A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (21/06/20): Jesus Brings a Sword

Jesus Brings a Sword
Matthew 10:24-39

Jesus repeats the most frequent commandment of the Bible. He says:
Have no fear
Typically for Jesus’ commandments, it can be read also as a promise or as an assurance. “Don’t be afraid, because you have no need to be afraid.” The context of Jesus’ commandment/assurance is the expectation that the Church will be persecuted. Jesus observes that followers can’t expect to be treated better than their leader. Jesus has received all kinds of abuse. He has been pilloried for spending time with lepers, prostitutes and tax-collectors. His miracles have been dismissed as nothing more than displays of demonic power. And of course we know that eventually he will be betrayed, arrested, rejected and crucified.
If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul how much more will they malign his household?
What Jesus endured, his followers should expect to have to endure, and worse. Jesus and the first Christians assumed that they would be persecuted. And indeed they were. The message of Jesus, that God’s kingdom is at hand, provoked the power of empire against him. The message of those Jesus sends out after him remains the same. The apostolic mission of the Church is to announce God’s rule. That message, truthfully proclaimed, must provoke the power of this world against its apostles. The bottom line is, the faithful church is a persecuted church

Now this is not to say that a persecuted church is necessarily a faithful church. There are lots of ways for Christians to make trouble for themselves. And many of those are manifestly unfaithful to the message of Jesus. It is not that the Church should be going out looking for trouble to prove its fidelity. Or that it should be taking some masochistic pleasure in every insult and rejection it experiences. But as it was for Jesus, so it will be for his faithful followers. Those who faithfully fulfil the mission Jesus has given to them, those who truthfully announce that the kingdom is at hand, and that Jesus is Lord, the people who do that cannot fail to provoke the anger of the power of this world.

The thing is, Jesus’ commandment/assurance sounds hollow or redundant to us. What have we to be afraid of? When was the last time we really, consistently had to suffer persecution for our faith? We might occasionally have to suffer a snide joke. We put up with the consistent misrepresentation of Christian faith and values from some quarters. But no one is trying to strip us of all our possessions. No one is trying to send us to gaol. No one is trying to nail us to crosses or feed us to lions. For the longest time Christians and the Church, in this country at least, have not been genuinely persecuted. We are not afraid because we have nothing to be afraid of. 
Indeed it is difficult for us to imagine how or why the Church might be persecuted in our society. In part because the Church is woven into our society in so many ways. Even if now it is being largely ignored and forgotten. Christianity in Britain and much of the west has stood as one of the pillars of social order. The Church had a role in society, as one of the guarantors of peaceful and orderly social relations. The Church has been part of what is called “dominant ideology.” Our way of thinking was used to support the way things are, to reassure everyone that this is the way things should be. Far from being persecuted by the powers of this world, the Church had become allied to them, indeed it has been one of them. For the longest time the Church here has been assimilated and accommodated to the world. We have pictured Jesus as the defender of the peaceful ordered society which we enjoyed.
Alongside this we have been seduced by the idea of religious freedom. The idea that nobody, whatever they believe, should have to suffer for their religion. It’s not just that we are not persecuted for our religion, and don’t expect to be persecuted for our religion. We in fact have managed to create a situation where it would/should be illegal for us to be persecuted that way. But I called religious freedom a “seduction.” Religious freedom disallows persecuting people for their “beliefs.” Which in reality is part of our accommodation with the world. Religion is free from persecution so long as religion stays in the realm of “belief.” You can hold whatever private opinion you like, so long as you don’t insist on demonstrating it in public. We have allowed our faith to be reduced to a private matter. Our lack of persecution and especially our willing acceptance of the terms of religious freedom should worry us. It should worry us because it is an indication that we are not being as faithful as we should be. Our faith is not a private matter. What we proclaim is necessarily a public truth. “The kingdom of God is at hand and Jesus is Lord.” Our task is to make that message heard. It is clear that even in a place that guarantees religious freedom, on the basis that it is a private opinion, the mission of the Church must be provocative. Even here, the faithful church is a persecuted church.

From where we are now some of the things Jesus says seem to make no sense. We struggle to understand why we have to be reassured not to fear the persecution we aren’t suffering in any case. But some of the things Jesus says are likely to horrify us:
Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword.
The degree to which our view of Jesus has become accommodated with the way the world is, and assimilated with the powers that be, can be measured by how shocking we find Jesus when he says that. This is not “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” This is not Jesus the guarantor of a peaceful, complacent social order. This is the authentic Jesus who turns the world upside down; who throws the money changers out of the Temple and who consorts with the poor and the outcast, who welcomes lepers, prostitutes and sinners, and who dines with tax-collectors. The Jesus who outrages the powers of this world, and who is persecuted for it. 
The presence of Jesus in the world creates a crisis, a moment of decision against which judgement will stand. Are you with Jesus or against him? Because Jesus announces that the kingdom is at hand; and because he is shown to be Lord; he has all the authority in the world, loyalty and obedience are owed to him. This is not a claim which those who would claim authority for themselves in the world can tolerate. This is the sword which Jesus brings. And it is a sword of truth, and it cannot be kept as private opinion.

The crisis which Jesus creates is a question of loyalty and commitment. What are we committed to? Committed to Jesus? Committed to his vision of the world freed from evil? Committed to an end to violence, injustice, poverty and hatred? Committed enough to the kingdom of God to act on it? Or do our loyalties and commitments lie somewhere else? Do we find we obey someone other than Jesus? Jesus’ sword is not a sword which brings violence. Jesus is not the one who brings violence and conflict into the world. Those things are already there, products of the evil and injustice that are present. Jesus’ sword is the sword of truth which cuts through those things. But that being so, Jesus demands that we take sides, take sides with him on the side of truth and justice.
The alarming thing about Jesus’ sword is how and where it might cut. Jesus’ call for loyalty  and commitment to him and his mission, calls into question all the other loyalties and commitments we might have. Jesus asks us to choose him over everything and everyone else. Following Jesus is going to make enemies. It will make enemies of those who think we owe loyalty to them. There is a very good reason why Jesus says “love your enemies.” Those enemies may in fact be the ones closest to us:
For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be the members of one’s household.
Jesus creates a moment of decision in the world. A crisis in which everyone has to choose to follow Jesus or to reject him. To follow Jesus means making enemies of everyone who rejects Jesus, be they members of our households, or those who wield the power of this world.

In past few weeks one of the slogans that was prominent in the Civil Rights movement in the United States has reemerged into prominence again: “No justice, no peace.” It is spoken in the context of the civil disturbances that are a reaction to police violence against people of colour in the United States. Disturbances which have spread internationally as the residue of racist history and ongoing inequality and injustice have been challenged. I suspect as a slogan, “No justice, no peace,” unsettles us in the same sort of way that the image of Jesus bringing a sword does. We worry that they become a pretext for violence and a camouflage for more injustice and evil.
Above all we long for peace. Which is why as a Church we have so often made Jesus the guarantor of peaceful social orders. But to accept peace in the face of injustice is to side not with Jesus, but with those who commit injustice. It is to take sides on the wrong side, against God’s kingdom, and to perpetuate the world as it is, rather than to promote God’s peaceable rule. The “peace” that exists in the presence of injustice is at best an illusion, but more often is a lie. And it is a lie that is itself violent in its perpetuation of injustice. It is a false peace which an accommodated and assimilated Church co-opts Jesus to underwrite. Racial injustice is one of those things which Jesus brings his sword against. It demands we take a stand with him against such things. That is the sword which Jesus brings.

In the end there is no way to be faithful to Jesus, without making enemies. The faithful Church cannot keep loyalty to the Lordship of Christ as a private opinion. We have avoided persecution, only by evading responsibility to the message which we have been given to proclaim. “The kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus is Lord!” For the longest time we have only heard that whisperedIt is time for it to be proclaimed from the housetops.

Jesus Brings a Sword by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0CC iconby iconnc iconsa icon

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