Non-Violent Swords from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.
1What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
24"A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26"So have no fear of them; for 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. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs on your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For 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; 36and one's foes will be members of one's own household. 37Whoever 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; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
There are passages in scripture that hold great meaning for me. Some of them happened to intersect with my life at particularly poignant moments, and shaped how I think about God, and about God's people. Some of them emerged out of intense study as I wrestled with what they might mean in a world that is so far removed from the culture and time in which it was written.
Other passages make me profoundly uncomfortable because they push against the views I hold as central to my understanding of God.
Matthew is my favorite gospel, and the excerpt from his narrative which we read today makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
I'd much rather talk about Christ's ability to bring people together, seen in the feeding of the five thousand. I'd much rather talk about how Christ calls us to turn the other cheek, seen in the sermon on the mount. I'd much rather talk about the Christ who is Lord of all creation, seen in the calming of the storm, saying "Peace, be still."
But this passage says "Do not think that I have come to bring peace; 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; and one's foes will be members of one's own household."
Oh it would be so much more comfortable, in this anxious and divided world, to turn back to Matthew's fifth chapter and remind ourselves of the beatitudes, "Blessed be the Peacemakers..."
Oh it would be so much easier, in this violent and reactive time, to look to Matthew's twenty-sixth chapter and remind ourselves of Jesus's arrest and betrayal, "Then Jesus said to [Peter], 'Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword...'"
But studying scripture is not always easy, and discipleship does not always make us comfortable.
Even though this passage makes me profoundly uncomfortable, it's still a part of our shared story. It's scripture, a gift from the Holy Spirit to be cherished, and by which we are to be instructed. We are disciples, each of us, and are not above our teacher, Jesus Christ, the master whom we serve. This passage has something to teach us, even if it's difficult to harmonize with the other stories depicting Christ as a peacemaker.
"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; and one's foes will be members of one's own household"
The community to whom Matthew was writing was being persecuted by their families and neighbors as Christianity was just being born. We may not be suffering the same kind of persecution, but our community is also hurting. Our family feels divided.
There are folks in our church who celebrate the actions that our General Assembly took this week. Others are deeply offended and feel abandoned by the denomination they have loved for so long. One group finally feels accepted in their own homes, that justice and grace have been extended to them at last. Another wonders if they can still call this church home, when they struggle to reconcile their understanding of scripture, of sin, and of repentance with the stand our church has taken.
Our family feels divided, and many of us are ready to draw our swords, and to answer our hurt with cut-off. There is as strong temptation to wield this text to end our relationships with those with whom we disagree, assuming that because we understand God differently, we cannot be a church together.
I don't think that temptation is exclusive to either perspective. I've heard many times around this debate "if they're not willing to move, let them leave, who needs them." I've also heard "If the church makes this move, they have left God, and I will no longer associate with them." Both reactions will use this scripture to justify their cut off. "After all, Jesus came not to bring peace, but a sword."
But we read more than just that line this morning. There is more to this passage than the opportunity to gloat over "winning" or snarl over "losing." Perhaps our foes are members of our own households, as verse 36 states, but we must remember whose household this is.
We are disciples and servants, our master and teacher is Jesus Christ, Lord of heaven and earth. "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!"
Our congregation, our presbytery, our denomination, our family feels divided, and many of us are ready to draw our swords to defend "us" from "them." But their foes are members of their own household, we remain members of Christ's household even while we are fighting with one another. This is not a matter of "us" vs "them." This is a family fight, and it's "us" vs "us." We can cross theological swords over this issue and still remain a family. We are members of Christ's household, united, as our Romans passage reminds us, in baptism.
Christian discipleship does not stand still, in my experience. There are always new ministry opportunities before us, and new sins of which we can repent. Each particular person brings their individual perspective to the ways that God is working in the world, and how the church should respond. Those different perspectives can make for strong disagreement within the body of Christ, but they can also show us new ways that the Holy Spirit is at work, and we may recognize Christ in a fellow believe.
My first Sunday here, I talked about how God has a word to say to me through the people in this congregation. I firmly believe that to be true, and so I am listening for what God is teaching me here. That's part of my discipleship. I believe it is essential for us to remain connected, especially when we disagree. I am not always right, and I struggle with some parts of the Bible, and someone with a different perspective can teach me a way that God is moving in the world that I would not have considered otherwise. I hope that this congregation, my church family, can remember that we are reconciled by Christ, and that is more powerful than anything that may try to divide us.
We may think ourselves enemies, but we must remain connected to our LORD and to the other members of our household. While we were yet sinners, enemies of God, Christ died for us, and we have been baptized into that death as well. That's what Christian Love is like, and it is by no means easy.
In fact, Christian love can make us profoundly uncomfortable. But it's who we are, or at least who we strive to be.
I think we avoid talking about difficult issues, and cut off is an avoidance, because we are worried about being impolite by disagreeing openly. So we end up covering up our wounds, which lets them fester and grow deeper. "Kingdom work, it turns out, is more controversial and subversive than conventional kindness."
Just before this congregation voted to extend a call to me, Leah and I went up to Table Rock State Park in the mountains of South Carolina. We went to celebrate our three year anniversary and to take intentional time together before starting my ministry, which we knew would affect our ability to spend time together.
While we were there, we hiked up the mountain. It was Leah's idea, our hikes usually are her idea, so she was in front, and I followed behind. At the top of the mountain, we crossed paths with another couple, and the guy was a pretty typical obnoxious college student who was trying to prove how cool he was. He made a comment about how annoying it was that the women were leading the hikes, and invited me to agree with him.
It was an opportunity to share how much I love my wife, to brag about how avid a hiker she is, and that I don't need to prove myself by being better than her, I could just enjoy being with her. I could have started a relationship with this guy that encouraged him to expand his worldview that maybe it was ok that the person who was more familiar with the trail go first.
Instead I gave him a response that I thought would make him go away. I dismissed him with a nice comment, instead of engaging him with a loving one. After hiking three miles, I didn't have the energy to have the disagreement and discussion with him. I wish I had, because he was a child of God who didn't deserve to be ignored by me.
It's not enough to just be nice to one another, to keep the peace because we're afraid of conflict. We are commanded to love one another, and sometimes that means conflict as we work out what it means to be disciples, in a changing world.
Lots of folks see eternal life as the goal of Christianity. This passage points to taking up our cross as the goal. If I'm a really nice person, I'll get to hang out with the other nice folks in a sort-of heavenly country club and play golf with Moses on the weekends.
The call of the gospel is, for Presbyterians, an assurance that we have eternal life, and therefore are able to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. God keeps us, and not even those who would kill us can break that hold. So even when it makes us profoundly uncomfortable to disagree, God still keeps us and makes us one.
In our gospel passage this morning, Jesus is assuring the disciples of God's love and protection over them, telling them "Do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows." We can also find unity in that assurance. We are of more value than many sparrows, and so are they, the ones with whom we disagree, the family members with whom we are fighting. God also values them, and it wouldn't hurt so much if we didn't still value them too. With Christ's assurance and God's guidance, we struggle through these issues together. But to quote our Moderator, Dr. Heath Rada, "let's disagree boldly, but never stop loving each other."
This congregation was formed a little over 67 years ago when the two Presbyterian Churches in town reunited after a family dispute, between two brothers as I've heard it, split the church. Our denomination was formed a little over 31 years ago when two churches reunited after over a century of division. We have seen divisions in our families mended with time, but more importantly with love for one another.
Our congregation has seen dysfunction and disunity, where people talk about one another rather than to one another. We know how much pain that can generate. It's much healthier to talk with one another about where we stand, even if it means we disagree with one another. "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known."
Our disagreements will only divide us if we let them, if we forget who it is that brings us together as one household. Because we don't gather in this place each week because we agree on what our General Assembly says. We gather in this place because "we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." The issues which divide us are significant, but our God is so much greater, and has redeemed us already.
This passage of scripture makes me profoundly uncomfortable, but it's the word of the Lord just as much as my favorite verses are. There are people in this world with whom I am uncomfortable, with whom I disagree fiercely, but they are God's children just as much as I am. The same God who did not give up on us when we were steeped in sin also calls us to love one another.
God keeps us together. Our church does not win or lose by the vote of the General Assembly. Our Victory is won though the hands of the High King of heaven. That victory is so much more than the hurt we feel in disagreement, and give us the faith to connect with one another, even though we may disagree on even important issues. We are united by our baptism into Christ's death. "All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."