34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
I don’t know how you react to the above verses. Jesus, the man who has stressed that his role is to bring peace, suddenly seems to be rejecting the whole concept. The Messiah who insisted that the first words his disciples should say when entering a town were ‘peace be with you, ‘ and who used exactly the same words to greet the apostles in the post resurrection encounters, and who promised that he would leave us his peace is now stressing that he has come to bring a sword. In fact he seems to be rejecting the whole concept of peace.
We are entitled to ask ‘what on earth is going on?’ We are also entitled to ask why on earth should anyone want to follow a Messiah who appears to prize violence and discomfort over peace? After all, none of us want to be unsettled do we? And this is precisely the point. Jesus' role, his prophetic role, is to unsettle us. To draw out and reveal our conceits, inconsistencies, false loyalties and our need to belong to, and prioritise, our membership of certain tribes and cliques. The sword is about bringing freedom, it's about the severing of ties with unhealthy, yet inherited, structures of belief and belonging. The sword exists to cut away false certainty and idolatry so we can find greater freedom and greater peace.
And yet many will want to resist the hard and unsettling work of finding the deepest truths and real peace. For to find real peace takes courage. To find real peace means running the risk of severing unhealthy systems of thinking, relating and belonging. To find real peace necessitates the confronting of unhealthy truths. To find real peace means working for that which is potentially costly. To find real peace means casting aside the untruths that we have inherited both from within the church and from within society, hence the reference for ‘setting man against his father,’ and ‘daughter against mother,’ and so forth. Our priority must always be God and his values; ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’
And we need to be aware of the very real temptation to distort God’s values to meet our own particular needs, of the needs of the tribe, clan or clique which we either belong to or aspire to belong to. Throughout the ages the temptation has always existed to contain, domesticate and dampen down the gospel. This temptation is alive and well today. In fact, I would argue, this is the Western Church’s biggest temptation. The reason is that to live out the gospel and, to speak of gospel values always runs the significant risk of unpopularity, or at worst persecution; ‘blessed are you when they revile you for my name’s sake.’ It sounds nice and poetic until you contemplate its real meaning.
The Second World War theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, dared the church in Germany to live as people who believed in the Sermon on the Mount. He also knew that many members of the church would prefer to both peddle and receive what he referred to as ‘cheap grace,’ rather than accepting the mantle of ‘costly discipleship.’ Costly discipleship means fighting for peace and justice. It means caring about the outcast, the marginalised and the refugee. It means resisting any temptation to sanitise, re-define in the light of secular political ideology, and domesticate the incarnational theology of Jesus as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. It means doing so in the sure and certain knowledge that many in the church, and in wider society, will regard the task as either just to painful to contemplate or as being beyond the mandate of the church.
Jesus always stood head to toe with oppressive structures of thought and behaviour. He dared to tell his birth brothers, the Scribes and the Pharisees, that they were so wrong on so many levels. He didn’t buy into the whole idea of hierarchy and status. He hated injustice and exclusion. He befriended the poor, the ill, the outcast and stranger. We must, if we are serious about our faith, do likewise. Otherwise all we are left with is ‘cheap and feel good grace.’ And, yes it is entirely possible to feel good about our faith without allowing our faith to be a source for good and positive change. During the 1930s the church to which Bonhoeffer belonged, and this was his chief criticism of his own church, traded the freedom to attend church and say the prayers of the church, in return for its silence on all other issues. It was a false, and ultimately very costly, form of freedom. We must make sure we never make the same sort of mistake for if we do others will suffer. We must employ the sword of truth to sever through all false and comfortable notions of peace.
I would like to leave you with two quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was one of the few churchmen to stand up to Hitler:
‘We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself,’
‘the ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves behind?’
Will you, even knowing the cost to your status and reputation, strive to help create a more just and Godly society?