I came to bring a sword: Matthew 10.24-39
Our Gospel reading is taken from Matthew, and it reminded me about a story we heard on our recent Chub meeting to Hope. (Chub just stands for Church and Pub). Well, a new vicar had been appointed to St Peter’s in Hope and on his first Sunday he preached from Matthew’s Gospel on the Sermon on the Mount, which was very well received. The next Sunday he preached the same sermon, and a few eyebrows were raised. Believe it or not, on his third Sunday, he again preached the same sermon. There were distinct mutterings in the congregation, and the Church Warden was delegated to have a word with the vicar.
But when asked, the vicar said he would continue to repeat the same sermon until the good people of Hope lived out the message of the sermon in their lives!
Like Jesus, the vicar wanted people to change their lives. Our reading for today, which is also from Matthew, has much the same purpose. Jesus came to change people’s lives, but some of the things we heard in the Gospel reading, we may not have expected. We know that God is a god of love and that Jesus, his Son, came into the world to proclaim that message. But in the passage we read –
‘Don’t think it’s my job to bring peace on the earth’ I didn’t come to bring peace – I came to bring a sword, I came to divide a man from his father, a daughter from her mother, and a daughter-in-law from her mother-in-law.’
Jesus had meant these words to cause a stir.
‘Sons against fathers, daughters against mothers’ – what on earth could he mean? Rejecting parents and children – not peace on earth, but a sword – can this be Jesus himself speaking? What’s going on? How can we get our minds around these strange sayings?
Now the New Testament also has a good deal to say about caring for one another within the family. But some have misguidedly taken passages like these as a licence to neglect their own dependants, to spend all their time on ‘the Lord’s work’. You may have heard it said about someone that they were so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use!
But these are stern and uncomfortable words which we can’t ignore. They echo down the years into the Christian church of today. Think of St Francis, leaving his wealthy home, despite his father’s fury, to go and live a simple life of imitating Jesus as best as he could – and setting an example that thousands still follow today. Think also of those who have faced terrible dangers for the sake of the gospel and have had to send their families to a place of safety elsewhere, while they have stayed to look after a church because there wasn’t anyone else to do it.
Jesus doesn’t say here that everyone who follows him will find themselves split off from their families; certainly not. Indeed, many of the apostles, in the days of the early church, took their spouses with them on their travels. But Jesus is once again talking about priorities, and is making remarkable and quite drastic claims. He isn’t saying (as some have tried to pretend that he was saying) , that what matters is following God in your own way. No. Jesus is saying, loud and clear, that what matters is allegiance to him: allegiance to Jesus must come at the top of every priority list. In our service today we have already heard the words that Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
The first commandment is this: ‘The Lord our God is the only Lord’. “You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”
‘The second is this’: “Love your neighbour as yourself’”
There is no other commandment greater than these.
As the story in the Gospels unfolds, we see how difficult this was, even for those who knew him personally: Peter denied him, Judas betrayed him, the rest all ran away and hid. But the challenge remains, embracing everything, demanding everything, offering everything, promising everything.
The absolute demand of Jesus brings us back to the Sermon on the Mount. It isn’t the case that there are some fine ideals in the mind of God, and that Jesus just happens to teach them a bit better than most people. Nor is it the case that Jesus came to show us the way through the present world to a quite different one, where we will go after death. No: Jesus came to begin and to establish the new way of being God’s people, and not surprisingly those who were quite happy with the old one, thank you very much, didn’t like having it disturbed.
He didn’t want to bring division within households for the sake of it. But he knew that, if people followed his way, division was bound to follow. We see division in our world today. Terrible things are happening, brought about by hate. Brought about by those who do not believe in a God who teaches us to love, not only our neighbours, but also our enemies, as we love ourselves. But with so much death and destruction we can become afraid and turn in on ourselves; frightened to be the outgoing and loving people that God wants us to be.
One of the most memorable moments for me in recent weeks has been the moving pictures of people giving out roses; people of all races, colour and creed making a practical display of their love and compassion to other human beings. What do you think is the command repeated most often in the Bible? You might imagine it’s something stern like: Behave yourself – -Say your prayers! – Worship God more wholeheartedly! – Give more money away. You’d be wrong. It’s the command we find repeated three times in our Gospel
‘Don’t be afraid.’
Yes, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ The people who gave out roses were not afraid. You can see easily enough why Jesus needed to tell his disciples not to be afraid. After all, he’s warned them that the authorities will be after them; that they will suffer physical and emotional violence; and, that people will start calling them the sort of names they have already begun to call him. So there was plenty to be afraid of! And yet he says, don’t be afraid.
If, as the Gospel is saying, God really takes note of every single sparrow in the sky, and every single hair of our heads, that means that, just as nothing is too great for him to do, so nothing is too small for him to care about it. The message is plain. You are worth more than a great many sparrows; so rest assured that God knows and cares about the details of your life, even as you face the temptations and dangers which are all around us.
Followers of Jesus are bound to experience attacks at all levels. But we must also learn that the one we are serving is stronger than the strongest opponent we will ever meet. If we accept the challenge of Jesus sayings, this is then matched by the remarkable promises he makes to those who accept His challenges and live by them. He will ‘own’ us before his father in heaven, and ‘Those who lose their lives will find them.’
That’s why Jesus’ challenge, to the disciples themselves and, through them to the Israel of his day, had to be so sharp – and it also has to be just as sharp today, where people still prefer comfort to challenge.
So follow Christ, love your enemies, and DO NOT BE AFRAID!