‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
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”
These might strike one as surprising words to come from the mouth of Jesus – a million miles from the gentle figure in stained glass windows, with flowing locks who gathers lost sheep and little children to his heart. And yet, it is very much the image many people have of faith these days.
Admittedly people seem to have set themselves against their mothers-in-laws since time immemorial, without much aid from religion, but the other imagery seems to justify the modern view of the Christian faith. When I was growing up, faith was seen as an intrinsically good thing, a civilising influence on people and a bringer of peace.
Now, faith is seen as an inherently evil thing, the cause of all wars and something that fires young naive followers to a fanaticism that sets them against their families and against the whole world. Jesus’s words about people calling him ‘Beelzebul’ seem very much to have come true – we of faith are now seen as the problem, not the solution.
And we cannot, I think, read these words without bringing to mind the sort of atrocities we have witnessed in London and Manchester, let alone in Mosul and Raqqa. And when people are taught in school that all religions are basically the same, the conclusion is inevitable – that all religion leads to that.
And yet, every religion will say that there is good religion and bad religion, that the problem with extremism is a misreading of sacred texts and a taking them out of context. So let us put this teaching firmly in its context.
The first context in which we need to set this is the Jewish tradition of rhetoric, which is to subvert ideas by laying them in an unfamiliar context. The book of Revelation does this consistently: vast armies turn out only to be praying, a lion behaves like a lamb, and a sword turns out to be words. And it is in this tradition that Jesus speaks of bringing a sword to the world. The context in which he speaks is one of justice: “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” It is a fundamental principle of Justice that the truth must be told and brought into the light.
The sword of which Jesus speaks is now very familiar to us as the Sword of Justice, the sword which is able to divide right from wrong in situations where they seem so intertwined that we can no longer separate right from wrong, victim from perpetrator, sinner from sinned-against. Justice, when it comes to the earth will cause division. People will have to take a stand – do they stand with the light, with the oppressed, with the needy, or do they look to their own interests, their own wealth and their earthly benefactors? Justice trumps all other considerations, even family ties, because it is a great and valuable pearl. It is, in fact, nothing less than the kingdom of God, because only God, with perfect knowledge and understanding, can judge truly and with infinite mercy. Only Jesus can truly bring the Sword of Justice to the earth.
And the second context in which this teaching is given is the sending out of the disciples into the surrounding communities to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus. They are to call them to turn away from their sins are return to God, showing mercy and justice to their neighbours. And Jesus is warning them that people will not take kindly to this. In the final analysis, Jesus seems to think that people will prefer the path of violence and hatred, whether they dress themselves in religious clothes or not, so he warns them: “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot hurt the soul.”
And this has a direct bearing on the troubled times in which we live, whether it be terrorism or some other form of turbulence and uncertainty. Evil may seem powerful, but it is never as powerful as good.
And so, as we seek to learn from Jesus’ teaching and apply it for good in our own lives, we must remember that Jewish tradition Jesus himself used for teaching, of subverting ideas by laying them in an unfamiliar context. Because Jesus sums up his teaching by pointing us to the Cross: “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus turns the Cross (an instrument of torture and death) into an instrument of life and justice and victory over the very evil it sought to perpetuate. The Cross was where humanity vented its hatred and anger and violence on God himself, and just at the moment when it appeared to have won, with the death of God himself, it lost. In the Cross, death snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. For when God encountered death, eternal life encountered death; endless creativity encountered mindless annihilation; perfect love, which grieves over every instance of human suffering, encountered the indifference that can apparently shrug its shoulders in the face of suffering and death on a terrifying scale. And love won. Creativity trumped destruction. Life overcame death. Because of the Cross, God won. And therefore we won.
The Cross, turns out not to be a symbol of death, but a symbol that proclaims that the evil of this world, for all its apparent power, will spend itself and, when it is spent, it will end in defeat. So do not fear those who can hurt the body, but cannot hurt the soul.
As Christians, we are called to stand in the light: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light.” We are to be unafraid of the truth, even when the truth is to our discredit. And we can dare to do that because only God is our judge and he is the same God who died to save us from our sins. So we do not need to fear for our souls, but can acknowledge the truth, even when it is to our discredit.
Christians are called to speak out: “what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops”. It is too easy to be swayed by the ties of this world, to go with the flow, to fall in with the prevailing mind-set in order to keep the peace, to allow things to go unsaid for fear of the reaction. These days, we are not to speak about our faith, or speak about our politics, for fear of upsetting people. Increasingly, it seems, the only safe subject for conversation in British Society is the weather. But the real problem is that people cannot engage with real issues without taking offence and reacting violently. We should stand for a vision of community where we can talk about what is real, where we can listen to one another and explore the common good together, not take offence because we voted differently in this or that referendum or support this or that political party, or have different views on matters of faith. We are called to stop the whispers and to encourage things into the open. It is when things go unspoken, when things get bottled up inside, or driven underground that the devil does his deadliest work. Getting it out into the light is what shows us the right path and the wrong path, which allows Jesus’ sword to get to work, dividing right from wrong, when before they appeared indistinguishable.
And Christians are called to be people of Justice. It is too easy to allow indifference to take hold of us, too easy to shy away from the complexities of life and take refuge in the familiar and the controllable. One of the phenomena of modern British life is the spectacular success of animal sanctuaries. We had one down the road from the church where I served my curacy. The donkey sanctuary had a fundraising coffee morning on the same day as our Christian Aid coffee morning. The donkey sanctuary raised 10 times the amount of money we did. And this is a nation-wide phenomenon, which has caused much head-scratching. The answer, so our modern philosophers think, is that in a world of complexity and fear, giving to animals allows you to make a real difference. You may not be able to solve the Middle East, or the NHS or Brexit, but you can at least make a donkey happy.
Now, I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t make donkeys happy, but we certainly shouldn’t do it at the expense of engaging with the big issues. However, complex, we must remember Jesus’ sword. In the end, all right and wrong will stand exposed and it can happen here and now, when people take their faith and live by it, when people go into complex situations trying to live by Jesus’ teachings. It is remarkable what a difference that makes and across the church we hear daily stories of how Christians make a real difference – operating food banks, helping people out of lives of crime, helping the long-term unemployed back to work, helping people off drugs or out of debt – the list goes on and on.
And lastly, Christians are to be people of courage. The most common command in the Bible is “do not be afraid.” Do nothing out of fear, for fear is the antithesis of faith. Three times in this short teaching, Jesus tells us not to be afraid: “have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered”; “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot hurt the soul”; “do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Preached: Ninekirks, Morland 25 June 2017