Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-13 | Psalm 69:7-18 | Romans 6:1-11 | Matthew 10:24-39
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
Interesting reading for Father’s Day…
These are some surprising, unsettling words to hear coming from the mouth of Christ… from the One we proclaim not only teaches but embodies self-giving love. These words might seem more fitting if they came from some merciless revolutionary warlord… or from a power-mad tyrant, bent on beating back any who would defy them. I mean… dividing up families? A sword instead of peace? This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know. How do these divisive words fit into the Good News?
These questions came pretty naturally to me… and maybe they did to you as well. Quite easily I started off with what I thought Jesus should be saying… positioning myself as the one who already knows what’s best… and who’s job it is to examine Jesus to see if He will align with me… with what I already believe to be right and good.
Now I know this kind of thing is easy enough for anybody to do. It’s pretty much the way most of our society functions these days… And to be fair, what Christ is saying here stands out precisely because it DOES seem so out of place. It seems He IS being provocative… but to drive home a clear point: Jesus is not calling for us to agree with Him… but to trust and follow Him. He is not calling for us to agree with Him… but to trust and follow Him. To have our lives realigned by Him for God and His good Kingdom. To step off of our thrones and to own Him as our Lord… to take up our task as servants and students, and listen to our Master.
We are not at all used to thinking this way… and for very good reasons we often cringe now at words like master and servant… seeing how connected they are to evils like slavery, oppression, injustice, and cruelty. This is unsettling stuff to be sure… but that is actually part of what needs to happen: to have our hearts and our heads shaken up a bit so Christ’s words can actually get through to us. So, after all that, what IS Jesus trying to say to us in these unsettling words? Why the talk of family division, and swords instead of peace?
This whole passage, and chapter from Matthew’s Gospel is about being prepared to share in Christ’s ministry. It began with Jesus calling the twelve, and sending them out as bearers of the Good News: announcing the coming of God’s good Kingdom through their words and acts of mercy. He was inviting them into, and empowering them to participate in, the great rescue mission of God… Preparing His disciples… His students… apprentices… to join with Him in His work. And centuries later we too are being invited to take our part along with them… to share in and share Christ’s good Kingdom with the world around us.
But Jesus knew all those centuries ago what was coming for those who would follow Him. Opposition is bound to arise, not only from strangers… but even from those closest to us.
We’re not talking about the natural divisions and fights that happen in families… as painful and disruptive and destructive as they are. And were not talking about the kind of tensions that come when someone close to you tries to force their faith or their values onto you. It’s not that following Jesus means we should become intolerable self-righteous know-it-alls. But rather, we’re talking about the conflicts that come when one’s deepest and highest commitments… their way of life in the world is at odds with those around them. The talk of division and swords prepares us for the painful separation that can occur when the way of Jesus and the ways of the world lead in opposite directions. The kingdoms of the world, will clash with the coming of God’s Kingdom… especially when they feel their way of life being challenged. Though we long and hope and work for peace, sometimes it is not up to us… we are called first of all to faithfully follow our Lord.
This theme is by no means new to Matthew’s Gospel. Tracing the story all the way back through to the Old Testament, we can see the same tensions at work, within ancient Israel itself: called to be God’s chosen people, but conflicted and divided. We could think of Jeremiah, whose words we heard in our first reading this morning. But it turns out there’s an even clearer connection between Jesus’ unsettling words to His disciples and the Old Testament prophets… because Jesus is actually quoting them from the prophet Micah.
In Micah chapter 7 we find the following bleak assessment of the state of society in Judah during his day: “The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright; they all lie in wait for blood, and they hunt each other with nets. Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice… Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household. But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.” 
One scholar, N.T. Wright, makes this helpful point:
"In this passage, the prophet predicts the terrible divisions that would always occur when God was doing a new thing. When God acts to rescue his people, there are always some who declare that they don’t need rescuing, that they are comfortable as they are. Part of the reason for [Jesus] quoting this passage here is to say: don’t be surprised if this happens now; this, too, is part of your tradition! Your own scriptures contain warnings about the great disruptions that will happen when God finally acts once and for all to save you."
In our day we can see the same patterns at work: injustice and evil abounding, and those who strive to stand for truth are often viciously opposed by their neighbours who seem to like things fine just the way they are. Think for a moment about the Black Lives Matter movement. They are currently drawing our attention to an unsettling, and uncomfortable truth: that for centuries our North American society has in many ways gone on as if Black lives do not matter… and now they are calling for everybody not only to agree with the basic statement that Black lives do in fact matter, but also to live each day convinced and transformed by this truth. To start noticing all of the people we may have been ignoring or exploiting, whether consciously or not… and then to make the changes that we need to make to finally set things right.
This is an important matter, which deserves more than simply a passing comment… but for now let’s step back and think about the resistance this movement is facing. Taking a particular, convinced stance, and seeking to promote a different form of life, no matter how just or laudable it may seem, has brought harsh resistance and division. And this is just one example of various kingdoms clashing in our world: whenever we humans take a stand that unsettles ‘the way things are done’ we can expect things to get messy. Even so with God’s Kingdom.
As disciples of Jesus, the Church is called to a different vision and form of life than we will find in the world around us. And Jesus tells us up front: living God’s way sometimes means taking a stand that others in our life may not understand or agree with. But along with these warnings, Christ also offers to us a word of hope: “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid. Despite the dangers, despite the disruptions, despite the tensions and the pain, when we stand in faith for Christ we are never standing alone. Jesus says to us as well: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Friends, we are known and loved more than we can know by the One who gave His life to save us, once and for all, and then rose again to set us free to share in His eternal life.
So as we seek to faithfully follow Christ, and to share in His life-giving work, may we also entrust ourselves and our loved ones to the mercy and grace of God… even if divisions and tensions arise. May we be willing to stand for God’s good Kingdom, even when others will not… confident that we remain in the care of our risen Saviour and Lord. Amen.
 See Matthew 10:5-8.
 Micah 7:2-3, 5-7.
 Wright, N.T. (2004). Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (p. 123). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.