This morning, I want to focus on just the first six verses from today's gospel lesson, Matthew 10:34-39.
That’s because Jesus’ words for us here are jarring. They’re not the kinds of words you’ll see quoted on a Hallmark card.
“I haven’t come to bring peace, but a sword. Happy birthday.”
“Anyone who loves family more than Me isn’t worthy of Me. Happy Father’s Day.”
“Take up your cross. Get well soon.”
“Lose your life to find it. Will you be my Valentine?”
But if we find Jesus’ words today jarring, know that the first disciples, on hearing them undoubtedly stood gape-mouthed at the Lord.
You see, as Jesus speaks the words in our lesson, the disciples were already coming to believe that He is the Messiah. And the Messiah, according to prophecy, would come to bring peace.
Eight centuries earlier the prophet Isaiah, under inspiration from God’s Holy Spirit, had said of the Messiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
At Jesus’ birth, angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)
Yet, look again at what the disciples hear the Prince of peace say to them in today’s lesson: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (Matthew 10:34-36)
So, what is it, Jesus? Did You come to bring peace or conflict?
The answer is both.
It’s important to remember what the Bible means when it talks about peace. Peace, from God’s point of view, involves more than the absence of conflict.
In God’s eyes, peace is complete, unfettered harmony between God and those who trust in Him. It also means peace between those who trust in Him and their neighbors, their world.
This is the peace that comes to all who turn from their sin and surrender their lives to Jesus Christ. It’s called shalom in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, eirene in the Greek of the New Testament.
The peace that Jesus brings makes it possible for us to look ourselves in the mirror and to see, not just an imperfect sinner deserving of death, but a child of God redeemed and made eternally new by Jesus Christ.
The peace of Jesus makes it possible for us to look at God not only as the perfect Judge, but as the loving Father Who sent His Son to die and rise for us, Who sends His Spirit to live in us, guide us, and make us over into His image.
The peace of Jesus makes it possible for us to look on our neighbors as people for whom Jesus also died and rose, people who need to know and experience the good news of new and everlasting life that Jesus brings, people whom Jesus calls us to serve as if they were Jesus Himself.
In bringing the possibility of such peace in all of these ways to each and every human being though, Jesus inevitably creates conflict.
If we get serious about following Jesus, conflict will come. Jesus came to bring us peace with God, with ourselves, and with others. But not everyone wants what Jesus has come to bring. Not everyone wants to surrender to Jesus. Even those who believe in Jesus find that the hardest prayer He teaches us to pray is, “Thy will be done.” We have all inherited from Adam and Eve a desire to "be like God" and it's foreign to all of us to want to surrender ourselves even to the One Who makes and redeems us.
So, it’s in Jesus’ call to follow and surrender that conflict begins. That’s where Jesus, in the words He cites from the Old Testament book of Micah, pits “man against father, daughter against mother,” family member against family member.
Jesus is not just the great giver of peace, He’s also the great divider of human beings and of human history.
Years ago, the movie Chariots of Fire told the story of an Olympic athlete getting into the very kind of conflict that Jesus brings to those who follow Him. Eric Liddell was a young Scotsman who had trained for a track event. But he learned that his event was scheduled for a Sunday and, as a devout Christian, who would later be a missionary to China, he did not believe that he should run on the sabbath. The United Kingdom’s Olympic elite were appalled. “In my day,” one of them, a former Olympian himself, tells Liddell heatedly, “we knew who took first place between God and King.”
For the Christian, of course, no matter how patriotic, God must always take first place. The God we know in Jesus Christ must take first place over country, over family, over career, over friends, over self. And when Christians dare to make the God revealed in Jesus their highest priority, there will inevitably be conflict. Jesus is preparing us for that with His words to us today.
And Jesus isn’t done bracing us for following Him while we live in this fallen world. He goes on: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)
When you follow Jesus, conflict may happen even in the intimacy of family. I was talking with a worried father a few years ago. The father was a Christian; but his faith was basically confined to Sunday mornings. His son had acquired a deep faith in Jesus while in college. The young man had started sharing his faith in Christ and, despite being on a great trajectory with his new career, decided to take two years off in order to go to a Third World country to do evangelism and mission work. His father was appalled! He was sure that his son could never pick up the thread of his rising career after a two-year absence in some far-off country. “I keep trying to make my son consider,” he told me, “how this is possibly going to help him.”
It was hard for me to help this man understand that, while not all of us are called to spend two years following Christ into a Third World country, his son was doing the right thing. The father viewed the son’s prospective missionary trip as a betrayal: All that money spent on the son’s education was going to waste. But for his son, it was clear: He loved his father, but he loved his Lord even more.
Jesus asks us, “Who do you love more, the things of this world or Me?” That father was conflicted; his son was at peace. When you follow where Jesus leads, despite the conflict roiling around you and sometimes inside you, you have a peace that passes all understanding.
Jesus goes on to say: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:38-39)
The first disciples would have had no understanding of Jesus at this point. They didn’t realize that Jesus would, on Good Friday, take up a cross and there, experience the death sentence that every one of us deserves for our sin, taking it for us so that we, by faith in Christ, be reconciled with God.
What Jesus is telling us is that, if we are to experience the new life that He has come to bring us now and in eternity, we must allow our old selves to be crucified.
Daily, we need to subject all those sins that we commit, either deliberately or reflexively, to crucifixion.
That means coming to God each day and asking Him to show us our sins so that He can rip them from our lives, even all those sins we like to commit, to be put on the shoulders of Jesus, Who died to consume them from existence forever.
Listen: Sin kills. All sin kills--from taking God’s name in vain to murder, from sexual intimacy outside a marriage of woman and man to gossip, from dishonoring our elders to coveting what our neighbor has, from making idols of our kids to even the pettiest of thievery.
And, if we are to live with the God Who sets sinners free to live as human beings were meant to live, we must daily submit all our sin to crucifixion.
And this is no abstraction. We are born in sin. Sin is such a part of us that it’s part of what composes our personalities, our habits, our ways of looking at the world. It must be crucified. Daily. Hourly. Through constant surrender to Christ.
Like the fog that clings to the ocean at the beach in the morning, it must be burned off by the light of God’s grace given in Christ.
It’s more violent, more painful than that.
Once, a melanoma, a malignant cancer, was found on my leg. It hadn’t grown much. But the cancer had become part of me. It had to be removed. So, one day, I went to the James Center at Ohio State, where a surgeon removed the cancer. It was no longer part of me.
It was a minor surgery; the scar is still there, but the sting lasted only a few days. Taking up our crosses, daily repenting, daily agreeing with God that the sins that have become part of me must go, is vastly more painful than that. And daily repentance for our sin will leave its scars on our psyches and our lives. That’s just the truth!
But as we take up our crosses each day, God goes to work to create our best selves. The sin selves die so that our God selves can live.
Jesus died and rose to make this soul surgery successful!
We often buy Hallmark cards to make people laugh or to comfort them. There's nothing wrong with that. But in describing what may come to us as His disciples, Jesus isn’t sending us a Hallmark.
Life with Christ is, of course, an incredible comfort. All who repent and trust in Christ have life with God that never ends. Christ stands by those who follow Him through this life and will usher us into a perfect eternity with God at the resurrection. That’s true comfort.
But along the way, the disciple will be constantly called to choose Christ over our own temporary comforts.
Christ over the world.
Christ over our family.
Christ over our status.
Christ over self.
Christ over our country.
That may cause us conflict with others, conflict even with ourselves, as we live from day to day. But all who dare to trust in Jesus, day in and day out, live with this comfort from Him: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13) No Hallmark card can bring that kind of comfort. Only Jesus.
Keep following Him!
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message prepared for worship today.]