24 "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 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!
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. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So 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; 33 but 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.
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."
Called to Division??
This summer, I attended the 221st meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Presbyterians from all over the world gathered in Detroit for eight days to do the business of the church. We had, as I’m sure you can guess, committee meetings. We had worship and communion. We had fellowship. We came together, from near and far, to try to discern the will of God for the PC(USA). And, at the end of our time together, whether we were happy about the results or not, we worshiped again.
I arrived home about 10:00 that Saturday night, exhausted and longing for my bed and my pillow, and still reeling from the events of the week. It’s an intense week, during which it is not unusual for meetings to go past midnight. My job as a student assistant meant dealing with IT issues and assisting the organizers with whatever they needed, and required me to arrive early and stay late, so most days were upwards of 16 hours.
There were many tears that week. Some of them were admittedly my own, but most of them came from supporters on all sides of issues. There were tears of joy, tears of grief, tears of exhaustion and tears of gratitude. Even though this is the “business” of the church, I want to be clear that it is deeply spiritual work, and faithful Christians from across the ideological spectrum often break into song and prayer together. They reach out to one another, grieved by their separation, but firm in the belief that they are proclaiming the Gospel to the best of their abilities.
I cannot tell you who is on the right side of God in our debates. I can tell you who I believe is on the right side, but I’m not sure that would be helpful. Because these are good, faithful people working their tails off to the glory of God, and that is to be celebrated. AND, in the end, no matter how “right” we are, we all fall short, and that is what we must remember when we begin to talk about those “other” people as “wrong.”
In our text for today, Jesus has just finished talking to his followers about discipleship. Then he tells them this: “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
Honestly, I struggle with this text. I’ve looked at it over and over, read commentary after commentary, prayed, written, done all the things a preacher is supposed to do while writing a sermon. But this one phrase is so entirely contrary to everything I have ever been told about Jesus. After all, Jesus is the one who brought us a new commandment. In John 13:34 Jesus says: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” It doesn’t even sound like the same Jesus.
Perhaps some context will help…
The book of Matthew is written to a group of Jewish Christians. So, let’s stop and think about what that means. The Gospels are often read to portray the Pharisees as the “bad guys.” They weren’t really bad guys, they were Jews practicing strict adherence to Torah, the law that God gave to the Jews. They were genuine religious people engaging in genuine religious practice. And Jesus himself wasn’t trying to portray the Pharisees as “the bad guys,” but his ministry often violated their interpretation of the Law. The Pharisees were charged with upholding this Law that had guided their religious practice and relationship with God for centuries. Yet clearly, Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Law could appear to be complete disregard for that Law, and as such posed a significant threat to their approach.
So the Jewish Christians of Matthew’s community still practiced Jewish traditions and considered themselves Jews…and they were, ethnically, nationally, geographically; everything about them said Jew…but they were also followers of Jesus. That meant they didn’t adhere to the same law they once did. They were following Christ at the risk of everything.
And what does Jesus tell them? He says, “Don’t worry; this is how it’s supposed to be. I’m not here to make your life easy.” Gee, thanks, Jesus, that was super inspiring.
These Jewish Christians are, once again, wandering in the desert. They are in exile. They have become the scourge of society, meeting in secret in order to preserve their lives and, especially, the lives of their families.
But Jesus tells them not to do that. Because being a disciple means being willing to give up even their families.
They were following Christ at the risk of everything.
And that, I believe, is what the PC(USA) is doing today. We may not be meeting in secret (it definitely was NOT a secret that two thousand of us were in town) and we may not be fearing for our lives simply for being Christian, but our family is breaking apart because of our will to be followers of Christ Jesus.
Four years ago, at the General Assembly in Minneapolis, we removed the restriction which denied ordination to our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers. The issue of homosexual ordination has been a divisive one from the beginning, and has spawned a new Presbyterian denomination…the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians…or ECO. That one change to our polity literally split the church.
But friends, I believe it is too simple to view the ECO and other Presbyterians with whom we disagree as ‘Pharisees,’ or even to claim that either side is wrong. Though painful and deeply sad, our disagreements are not entirely destructive. We are all doing discipleship. We are following Christ at the risk of everything, even the destruction of our church family. It gives me hope, and great joy, to know that our love of Christ is greater than our love of anything else. So much so, that in order to be faithful followers, we are finding ourselves divided.
There will, undoubtedly, be more churches and individuals leaving this year. The issues that divided us ranged from clergy being allowed to marry same-sex couples, to divestment from fossil fuel companies and companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, to our official position on drones, guns and the death penalty. These are hot topics, and we considered them all. Faithfully, prayerfully…we considered them. Votes were cast, tears were shed, cheers were heard, songs were sung, hugs were given and received, communion was taken.
And now here we are, standing on the edge of a new reality, one which sees the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the ECO Presbyterians, one where we must take seriously what is written in our own Foundations of Presbyterian Polity: “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.”
We are divided as followers of Christ.
This, my friends, is kingdom seeking. Let us be determined to discern the will of God, God alone, and “let the chips fall where they may.” If we find ourselves divided as a people, let it be because we are following the Christ we confess as Lord. Because “the demands of the prince of true peace may very well feel like a sword cutting through lesser loyalties and making quick work of our flabby, commonsense morality.”
You see, Jesus knew, when he instructed his disciples, that the work he was preparing them for would be treacherous. Discipleship is costly. He deliberately used violent imagery, to prepare his followers for what was to come. So we cannot say that we didn’t know, because we did. We were told that we would be risking everything if we were to be followers of Christ. And yet, here we are, risking everything.
I’m sorry to tell you this, but Jesus’ values are not family values. Jesus’ values are kingdom values. It’s hard for us to comprehend what that means, because his teaching has become so commonplace for us. But it was totally radical. There’s a reason the authorities wanted him dead.
I want badly for our church family to be in unity with one another, but more than that, I want to follow Jesus. I want to be a disciple. I want to be radical. I fail most of the time.
I’m human. I fail at kingdom seeking. That’s not to say that we should be seeking out hardship or things that will cause us to be divided, no. In fact, Jesus tells us only to pick up his cross, not to create our own. What we should be doing, though, if following what God is calling us to do, rather than doing what makes us most comfortable. For example: My fiancée, Matt, and I would really like to go west when we get married and graduate. We want to be close to my sister, who just had our first nephew, Moses. Our great desire is to be near our family, to do ministry where we can be comfortable and where our kids can all grow up together. We know it won’t be easy, but it’ll be better if we’re close to family. If we’re comfortable…
How’s that for risking everything? For kingdom seeking?? I told you most days I fail.
I overheard a similar story at General Assembly. A woman prayed for God to send her west so she could be with her family. As she put it, “God heard “west” and sent her to West Jersey.” This terrifies me. Aside from simply not wanting to live in New Jersey, I hate the thought of being so far from my family. I hate the thought of my kids not growing up around their cousins. Julie, my sister, sat down next to one of our cousins at a family gathering a few years ago and he said, “Who are you?” I don’t want that for my family. Unfortunately for me, Jesus’ values are not family values and at some point I will have to realize that our dreams of waking up to a Pacific view may not be where God sends us.
All this for a Church whose savior brings a sword of division? All this for a church that may ultimately perish?
The Gospel shakes up values. The Gospel rearranges priorities. The Gospel reorients goals.
But I trust that when Jesus tells me not to fear, I shouldn’t. Okay, I mostly trust that. It’s what he says though. Three times in this passage, Jesus says “Do not be afraid.” He promises that, despite the hardships of discipleship, God goes with us.
So I implore you to pray, to discern the will of God. And at the risk of everything, follow.