Saturday, June 18, 2005

Pentecost 5 - Year A

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;” says Jesus, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if this is the “kind of statement that makes us Christians wonder if [we] are hearing right. Is this really Jesus? Is this the prince of peace who taught us to love our enemies, the gentle shepherd who taught us to turn the other cheek? It is the kind of statement that makes you wish someone had forgotten to write it down, but even if we didn’t have it in Matthew, we will find it in Luke, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but division. (Luke 12:51)”

What are we to make of such a pronouncement? And where exactly is the good news in it?

“Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Again, tough words. Jesus seems to be setting up an “us against them” posture for his followers. But this passage is odd, some may say “unique” because these divisions that Jesus is talking about seem to fly in the face of everything else Jesus taught. There is no other passage in the gospels where Jesus uses this language.

So what’s going on here?

You need to remember that the first Christians were Jewish. Christianity was just another sect among many in Judaism. Like many family squabbles, they often turned nasty.

Matthew, in his gospel liked to emphasize the Jewishness of Christianity; but he was also very aware that such emphases would upset other Jews. Back then, it was important to publicly declare what one believed. Spoken proclamation bore tremendous weight. That’s why Jesus asked his followers to acknowledge him in public.

But today, when words are so cheap, public declarations are just another blip on the radar screen of a 24 hour news cycle. Today, belief is not just what you say, belief is how you live. And living as a Christian today, or in any age, bears some consequences.

Some of you might know personally what those consequences look like.

In my first parish, there was a woman who very involved in the life of the church. She had grown up in the town and was baptized in the church. I figured she had been around the church forever. The kitchen was her territory; if you didn’t know whereto put the cups and saucers after coffee hour, she would tell you.

But it turns out that she stopped going to church about a year after she was married. Her husband didn’t like her going to church. He drank, and he “just knew” that folks at church were talking about him.

For a while she went to church anyway, knowing that an angry, mean, drunk was waiting for her when she got home.

It took some doing but he finally wore her down. She stayed home on Sunday mornings.

Probably the biggest gift he ever gave her was leaving her for another woman. She got her life back and came back to church.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;” says Jesus, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Harvard professor and Christian author Robert Coles tells a story about a young boy who was brought to church one day after his parents decided he needed some moral guidance in his life.

Downstairs at Sunday School he learned all about Jesus, and how Jesus lived a life of poverty. The boy heard how Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead, how he told his disciples to sell all they have and give to the poor, how he said that the greatest in the kingdom of God is the lowest, the slave of all in the eyes of the world.

The boy heard all these stories while his parents were upstairs in the worship service, listening to glorious music and praying wonderfully poetic prayers.

The boy took these messages home and started asking his parents some uncomfortable questions, about why we have so much food when so many people downtown go hungry, especially when Jesus taught to give what we have to the poor and hungry.

The boy did other strange things. He would pray spontaneously for his friends who were sick and would ask God for healing.

For a while, his parents chalked his behaviour up to good ole youthful enthusiasm. But his strange behaviour stretched on. He continued his hard questions and prayed even more often. One day he even gave away his lunch to a boy in his class whose mother couldn’t afford to make him one after her welfare cheques ran dry at the end of the month.

“This is getting out of hand,” his parents said to one another. “We have to do something. A little religion is okay, but he’s taking this Jesus thing far too seriously.”

So his parents took him to see a psychiatrist hoping that their boy could be “cured” of his religious fervor, so he would begin to live a “normal” and “healthy” life.”

“Those who find their life will lose it,” says Jesus, “and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

This boy knew what Jesus was talking about. He found out that following Jesus might get him into trouble. But he also saw what it’s like to see God’s love actually doing something.

So, what consequences do you bear as a Christian? What does your life proclaim?

Whatever cost we pay as followers of Jesus, BBT reminds us, “There is good news here for those with the nerve to hear it. The gospel is not a flashlight but a fire. It can warm and it can burn. The gospel is not a table knife, but a sword. It can set free and it can divide. The gospel is not pabulum. It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties, but as frightening as it is, it is not finally to be feared.

“The peace of God is worth anything it takes to get there, and anyone knows that [peace is not merely the absence of conflict]. The good news is that in Christ God has given us someone worth fighting about, and someone with enough clout to end all our fighting, for his word is like fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces.”



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