I’m lately finding myself so attracted to what might seem like a surprising statement from Jesus for one to find attractive.
SLIDE Here it is, as recorded in chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel:
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."
Whoa! Right? Vince, you’re finding this attractive? Isn’t this the kind of statement from Jesus one might be tempted to hide or shy away from? How does this square with what we talk about every week — Jesus being a bridge builder? Elsewhere in the Bible, Jesus is called the Prince of Peace In a previous message in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers" And that’s the general view of Jesus, right? — the one who inspired the nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi & Dr. King? So what’s going on here? Actually, with a little attention to context, I think we'll find that paradoxically this is one of the most bridge building and peacemaking statements Jesus makes Without attention to context, This is (and literally was) the rallying cry for the Crusades… “you think I came to bring peace? No! I came to bring a sword” — to kill the heathens and unbelievers out there. Surface level readings of this statement in the middle ages led to terrible persecution and violence against our Muslim brothers and sisters — a stain on the Christian religion that can't and should never be washed out or forgotten BUT Jesus’ original audience heard something very different than the Crusaders heard And I want us to hear as they did Jesus’ original audience would have recognized the references and coded language he was using here SLIDE A bit like if I were giving a talk to you all and dropped the phrase “you can’t always get what you want”, you’d all have the Rolling Stones song stuck in your head… that reference would mean something more than just the phrase itself… And now you do have that song stuck in your head… you’re welcome. SLIDE So Jesus drops two big-time references in this statement that his audience would have gotten. The first is his use of the word "peace" This would have stirred something among 1st century Palestinian Jews, because they were living under the Roman Empire, which had a program at the time it called “Pax Romana” — "Roman Peace" in Latin SLIDE Pax Romana was essentially propaganda: the word “peace” was used because the Roman Empire was experiencing a prolonged period without falling into war But the reality was far from True Peace because the way the empire achieved this was by violently snuffing out potential uprisings or threats before they could become something SLIDE And then once a new people group was violently suppressed and came under the rule of the Roman Empire, they would issue a decree called a “Gospel” (in english “a declaration of Good News”) And the Gospel or Good News was: “Caesar is Lord” — further spreading their propaganda that "we are held together and have peace because of the Caesar, or emperor"… which really meant "he holds us together by might and violence" For Jesus’ listeners, 1st century Palestinian Jews (one of countless conquered peoples who'd experienced despair and loss and violence at the hands of the powerful Roman Empire), All of this fake peace would have come to mind when Jesus used the word “peace” in this way The proof of that is in what these listeners to Jesus ended up doing with what Jesus told them: SLIDE What did they call their written accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings? Gospels — pretty subversive to the powers that be What was the earliest creed and mission statement of the first followers of Jesus? “Jesus is Lord” — a not so subtle play on “Caesar is Lord" — again, subversive to power Jesus’ original listeners were picking up what he was putting down And when we’re picking it up too, this most confusing bit about “bringing a sword instead of peace" begins to make sense We might read between the lines of Jesus’ words this way to discover what his original listeners heard: SLIDE "Do not think that I have come to bring a Roman Peace or a peace to the status quo. I have come to bring a sword to that kind of peace — I have come to bring a True Peace.” SLIDE True Peace is not “just the absence of war” or “keeping up the status quo” or “let’s all get along”, and it is NOT accomplished cheaply by domination and power SLIDE True Peace is the opposite. It subverts and challenges power -- that’s the sword it requires It addresses power imbalances and the historical impact of power imbalances And it is accomplished through the hard work of self-sacrifice, NOT others-sacrifice That’s why Jesus finishes here with “pick up your cross and follow me… lose your life and you will find it” High stakes peacemaking, I call this. Starting to see why I’ve been drawn to these words from Jesus lately?
But we’re not even done yet. If all that’s not enough, Jesus had a second use of coded-language in what I read earlier SLIDE This bit about “setting a man against his father and a daughter against her mother” is Jesus referring to the words of an Old Testament prophet that his listeners would have known — Micah, whose cutting words hundreds of years earlier in a different context were about -- you guessed it -- powerful people abusing their authority and calling it peace SLIDE Listen to this from Micah, which is right before the verse Jesus cites:
3 Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire— they all conspire together. 4 The best of them is like a brier, the most upright worse than a thorn hedge.
Dang! To get True Peace and Bridge Building, we have to take a sword to power and to the status quo Even if the status quo is our own family, our own tribe High Stakes Peacemaking.
SLIDE So, I don’t know… umm… America… Today… yeah… wow. I’m having big feelings, as I often say to my 2 year old.
I think about Jesus here, and I gotta be honest...
When politicians and other people in power have their power called into question by people outraged at abuse or corruption or dishonesty or apathy toward people in pain… And the response from those powerful people is to allege conspiracies to ruin their reputation, or to shame victims for “causing trouble”, or to complain about a “loss of civility”...
I don’t really have any sympathy for them.
Because Jesus’ true peace comes with a sword, and that sword is directed at the status quo.
And let me be clear — if anyone in this room is the status quo, I am the status quo. I am a white, middle class, American, Christian male. If Jesus’ true peace is coming with a sword, the sword is coming at me. I am the one, above all, who needs to learn the way of self-sacrifice to participate in that peace. Because I’ve got more to sacrifice than most.
But that doesn’t mean I’m irredeemable or doomed when self-sacrifice is required of me, when Jesus’ sword is directed at me. Jesus said to the rich young man who came to him, excited to follow, asking “what must I do to enter the Kingdom of God?”: "Sell all your possessions, give it to the poor, and then follow me"… The Gospel reports the rich young man went away sad for he had many possessions… Self-sacrifice is no easy thing. High Stakes Peacemaking is just that: high stakes. It requires of us. But what did the rich young man end up doing? We’re not told! That’s up to us to decide. And that’s invigorating to me.
Because there’s some other big feelings in me in all of this.
It’s not all sadness and reckoning at all the power or status quo entitlements that I may have to sacrifice.
There is also a deep longing that is tugged at me in this. And this big feeling is even bigger.
What’s helped me most understand this longing in me?
The answer is of course Harry Potter.
SLIDE Sorry everyone. I know I talked about Harry Potter a few weeks back too. But it’s what I’m into right now. You’re gonna have to put up with me.
It may not be Harry Potter for you, but there’s just something about epic narratives that end in all out war between good and evil that help us to strip away the distractions of modern life and connect us to what most matters in life.
In Harry Potter, the most powerful and mysterious force throughout the series is self-sacrificial love — Harry’s mom sacrificing herself to try to save Harry when he was a baby plays a role in all of the 7 books.
By the series end, Harry comes to terms with the way self-sacrifice would have to be part of his own life. And afterward, his mentor, Professor Dumbledore, says to him the line that I think makes me cry quicker than anything else in the whole series: “Harry. You wonderful boy. You brave man."
The fact that that gets me so much shows me that: For all of the sacrifice that being a part of Jesus’ true peacemaking requires of me, I deep down long for my life to feel that high stakes I don’t want to live a shallow-deep existence, enjoying my privilege, floating above problems others face, or floating above my own problems refusing to face them I want to feel love and compassion for others and a desire for true peace to such a degree that I will willingly choose to sacrifice myself for it I want to hear a Dumbledore figure say to me: You wonderful boy. You brave man. That longing is so much stronger in me than my resistance to any sacrifice that Jesus’ sword might bring my way.
SLIDE So, I wonder if you feel a longing for such high stakes too?
If so, I have two lines of thought to pitch to you in terms of “so what might we do with this?”...
First, some suggestions on how you can start to practice this tomorrow... or today even… SLIDE You know those signs on CTA that say “if you see something, say something”... Take that seriously! A few months ago, I was on the train and I witnessed a man sexually harassing a woman, And at first, I’m ashamed to say, I wanted to turn up the volume on my phone, close my eyes, and pretend I didn’t see… That’s what everyone else on the train was doing… We rationalize to ourselves “I don’t want to make a scene… I’ll only make it worse” But, although years ago Vince would have just stuck with that plan and forgot about the episode an hour later, Jesus has been working on me, and so I found myself eventually shouting “that’s enough” to the guy It feels high stakes to say something when you see something-- suddenly you’re in the spotlight too. And you have made a scene, and disturbed the status quo But you know what? Now a person who was being harassed isn’t alone. Another way you might put this into practice is at work Whatever power you have in your job (whether formal authority, or just seniority among your co-workers, or favor with a boss, or whatever)... SLIDE Make choices to use your power at work to defend those around you who are the most vulnerable Someone who experiences a language barrier but little grace for that? Someone who is falling behind because of stuff going on in their personal life? Someone who seems to get taken advantage of by others? The pressure in work settings is almost always to protect and defend the status quo… don’t rock the boat… side with the person who is most charismatic or powerful… survival of the fittest… fake peace We can join Jesus in bucking against those trends by: Elevating someone’s voice at a meeting, and standing behind them Going to bat on behalf of a co-worker with their boss, Vocally defending someone who is being taken advantage of
SLIDE My second line of thought is going to sound a little bit self-important, but bear with me.
We have tried to center this church, Brown Line Vineyard, on the high stakes peacemaking and bridge-building of Jesus. On activating people into that. And on resourcing people to keep at it Because here’s the thing about high stakes and self-sacrifice… You keep experiencing these little deaths. And I don’t mind sounding overly-spiritual to say this: You keep needing the power of God to resurrect you each time.
For those of you who feel like you are actively engaged in Jesus’ peacemaking in some way or another… First off, you are awesome and you inspire me — you teachers and artists and activists and any number of other things — go you! SLIDE My recommendation to you is: use BLV as a place of resource, as a place to fill your tank, as a place to not feel alone in the things that are hard in your pursuit of peacemaking I’m proud to say BLV has a track record of being that kind of place to people I had lunch recently with a friend in the church here who I would describe as an activist (but who I’m pretty sure wouldn’t describe himself as such because it would feel too haughty — gives you a sense of this person’s character)… And I was so moved as he told me about this incredible win he experienced in his activism, and how afterward his first feeling was: I could never have done this without BLV helping me feel connected with and resourced by God. On the other hand, if you don’t feel actively engaged in high stakes peacemaking currently, but you long to be SLIDE My recommendation to you is: make BLV’s mission your mission! There are so many awesome churches and community organizations and non-profits (faith-based AND secular) in our area with high stakes peacemaking in their missions, all worthy of your volunteer investment, Let me tell you the unique area of high stakes peacemaking that grabs our hearts the most here at BLV: Peacemaking between faith and wider culture. We talked about the Crusades earlier as an example of religious people taking Jesus’ words about bringing a sword out of context, but we need look no further back in history than the last century in America to see this — the sword, you may have heard, is for all those non-christians, or worse, all those nominal-christians who claim they’re Christian but aren’t really serious enough What an abuse of power on the part of religious people! What a status quo version of “peace”! It’s no wonder sociologists who study wider-culture opinions toward religious people always come away with condemning lists like: Shaming Hypocritical Anti-gay Close-minded You may notice that at BLV we don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to rehabilitate images of “Christianity” or “church" The reason is we believe there’s a pretty strong case that, in 21st century America, Jesus’ sword is directed NOT at wider culture, BUT at the status quo of religious settings In pretty significant ways, it’s Christianity and churches that have more to self-sacrifice right now than “non-believers” do. And so, here at BLV, our message to those around us is NOT: “Come hear why you’re rotten, and we religious people used to be rotten but now we’re great, and if you repent, you can stop being rotten and be great too, like us" Our message to those around us is: the way of Jesus compels us NOT because it assures us we’re great and that everyone else is rotten, BUT because it humbles us in a way that teaches us compassion for all people — compassion that many of us, cynical as we are, didn’t know we could experience at such a high level That’s the high stakes peacemaking and bridge-building we’re about here! Not using religion to pad our egos or elevate ourselves over others. But discovering a true religion that humbles us and connects us with others on a level playing field. That builds bridges. If that inspires you like it does me, Who can you tell about our mission this week? Or who in your life might BLV be able to build a bridge for if you invited them to join us on a Sunday? Or, if I can also recommend something to pray about, ask God: “Is there someone I know who would feel deeply met by a person of faith defending them and standing for them? (Even when that might mean standing against other people of faith?)
SLIDE And that’s actually what I’d like to close us with this morning If you are someone who has not felt people of faith stand for you because that would disrupt the status quo, My heart would be for you to experience Jesus and this church defend you and not those people of faith this morning Friday, I learned, was National Coming Out Day… well, history has shown us that certainly can be a time when many might feel “not stood for” by people of faith Or if you are someone who has ever had to endure scorn or victim-blaming or being talked down to because you spoke up about an abuse of power, My heart would be for you to experience Jesus and this church defending you, and not the powerful this morning.
Alright, if you would stand with me, I would love to pray for us all... “Blessed are the peacemakers.”