swordplay

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17

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”

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

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.”[1] When Jesus spoke of blessedness, he identified peacemakers as God’s children.[2] 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.[3] 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![4]

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.”[5] 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

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 2.14, my emphasis

[2] Matthew 5.9

[3] See Matthew 13.54-58, Mark 6.1-6, Luke 4.16-30.

[4] Mark 3.21

[5] Hebrews 4.12

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6 thoughts on “swordplay

  1. Dear Paul,

    Of all the sermons you have posted here, many of which I have loved, this, I believe, is my favorite. It is so encouraging to have it lovingly and faithfully preached that Jesus knew how countercultural – indeed, how counter-human nature – his message and his way of life were. To be reminded of the hurts, the damage, and the danger that those who seek to go against the grain of society’s common ways of dealing will experience is reassuring and strengthening.

    I experienced a very small example of this just this week when I attempted to intervene in an online neigborhood bulletin board conversation that had been hijacked by an angry man. I tried to speak peace to him, wishing him and his family good will and gentleness from everyone they encounter (which was the opposite of what he was offering in his posts). In response, he immediately directed his wrath at me, accused me of “proselytization” (I had mentioned no faith) and told me in no uncertain terms that my “mockery” was not appreciated. He was quickly supported by another equally angry neighbor. I stood firm by responding without returning the anger and by continuing to reinforce my wishes for him and his family. He was silent thereafter, but the initial response from him hurt.

    I am a recovering lawyer and am pretty new at trying to abandon argument and advocacy and adopt offering love and peace in situations where tensions are high and anger paramount. I’ve lived long enough to know it’s a hard and dangerous world out there if you’re not willing to get down and dirty while supporting your side of any issue. I am trying to do it differenty now, and it’s good to be reminded of the sword that automatically comes in the same package as the spirit of Jesus.

    Keep on encouraging and being an example, Paul. There are those of us out here counting on your inspiration to keep us going and being in the face of the sword’s sharp edges.

    Much love and gratitude to you,

    Karen

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, my dear Karen, how this vignette of your life’s experiences, one that I characterize as cyber-bullying, touches the heart of my sense of things; that is, how I perceive what John the evangelist might call “the world” in relation to seeking to follow Jesus in embracing and embodying his love and justice.

      Yes, this incident in our life is painful. They all and always are. For me, too. Still, as I continue in my pilgrimage of following Jesus, more and more I want and will yield to what I believe to be the unconditionality of his benevolence and fairness to and with and for all…

      Just this last week, I got in touch with something very real and deep. I had been hurt by and angry at another. Once I was able to articulate my dis-ease, then I was able, through, I believe, God’s Spirit, to listen more and talk (even feel!) less. What I discerned was that I could hear in the witness of that other person his hurt and anger and fear, which, I am almost certain he did not intend to reveal (not desiring to risk vulnerability) and which though unresolved for him then (perhaps ever), allowed me to accept his humankindness, indeed, to let go of my anger.

      For me, it was a moment when I caught more than a glimpse of Jesus’ self-sacrificial living and giving; the sort of which has power to transform – in this case, me (which knowing the breadth of my life-long grudge-bearing spirit, is as close to miraculous as I can imagine).

      Love,
      Paul

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      • Paul,
        Thanks so much for the affirmation, and yours also, Loretta. I’m so glad you experienced redemption of the hard experience, the anger, and hurt you had experienced with another this week. It’s those encounters and moments that make it a little easier to keep going down the road of trying to do things differently, isn’t it? Honesty about our feelings, patience to sit still and listen, humility to accept our own part in creating division, and faith that redemption can happen seem to be keys that can unlock some very heavy doors. As Loretta says, following Jesus is hard. But I think it’s the only hope we have that there is a way through the impenetrable-seeming darkness that much of the world seems to offer.

        Love,

        Karen

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Paul! Like Karen, I Love, this sermon…. And it’s a mouthful…”not peace, but a sword”. Following Jesus is hard and doing so can be piercing, just like a sword. Nothing worth having is pain free, and that’s how I look at being a follower of Jesus. Some days I’ll be the sword, and other days, the sword will get me!
    I try to treat everyone the same, but as you say, at times conflict erupts. Look at the uproar as the House Health Care Bill was released late this week. People have named it all kinds of things..and so many people will be struck down, as if with a sword if this bill happens to pass. It’s so scary how many people stand to lose coverage. My fear is about cuts to Medicaid and how that will impact my mom’s care and many other seniors. I remember when I saw some of the specifics of the Bill saying a quick prayer that all will be well. It likely won’t and I do feel like taking up the sword against the authors of the Bill, but I keep asking myself that old question “what would Jesus do?”.

    Thanks for reminding us that it’s not just all fun and games being a follower of Jesus, it sure can hurt too. I’ll just try to duck and dodge the swords and continue on with loving my neighbors as myself.

    Much love!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Loretta, as always, you, in your responses/comments, grant me another view/insight. I had not conceptualized Jesus’ sword imagery as one that can pierce us/me from without; that is, wielded by the hand of another (even, in the graphic case you cite of Congress). (Though in the external conflict I mentioned, that is, with others who may disagree with my choices, I, perhaps unconsciously, imagined your point!) And, now, as I ponder your reference, I think of Simeon’s counsel to Mary when beholding the infant Jesus as Mary and Joseph presented him in the temple, “a sword will pierce your heart”; meaning that Mary would suffer as a mother for her dying child, which was the penultimate outcome of Jesus’ ministry…

      Yes, there is much in this world and in others that can and does wound us. The perseverance you cite in “loving my. Eighties as myself”, I perceive and believe is a gospel-word.

      As always, I thank you.

      Love,
      Paul

      Like

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