Preached at St Francis' Church, Hilsea, Portsmouth, on 22 June 2008.
After some introductory remarks...(as this was my first visit to St Francis' Church)...
Let's get down to this morning's gospel reading shall we? Tough stuff this, isn't it? Verse 34-36: Do not think 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!
Now, as tempting as it is, I have to resist the temptation to tell some mother-in-law jokes at this point...mainly because, as you may know, I choose to publish my sermons on the Internet...and I have a mother-in-law!
And actually, Jesus doesn't seem to be joking when he says that his followers may have to make some pretty tough decisions about where their allegiance is. "Whosever does not take up his cross, and follow me is not worthy of me..."and so on. To us Western Christians, this speech of his seems rather odd, even a bit fanatical doesn't it? Its the sort of thing that we expect to hear the Mad Mullahs of Al Quaida saying to their brain-washed followers. To us, who have the freedom to worship wherever and whenever we like, all this talk of witness, persecution, poverty and martyrdom seems to represent another world altogether.
But we should remember that in every generation since the time of Jesus, his disciples have been in situations in which these words of Jesus ring true...painfully true. Let me read to you an account of something that took place just about six weeks ago, in Indonesia... I think I should warn you...some of this will be difficult to listen to...but not half as hard as it was for those who had to go through it...
"On the night of the 2nd of May 2008, the mainly Christian village of Horale was attacked by a mob from the neighbouring village of Saleman which is predominantly Muslim. The attackers (whether they were Muslims or not is unknown) burnt down 120 houses, three churches and the village school. Four Christians were killed and 56 wounded. Fifteen hectares of crops were destroyed as well as 20 fishing boats and 2 motor-cycles."
Many awful things happened to a number of individuals during this attack - but too awful to repeat here, especially with children present in our service. But I will put a link to the published story on my blog.
(source: http://www.barnabasfund.org/news/archives/article.php?ID_news_items=411 accessed on 21/06/08)
I don't know about you, but this story - and the many more like it that are going on all around the world, force me to ask some pretty tough questions of myself. Could it be, for example, that we here in the West have somehow tamed the Christian faith, re-fashioned it in our own image to such an extent that it is no longer seen as a challenge to the society in which we live? Have we become so contaminated by the world around us, that the world no longer sees us as a threat to its selfish, violent, materialistic way of life? Could it be that we have become silent, when we should be upsetting the money-changers' tables? Could it be that instead of calling for justice, the relief of poverty, the end to war, and the love of God, we are rather content to let the rest of the world carry on exploiting the poor, blowing each other up, and hating one another?
But there are places in the world where Christians do still stand up for what they believe...and when they do, often find themselves at the sharp end of persecution, torture, and death. Just as Jesus said would happen. The Christian faith, if it is fully and openly declared, is dangerous to the world. It speaks of a way of life that is exactly the opposite of the way that most people chose to live. It is a way of peace, not war. It is a way of self-control, not Friday night leglessness on the streets of Southsea. It is a way of poverty and simplicity, not materialism and consumerism. It is a way of faithfulness to one another, not sleeping around with as many partners as possible. It is a way of finding contentment through giving things away, not getting more and more of them. It is a way of embracing and welcoming the stranger, not finding ever more complicated legal ways to 'keep the scroungers out'.
So, from another perspective, this chapter need not be alien to us at all. It boils down, into concentrated form, what the Christian life essentially is. And what is it? It is a confession, a stated sure belief, that God has acted decisively in Jesus; it is a way of placing our loyalty to God, revealed in Christ, over and above all other loyalties...even the deepest loyalties of home and family.
Now - let's think about that for a moment. I have lived in or near Portsmouth, for the last 16 years...and I know how important family ties are in this town. When I used to run the YMCA hostel down in old Portsmouth, we once had a young man staying with us who was, how shall I put it, a right old pain in the posterior. I shall call him Johnny Smith - which was not his real name - and he was a member of what we will call the Smith family...one of the 'old families' of Portsmouth. Johnny, unfortunately, was constantly drunk, always abusive to my staff, never paid his rent on time, and often violent. Well after a number of warnings, and a lot of prayer, we had no choice but to evict him from the hostel. As he was ejected out of the doors, his parting words were: "You've messed with the wrong guy...I'm a Smith! I'll get my family to sort you out!"
Sure enough, a few hours later, about half a dozen of his family arrived...in a right old mood. I honestly thought they were going to smash all the windows in the YMCA. It took just about every ounce of my diplomatic skills to talk them into not kicking my head in... mainly by reminding them why they had kicked Johnny out of their own house in the first place.
There is an old saying, that blood is thicker than water...which is sometimes used to justify all sorts of feuds between families. In some feuds, it doesn't matter who is right or wrong...it matters only that someone's family has been insulted. It's what the Mafia does. And, frankly, its what some families even in Portsmouth do.
I don't know about you...but I think that that way lies madness. If we all began jumping to the defence of someone who was clearly in the wrong, just because they were a member of our family - or our playground gang - then pretty soon the whole of society would crumble.
Now please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that families are a bad thing. God loves families! God invented families. Families are one of the most important structures in our whole society. The best families give us companionship and love, a place to feel secure, a place to make mistakes, and still be accepted.
But Jesus says to us, through this reading, that we have an even higher loyalty...a loyalty that only a God could claim...a loyalty to Him. And that, Jesus warns, will bring division even between members of the same family. Because God, who made us, and is transforming us and who loves us has an even higher claim on our loyalty than our families....even if our families don't acknowledge him.
Just one last thought. What did Jesus mean when he said, in verse 34, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword"?
Well, the first thing we must say is that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. It is abundantly clear from the rest of the Gospels that the last thing Jesus came to do was put a sword in anyone's hand. "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."
So what sword might Jesus have been referring to? Like so many of Jesus' statements, we are rather left to wonder and ponder his meaning. However, I think we can get a bit of a clue, by turning to one or two other readings from the New Testament. Here's a small selection:
Ephesians 6:17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Hebrews 4:12For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
In both these cases (and many others in the New Testament) the word sword is used as a metaphor. The sword represents the Spirit and the Living Word of God - something that is so fantastically pure and true that it cuts to the heart of every situation.
It is the Spirit of God which produces the Fruit of the Spirit of God, which we know from the book of Galatians to be: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. And the sword of the Spirit divides the fruit of the spirit from the fruits of the flesh. It, or rather He, offers us the choice. Instead of love, we could choose hate. Instead of joy, we could choose misery. Instead of peace, war. Instead of patience, anger. Instead of kindness, selfishness. Instead of goodness, evil. Instead of gentleness, harshness and judgmental attitudes. Instead of faithfulness, infidelity. Instead of self-control, doing whatever we like...regardless of the consequences.
So when those around us, perhaps our neighbours or some of the other inhabitants of our city, perhaps our Government, perhaps multi-national corporations founded on greed and materialism, perhaps even members of our own family choose not to follow the path of the Spirit...how do we respond?
Who is it who commands our loyalty?
Heavenly Father...we confess to you that there are times when we forget just how much loyalty we owe to you. You have shown us how to live, in peace and harmony with one another and with you. And yet sometimes we choose to go the way of the world. Will you send your Spirit on us afresh, showing us clearly the path of life you would have us follow? Will you fill us to overflowing with the fruit of the Spirit? Help us to be people who declare your love, your way of living, to those around us - whatever the cost. For we ask it in Jesus' name, and in the prayerful hope of the completion of the coming of the Kingdom of God.