a sermon, based on Matthew 10.24-39, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017
“Do not think that I come to bring peace…not…peace, but a sword”
Jesus! This is a hard word! So hard that I sometimes wonder what happened to Jesus between his birth and this point in his ministry. Peace was the purpose of his coming. When Jesus was born angels sang: “Glory to God in highest heaven and on earth peace.” When Jesus spoke of blessedness, he identified peacemakers as God’s children. So, what’s up with this sword?
Now, I also remember at the start of his ministry those who gave him the most trouble were the people of Nazareth. An ostensibly triumphal return home swiftly soured as they, with the contempt of familiarity, criticized his teaching and him. That must have been hard! Worse, his family wasn’t supportive. They believed he had lost his mind and tried to restrain him and take him home, presumably for his own good. That must have been hard!
So, I wonder. Did Jesus begin with visionary hope and idealistic zeal, seeking to breathe into a world of iniquity and inequity a word of peace about a kingdom of integrity and equality, then suffer manifold Shakespearean slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or find himself caught frequently in that poetic fell clutch of circumstance or simply have too many bad days, all of it knocking him off message?
On more serious reflection, “not peace, but a sword” is not contradictory to Jesus’ message and ministry. Rather, it is a faithful word. Though conflict was not Jesus’ purpose, it was a product of his ministry; for he challenged the powers-that-be, which always bears the bitter fruit of conflict. Thus, he warned his followers to expect it.
From the earliest days of the church, to be a follower of Jesus meant ostracism for some, even from their families; death for others. Because of this hard word, no one who became a Christian later could say: “No one told me about the high price I might have to pay!”
But what does “not peace, but a sword” mean to us in our day and time? Where, when is the sword of conflict for us?
Under the rubric that one biblical passage can illumine another, the Epistle to the Hebrews offers another metaphorical sword reference. God’s word is described as “living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword…dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow…thoughts and intentions.” I focus not on the sword or source of division, but on the character of the division: inward and deep, personal and precise; involving differentiation, slicing-and-dicing between and among realities so closely bound as to be practically inseparable.
I believe the sword of conflict arises in our lives – whether as individuals, families, communities, nations – and first within, whenever we conceive of an idea or claim a hope or behold a vision of who we desire to become or embark on a life’s mission to fulfill it. In other words, whenever we engage any activity involving definition and decision, there is the sword of conflict. For whenever we choose one thing, it means, demands letting something else go. Depending on the issue, that can be a hard thing. And when the choice is made, there arises another external sword of potential conflict with other individuals, families, communities, nations who question, challenge the choice that has been made of an idea or hope or vision or mission.
I believe that Jesus, his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional love and justice are ultimate matters of life and death, in this world and for the next. I believe that to follow Jesus, to bear his gospel, to share his good news in our thoughts and feelings, intentions, words, and actions is to experience conflict within ourselves and with others, for all of it flies in the face of our inherent human often selfish self-interest.
I believe that in following Jesus, if we never or rarely have known conflict, internal and external, then we’ve been following someone or something else. For to follow Jesus is to hold in our hands the sword of our own conflict.
So, beware and take care.
Illustration: 14th century fresco (“I came not to bring peace, but a sword”) in the katholikon (holy sepulcher) in the Sacred Monastery of the Ascension of Christ, Kosovo
 Luke 2.14, my emphasis
 Matthew 5.9
 See Matthew 13.54-58, Mark 6.1-6, Luke 4.16-30.
 Mark 3.21
 Hebrews 4.12