A sermon in the Summer series preached by Canon Robert Titley – Hidden from the wise: the hard sayings of Jesus in Matthew and Luke
Picture – The parents of St Francis, Assisi
Week Three of our series on the hard sayings of Jesus. Today, Jesus and peace. Let’s begin by thanking God for the hard sayings of Jesus. They are our antidote against creating Jesus each in our own image, which people tend to do.
We have noted before Richard Dawkins’ claim that someone as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist ‘if he had known what we know today’. One First World War army chaplain (this is especially relevant this morning) described Jesus as the ultimate soldier, ‘the Man with the iron body, and the iron will.’ William Blake saw this, two centuries before Debbie Harry and her Jesus Looks Like Me T-shirt. This is from his poem, ‘The Everlasting Gospel’:
While it’s interesting that even an atheist wants Jesus on his team, the real Jesus is not a ventriloquist’s dummy, a mouthpiece for whatever I believe is right and true. I need to listen for his voice, however strange it sounds to me.
So what about Jesus and peace? Our first hard saying is about not-peace: ‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword.’ That chaplain might have said that his image of the ironclad Jesus recalled that very phrase, but that would be to mistake what we might call the tone of voice in which the phrase comes to us. Jesus is a Palestinian rabbi, and rabbinic language – then and now – is vivid, dynamic, sometimes exaggerated. Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Take due care not to look at anyone in an inappropriate fashion,’ he says, ‘If your eye offends you, tear it out.’
So ‘not peace but a sword’ is not Jesus’ policy statement about the relative merits of armed conflict and its absence. Nor is it like Winston Churchill’s words to the House of Commons in May, 1940, ‘You ask, what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war.’ The context of Churchill’s statement shows that he had entirely literal war waging in mind. The context of Jesus’ words shows the opposite. We hear him give his ‘troops’ (the disciples) their marching orders, but his instructions are not to bear arms but to carry crosses. This is no army going into action. This is more like convicts on their way to execution.
Again, when Jesus talks about setting children against parents, this is no proto-Woodstock assault on the family as an institution. After all, it is the family that supplies the word Jesus uses to describe the one who is the Life of his life: ‘Abba’, Father, even Dad.
All this does not dispose of the difficulty of Jesus and peace, however. Jesus’ sword may be metaphorical but it points to the real division that he brings – and not least within families, with all the grief that follows.
I suspect some of us here are finding that the political troubles of our days – here in the UK, in the US, or elsewhere – are causing division in our families. Some say (understandably), ‘We just don’t talk about it, it’s too painful.’ Others say, ‘But we have to talk; it’s too crucial.’ That is the kind of rupture that Jesus is bringing. And that is hard to take from the one who tells us ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, the one we call the Prince of peace.
What is it about his message that is so divisive? Like some of our political strife, there is more to it than just opposite opinions on a particular issue. This is about two ways of seeing the world. In his warning about family divisions, Jesus quotes the prophet Micah, who gave that vision of peace in the first reading: the day will come, says Micah when swords are turned into ploughshares (or tanks into tractors); but before that will be days of conflict. There always are when God does a new thing, because some will fight to keep things as they are.
Jesus’ new thing is a world in which access to God is not determined by correct human performance – the right sacrifices, the right behaviour – things which can be controlled by powerful people. Access to Jesus’ God comes by God’s free grace, which no one can control. Consequently, powerful people will do all they can to preserve the world that works for them. The result will be the division and rupture that Jesus foresees.
That was the big divide in Jesus’ ministry. As his gospel was set free in the world, however, it travelled to other places and times where things were different. But in each age those disturbing words – not peace but a sword, families divided – would find the people who needed to hear them in the context of the big divides of their times.
I'm recently back from a journey by train to Assisi in Italy. Europe by rail is great. My 1600-mile round trip produced just 18kg of CO₂, compared with half a ton if I’d gone by plane. And the views were much better. Assisi itself is a wonderful place. The stories of St Francis and St Clare felt almost touchable.
One morning in 1208 Francis was at mass. The reading was from this same tenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, and in those demanding words of Jesus to the disciples he felt the pull of God: a pull away from the comfortable life his affluent family had planned for him, a pull to be simple, to be available to God, to be more like Jesus. Clare soon followed the same path, and both met opposition from families who could not understand.
The fruits of their ministries were transforming, and still are – if you want a spirituality for life in the climate crisis, look no further than our own Franciscan community at Hilfield – but it came at great cost, not least to their families. There is a sculpture of the parents of Francis, by the site of the family home: a well-dressed couple holding hands, sad and bereft, silently asking (it seemed to me), ‘How did we lose our son?’
In today’s hard words Jesus challenges his people – you, me – to live out of a new identity, which goes deeper even than family, tribe or nation. Follow me, he says; let our belonging to each other be the thing that tells you who you really are, deep down; let our love for each other be the love that kindles all the other loves of your life.
That’s a crucial point: loving God and loving family, or even nation – it’s not a zero-sum game. More love for God doesn’t mean less for others. Loving God above all is the best way love one another well. The God of Jesus is not the enemy of happiness but the bringer of love, joy and peace. But to make God the only non-negotiable in life will sometimes bring trouble in a world that is scared of true love, deep joy, authentic peace.
In the tangled hopes and fears that make up life, both personal and political, we can only say to God, ‘Which path do you wish me to take?’ and then listen. Listen, and perhaps talk to someone; listen in the knowledge that sometimes what will come in answer are words you might reassuringly expect from the Prince of peace; and sometimes the words may be hard.