These words of Jesus do not make an ideal message for a Father’s Day card. We hear of a sword, family disputes, questions about worthiness and life and death. This Gospel passage does not seem ideal for our environment, either, when so much already feels on edge. During these days, we bring a litany of concerns to God, concerns about illness, injustice, economic anxiety, and it’s hard to hear that Jesus brings a sword when we’d prefer something else. How is it that the One who said blessed are the peacemakers now says that he has not come to bring peace? His declaration is jarring, especially at a time when peace would be most welcome. Jesus’ words about disruption and division draw us back to a reality that’s not rosy or reassuring. Lord, won’t you bring flowers instead of a sword this morning?
Of course, God could bring us flowers, and God does throughout creation, but God gives us a greater gift, one that is more enduring and illuminating than the brightest blooms. We are given the cross, and it is the cross of Christ that redeems us and reveals to us the persevering love of God. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” we heard in our reading from Romans last week, and Jesus desires us to know that truth in the depths of our being. God loves us tenderly and totally, so that even the hairs on our head are all counted. In this passage of Matthew, Jesus prepares his disciples for what they will face, because he is prepared to face anything for our sake. Like a loving father, God seeks our good and our growth.
Our advancement in love is not automatic. It takes care and commitment, just like any relationship. The poet William Blake observed “we are put on earth that we may learn to bear the beams of love,” and this week, we’re reminded that’s a high calling. Love is not a static state. Unless there is investment and engagement, love cannot grow, which is why love is often pictured as a fire. It can be intense; it can become cold; but its very existence indicates that there’s energy. With that image in mind, we might see our situation in a different light: There’s a lot of energy being directed to our common life right now. Physical distancing can be seen as a sacrifice for the well-being of others. We care dearly about all of God’s children, and we’re discerning wise ways to regather responsibly. Likewise, care for all of God’s children can be seen as solidary at demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. “Justice is what love looks like in public,” as Dr. Cornel West has said, and pursuit of that virtue is part of our calling, as well. Being a disciple of Jesus brings up difficult questions and decisions, but being faithful brings us out of isolation into conversation, into communion, and into a community of saints who celebrate God’s victory of love over the powers of sin and death.
Still, Jesus brings a sword, and we need to stay with that fact. There are two major temptations when looking at this scene: We might be inclined to overlook Jesus’ opposition to the empire and to erase the conflict over his ministry. It can be enticing to avoid it altogether. Or, there’s the other extreme: We might be tempted to take up that sword ourselves and to sanctify all of our opinions. As soon as we take that step, however, we’re no longer listening to the Lord or anyone else. At that point, it leads to labeling people and losing connection to one’s own convictions. The sword that Jesus brings stands out from others. It can’t be commanded with aggression or arrogance, which is often how swords are handled. It cannot commit violence.
Rather, this sword is the Word of God, cutting away whatever is binding us from freedom. Christ has come to bring us abundant life and joy against all forces of death and despair. During the darkest days of apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu would repeatedly remind fellow Christians about the promises of God. He’d tell them, “I’ve read the end of the book! We win!” The sword of Jesus pierces our hearts with its truth and opens us to the grace of God.
Amid all of the uproar outlined in our Gospel passage today, we hear Jesus say one line again and again and again, three separate times:
Do not fear.
In fact, “Do not fear” is a refrain resounding throughout Scripture. It is the most repeated reassurance found in the Bible, and it’s given for good reason. The people of God have always faced threats, temptations, disappointments, but those deadends and detours do not stop the journey of faith. If every trip stopped as soon as we took one wrong turn, none of us would travel that far. I’m sure some of the fathers listening might agree, or at least their families might!
Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid,” because we are beloved by God. We have been given an identity in Christ that far outshines our fears. When the reformer Martin Luther felt discouraged or insecure, he would say or write, “I am baptized,” affirming his trust in God even when his steps felt unsteady.
In the family of God, water is thicker than blood, as the preacher Fred Craddock has put it. Through baptism, we have been made one body, united to Christ in his death and resurrection, as we heard in Romans this morning, and we belong as a new creation.
One of the highlights of my seminary experience at Virginia was learning from our international students about being a part of the body of Christ. Virginia Seminary is committed to the worldwide Anglican Communion, and I had classmates from France, Ghana, Germany, Sudan, Jordan, and some of their stories about the cost of discipleship in their home countries made me remember the radical nature of our fellowship. The Church is knit together of individuals across all places and times, and our King shows that we’re most strongly connected when we serve.
Taking up the cross is embracing a life larger than our own private plans. It brings us into the presence of humility, hope, love, God. The cross was a common form of execution among the Romans. It was associated with outcasts and criminals, and God bids us to care about those suffering rather than own status. Through service and surrender, we can actually find freedom, and what was once a tool of death, the cross, is transformed into the instrument of salvation. In the same way, the sword that Jesus brings is not a harmful weapon; rather, it’s a helpful means of discernment, dividing between what is lasting and what is passing away. Jesus’ peace is not the absence of conflict; it is the presence of justice, mercy, joy. Following his way of love could make any father proud.