(Psalm 82, Gospel of Luke 12:49-53, Gospel of Thomas:48) This passage in the Gospel of Luke has a parallel in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew it reads, “Do not suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but the sword. I come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother” Matthew 10:34 The way Matthew puts it makes the surprise here even more dramatic.
“I didn’t come to bring peace”!? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be the Prince of Peace? Didn’t he bless all the peacemakers? Didn’t he teach to turn the other cheek and not only to not do violence but to be free from anger altogether and even to love our enemies? Didn’t Jesus say to his disciple Peter, “Put away your sword, for those who live by the sword die by the sword”? Yet here is Jesus saying that it is precisely a sword that he’s bringing – he’s bringing the sword, not peace.
Now, for Christians who are into justifying violence, this passage, especially in Matthew, with the sword, is a big relief. “Whew! We were beginning to get worried that we’d have to change our ways and become peaceful people. But here’s Jesus saying after all, ‘bring out the swords!’ As long as we believe in Jesus we can smite our enemies.”
This is a very popular interpretation, which is why I’m bringing it up. This interpretation has helped generations of Christians to go ahead and live by sword and die by the sword, just like everybody else, just like the violent cultures around them.
Yet we also know that there have been generations of Christians, since the very beginning, that have put down the sword and have refused to live like the violent cultures around them. That has gotten them into trouble.
So what do we do with this?
It is a terrible mistake to think that Jesus with these words is somehow erasing the entire Sermon on the Mount. No, instead, he’s making it clear to his disciples that there are consequences to the Sermon on the Mount – he’s saying, “if you actually follow my teachings, if you are actually transformed by the God at work here, you will be committing spiritual insurrection against the foundation of the social order around you.” Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor, pray for those who persecute you, become free from greed, lust, anger, fear, anxiety, selfishness … love God with all your being, love your neighbor as yourself … these are not just sentimental platitudes, these are the flares of a fiercely burning transformation of oneself and society. Do not be naive, resistance is inevitable.
That’s what Jesus is making clear hear. Matthew uses the word “sword,” but Luke makes it clear that’s a metaphor – he’s talking about division, resistance. Jesus is kindling a fire of transformation that is causing a division so profound that it can even burst families asunder.
Some examples: If someone’s been addicted to some substance or some destructive habit and they have managed finally to invite God into their lives to help them become free from that addiction, folks often have to split from their friends and even family who are also addicts or who enable the addiction. And those friends and family are going to resist that split – they will not be happy about it. The new life that this recovering addict is being called to is causing them to become divided from their old way of life that is the way of death. But at the same time, if all goes well, they become united with a new community and a new family with others who are on the journey of recovery themselves, or who are supportive allies.
Or take someone who is in an abusive relationship, who is finally able to find a way to claim new life and get free. This is very hard, especially because it means splitting themselves, often with their children as well from the tentacles of a toxic relationship. This new life causes one to become divided from a family. But if all goes well one also becomes united with a new community to support and protect this new freedom from abuse.
Maybe in less dramatic ways, most of us probably know what it’s like, when we are going through some personal growth or something big is unfolding in our spiritual lives, and we’re breaking free from whatever negative cycles we’ve been caught in. And we discover, often painfully, that someone close to us puts up a whole lot of resistance to this new growth, they want us to stay the same and fit into whatever box they’ve set for us.
Another example: all too often when someone who is LBGT owns who it is that God has created them to be, their family disowns them. There is division. This is so painful at any age, but especially when we’re talking about a young person who comes out of the closet only to get kicked out of the house.
But my understanding is that in the LBGT community there’s this idea of “families of choice.” Folks whose families have disowned them for who they are, form new families with others they’ve come to love and trust. New sisters, new brothers, new fathers, new mothers. Union with a new family.
So often the truth that sets us free sets us against a social order or a family order that is based on lies. But the truth that turns us away from corruption is what helps us to kindle a new community among kindred spirits.
That, I pray, is what we are doing here as a church community. May this church be one of the ways that love burns on amidst the pain and lies and division of a fallen world. If this love causes conflict, if this love tears us apart from false community, based on inhumanity, so be it. This love is forging a greater unity.
The Apostle Paul said that through Christ we are all united, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. So any time we get a glimpse of how we are all connected as children of the living God, despite our apparent differences, this is a glimmer of what it is that Jesus was kindling. He was kindling the coming of the realm of heaven on earth.
Jesus came to cast fire on the world, a baptism of fire that burns away all the dross that covers our true nature as children of the living God. A fire that burns away all that binds us back from embodying the will of our Creator for our lives together. A fire that burns away our addictions to all those false gods we hear about in Psalm 82, the gods of greed and domination and neglect, gods that seek to suffocate the humanity of each child of the true God.
This is about a fire that frees us to receive God’s love for us and to love God back with all our heart and mind and soul and body, and to love one another as ourselves.
So may we together have the courage to welcome this fire and be transformed by it, together, to become a new family.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered August 14, 2016 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
Image: “Rage, The Flower Thrower” by Banksy