNE 2020 | Revd Phil Austin |
This is one of the only times I can think of where Jesus has gathered together all the twelve disciples to give them his wisdom and instructions before sending them out to proclaim the good news. There are some familiar bits during Jesus’ speech: “Only take what you need for the journey. When you come to a town who does not welcome or listen to you, then leave and shake the dust off your feet.” All of that is very good and sound advice from Jesus before the disciples set off on their journey, but then he gives them some warnings about facing persecution. But with these warnings of persecution he also gives them assurance of protection from God the Father.
But then we get to the last few verses in our reading. At the end of this long speech, Jesus starts to say some things which seem quite out of character, some things which seem contrary to his normal teaching. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. No, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I came to set sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law; your worst enemies will be the members of your own family.”
These words certainly don’t sit well with our understanding about Jesus’ teaching of love, care, compassion or even with the teaching about honouring the members of your family and household. Yet we cannot ignore these stern and uncomfortable words just because they don’t fit well with our idea of Jesus’ perpetual love for the whole of humankind. These words still echo in the Christian church of today, they are still relevant in our generation, and so what is Jesus saying?
Throughout Christian history we are surrounded by saints and ordinary people who knew where the road hits the tyre, people who have stood out among others for their faith and belief in God. Think about those pioneer missionaries who faced terrible dangers for the sake of the gospel or the people who have spoken out against oppressive governments – people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who paid the ultimate price for their outspoken support of the gospel message.
Jesus isn’t suggesting that everyone who follows him will find themselves split off from their families or will place themselves in imminent danger. But he is saying that there are priorities when it comes to being a disciple and following him. He is saying loud and clear, that what matters is allegiance to him: allegiance to Jesus must come at the top of every priority list. We even see as the story in the gospels unfolds, how difficult and demanding this was even for those who knew him personally: Peter denied him, Judas betrayed him, and the rest ran away and hid. But the challenge still remains the same, embracing everything, demanding everything, offering everything, promising everything, I’m afraid Jesus doesn’t demand anything less than our all….even if that means that we are still a work in progress and the Holy Spirit is working hard to transform us.
One of the other difficult verses we read in today’s Gospel is verse 34 where Jesus says, “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the world. No, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”. This is a difficult idea for anyone who thinks of Jesus as an agent of peace. After all, there are plenty of verses in the Bible that associate Jesus with peace. He is called the “Prince of Peace” in Isaiah, and we are told in Luke that he has come “to guide our feet into the way of peace”. And isn’t it Jesus who advocates peace again in Luke’s Gospel with the words, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one also”? And wasn’t it Jesus who said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the children of God”? All of this seems to bring confusion as to what Jesus is about; is he a man of peace? Then why does he say he comes to bring a sword and not peace, and why division to families rather than unity and harmony?
Again, just because this passage is problematic does not mean that it is unhelpful, or that we should dismiss it as something which we don’t need to take seriously. On the contrary, it is a useful lens through which we can focus our own notions and misconceptions about peace and the Christian lifestyle. The first misconception is that we often equate peace with the absence of anything – a void, a state of passivity, or calm. But actually peace is full, active, and the stuff of life itself.
Secondly, we tend to think of peace as synonymous with harmony and agreement. But in fact the great men and women of peace throughout history have been what we might call troublemakers, people who have been outspoken and willing to cause division and controversy for the sake of justice and a better way of living. People like Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King – and of course Jesus, both the prince of peace and the supreme example of the troublemaker.
This gospel message of Jesus’ is tough, it’s difficult to hear because it’s demanding. That’s why Jesus’ challenge to the disciples had to be so sharp, and why it still remains sharp for us today, because people still prefer comfort to challenge; people generally prefer the pipe and slippers, the comfortable and familiar, the ‘lamington and tea’ approach to life, rather than speaking out for our faith and for what we believe. Jesus was a man of peace but he didn’t hold back on his words, he wasn’t frightened to speak out, even if that put him in a difficult position; that’s the sword he refers to, and that’s the division between families he talks about. Even though this passage may be difficult to hear, that shouldn’t make us put it to one side, but rather it should invigorate and inspire us to live lives worthy of our calling, just as those in generations before us have fought for justice and spoken out for peace. Today we see many on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, and whether they are Christian or not they do not want the limp and insipid kind of peace which ignores wrongdoings – such as someone holding a Bible in front of a church cleared of people by teargas, for a photo shoot. A church is not a prop, the Bible is not a prop! We want the kind of peace which is vibrant, alive and ablaze with the glory of God. Peace is not the absence of trouble but it is the presence of God.