My friends, when someone is brought into Christ, they are no longer “like everyone else” and it is that very distinction which is the cause of division.
A very fine sermon by my friend and colleague The Reverend Thomas Nsubuga, Sub Dean of St Mark’s Cathedral Shreveport. Please take a few minutes to edify your heart and mind by reading it. You can also watch it here:
No Peace, Division, Matt.10:24-39
Our God and heavenly Father, take my words and speak through them, take our minds and think through them and take our hearts and set them on fire for the love of Jesus Christ, for it is in his name we pray. Amen.
In his hymn, “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee”, William Alexander Percy includes a line that says, “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod” (The Hymnal 1982 #661). Although the exact interpretation of the statement varies, the fact that it echoes Jesus’ statement in our gospel lesson, cannot be dismissed. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” seems to contradict everything that Jesus is about. If we know anything about Jesus, we know that he is about love, he is about forgiveness and he is about harmony. Jesus’ statement is revolutionary when looked at in the wider context of the Bible. On his arrival, you will recall that the Angels sang “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14). The Angels were affirming what God had spoken through the prophets that the son given to us will be “named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6). In the Sermon on the Mountain, when he gives his followers the Beatitudes he says “blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9). When the time for him to go to the cross drew near, Luke records for us in chapter 19 that as he looked out on the city of Jerusalem and viewed the people moving around, he exclaimed “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42). After the Ascension, when the New Testament is being written, we discover that when Paul looks back on the words and works of Jesus, he describes them in terms of peace. In 2 Corinthians 5:19 he says that in the death of Jesus, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”. In his opening chapter of his letter to the church at Colossae, he says “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”, and here comes the phrase, “by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col.1:19-20). It is clear from these verses that in the expectation of the coming of Jesus, in the words and works of Jesus, it would be very hard to step away from the notion that the way Jesus lived, what Jesus said, how Jesus died was without any question linked to peace. Why then does he say “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword, a weapon of division”?
To help us understand what Jesus is saying in Matthew, we have to consider what he says in a parallel passage in Luke 12:51. He prefaces the same statement which is in question form saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” The fire he is bringing to the earth, refers to a fire which will destroy the combustible and at the same time will purify the noncombustible, a picture that we find throughout the Old Testament. Indeed the picture of a silversmith in Malachi 3:3 is a graphic picture. The silversmith would heat the material, removing the dross and could not stop until he was able to see his face reflected in the silver. That is how Jesus works with us so that his face may be reflected in us. Jesus is looking forward to this because he longs that the work of salvation may be completed, when evil will be destroyed and the faithful, purified. I have not met many people who are not intrigued by that possibility and indeed would be prepared to commit their lives to that eventuality. Every day as we listen to the news in the various media forms we say to ourselves “I wish it were possible for all of this dreadful stuff to be done away with”. The Bible says it is going to be done away with. This Prince of Peace will reign eternally but in the meantime strife between good and evil continues, the peace is closed in the sod.
Before the fire could fall upon his people, Jesus says, but I have a baptism to undergo. We understand this progression, because there won’t be Pentecost power unless there is crucifixion pain. The baptism here refers to his death upon the cross which will of course be the ultimate expression of his obedience to the Father’s will. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, he was saying, “Father I have come to do your will and in my baptism here I am declaring this to all who are watching me”. Then they listened to his words and they watched him move towards Jerusalem and suddenly they began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. So, this baptism here was in prospect of his death on the cross whereby taking the place of sinners he would bring about a reconciliation as foretold that “he will take up our infirmities and he will carry our sorrows, he will be pierced for our transgressions, he will be crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that will bring us peace will be upon him and by his wounds we will be healed” (Isaiah 53:3–5). That is how committed God is to ensuring that we need not face the eternal separation from him. Jesus is covered in shame so that those of us who, if we are honest, have shameful lives may be covered with his glory. There is no story like this elsewhere in all of world religions. This is the story of a physician who heals by taking the patient’s disease. This is the story of someone so committed to effecting reconciliation between God and his Holiness and men and women in their rebellion that he is prepared to put his very life on the line in order to effect that reconciliation.
So, the answer to our question is directly tied to the work that Jesus was to accomplish in effecting reconciliation. When a man or a woman comes to understand this good news, how sinners can be put right with God, how my life can be transformed and how I can discover forgiveness, when a man or a woman comes to trust in Christ in that way, their newfound faith in Jesus will inevitably prove to be a divisive factor. While Jesus’ ultimate objective was not division, the effect of his accomplishment of salvation would be division. “Zacchaeus, come down the tree; we are going down to your house” (LUKE 19:1-10). What does he do when he gets to the house? He brings division. “Now Zacchaeus you are going to make a decision about me. Now that I have come into your house, you are going to determine whether you are going back out there to cheat your people or you are going out of this door as a radically new person. Go out now because I want to hear what you have to say to the people.” And you know the story. When a life is changed in its core, in its direction, in its values, in its focus, in its purpose, in its dreams; whatever that change maybe it changes the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. So, before he heads out, a husband turns to his wife who has been inviting him to something at church that he is tired of hearing about and he says to her “you know the strange thing about you is that something weird has happened to you and you have begun to suggest that somehow I am not a Christian at all.” What is the problem here? She has begun to run after Christ. That is the division.
Jesus demands careful obedience, costly loyalty and that is why not everyone is prepared to pay the price or to accept those who do pay the price. In describing a person before they become a believer in Jesus, the writer to the Ephesians says; “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh…and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God…out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” (Ephesians 2:3–5). Did you mark that phrase “like everyone else”? My friends, when someone is brought into Christ, they are no longer “like everyone else” and it is that very distinction which is the cause of division.