“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and one's foes will be members of one's own household.”
These words from this Sunday’s Gospel stand in very sharp contrast with the Jesus Christians usually talk about -- the inspirational figure of love whose forgiving embrace can unite everyone in the sort of peace and harmony that marks the Kingdom of Heaven. Can it really be true, as Jesus seems to say here, that he has come not to bring harmony but division, and even to bring it right into the heart of the family?
This is one of those Gospel passages that it is tempting to avoid. Yet here it is in our lectionary, and it has to be addressed. As we begin to do so, the first thing is to notice that Matthew could only write this passage with the benefit of hindsight. A few verses on, he invokes the image of ‘taking up one’s cross’. Obviously, this familiar metaphor gets its meaning from the Crucifixion. Yet it will be another sixteen chapters before Matthew’s readers are told about the trial and death of Jesus. So Matthew’s main purpose, it seems, cannot be that of recording accurately the words that Jesus actually spoke. Who, after all, would have been there at the time, ready with a notebook? Rather, his aim, like all the evangelists and especially John, is to give faithful expression to the mind of Christ. And the most compelling way of doing this, is to put words into his mouth.
Those who knew Jesus were best placed to do this. But even they could only do it with hindsight. They gradually came to a much better understanding of who Jesus really was in the light of their own experience. And that experience, quite soon, confronted them with this daunting fact. Some people, strangely, hate and fear a Gospel of love.
Who wants to be set against father and mother? No one, and there is no evidence that the early Christians in any way relished the pain and strife that resulted from their faith in Jesus. Yet, neither could they abandon or deny that faith. Just like Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, they were caught in a painful dilemma.
Such dilemmas are at the heart of religious faith. In the Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah gives powerful expression to the same experience. “The word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
Fortunately, we modern Christians are rarely confronted with the kind of choice that Matthew and Jeremiah describe. At the same time, it is easy to overlook or otherwise avoid the more modest contexts in which we are invited to ‘take up our cross’. The image of a cross we have to bear is easily misunderstood. It is not simply a burden that dogs us in our daily life, which is how the expression is often used. Rather, it is like Christ’s own Cross – something we would wish to be spared, but since we cannot, we must grasp it as a unique opportunity to show forth the reality of God in our lives.
In the Epistle, Paul asks the new Christians at Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Our old self”, he tells them, “was crucified with him, so that we might be freed from sin”. Whenever, and in whatever way, the call comes for us to ‘take up our cross’, that is a special opportunity to “consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”. But we can always choose not to.
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