a sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7A)
Jesus said, “Do not think I came to bring peace to the world. I came not to bring peace, but a sword.”
The other day I received an email from one of our parishioners, offering some gentle criticism of my sermons. You all may not realize this, but I really appreciate hearing from you about my sermons – and I’m not talking about just when you have something nice to say. I put a lot of time into preaching, working to understand the scripture readings of the day and then trying to put those readings, which were written a couple thousand years ago, into our modern context. Karl Barth, who lived in the first half of the twentieth century, was a giant of a theologian and preacher. He once said that preachers should stand in the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But we need to interpret the newspaper from our Bibles.
As I said, I do appreciate hearing your thoughts on my sermons: What provoked you? What caused you to stop and think? What makes you want to follow up on one idea or another? What makes you say, “that guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about?” The email I got last week was very good, because it asked a very simple question.
What does it mean to be Jesus in the world?
As most of you know, the mission of this church is “to welcome, to rejoice, and to be Jesus in the world.” And if there was one idea that animates my preaching, it’s being Jesus in the world. But what, exactly, does that mean?
Well, the Holy Spirit must have been working overtime because I think that today’s Gospel has a lot to say to us about being Jesus in the world. The reading today picks up where last week’s reading left off. Jesus is sending his disciples out into the countryside to do the work he has given them to do, work he has given us all to do: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and proclaiming the Good News that the Kingdom of God has come near. This is the stuff you would think about when it comes to being Jesus in the world. But then Jesus says something very surprising. He said, “do not think that I come to bring peace to the world. I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” Then he warns them about the true costs of following him – that families will be torn apart all because of him. Sons will turn against their fathers, and daughters against their mothers for the sake of the Gospel.
This is what it means to be Jesus in the world? Where the heck is the Good News in all that? I think it all comes down to two radical ideas of Jesus: division and fear.
First, let’s talk about division. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that our country feels more divided today than at any time we can remember. Heck, just open the newspaper or turn on the news and you’ll see that. Neighbors are killing with neighbors. Fathers are fighting with sons. Arabs against Jews. And yes, Republicans fighting with Democrats. And the arguments and the division doesn’t seem to change anyone’s mind. I have yet to see an argument on Facebook that ended with one person saying, “Ohhhh, NOW I understand!”
But you know what? It was the same in Jesus day. As Jesus was sending out his disciples, he reminded them that there would be divisions and discord, not in spite of them being Jesus in the world, but because of it! Still, it was necessary for them to do this demanding, and often discouraging work. “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” In other words, it’s not our job to be better than Jesus. I is enough for us to be “like” him. We just need to emulate his actions in the world.
Will that make all the division and discord go away? Does that mean that all of us will be singing Kumbya all the time? Of course not. The fact of the matter is that not even Jesus was able to get everyone to agree with one another. After all, they crucified him, didn’t they? And it we are faithfully being Jesus in the world, they may crucify us, too. But if we are faithful to the teachings of our Lord, then the very least we can do is carry him with us into everything aspect of our lives. We can constantly remind ourselves WWJD, what would Jesus do, every time we go to the store, or every time we meet someone on the street, or yes, every time we cast a vote.
But notice something else. NOT EVEN JESUS told the disciples exactly how they were supposed to be Jesus in the world. Some did it through their preaching and proclamation. Some did it through the gift of healing. Some were called to speak out against injustice with a prophetic voice. Some were simply called to sit quietly with someone as they died.
The same is true for us. How I wish that I was so wise, so persuasive, so in tune with the mind of God that I could tell you all what it means for each of you to be Jesus in the world. But the fact of the matter is that I am but a disciple, like all of you, and a disciple is not above the teacher. I can never tell you how you are supposed to be Jesus in the world. But what I can tell you is that each of us is called to live as Christ lived in every aspect of our lives.
Will that create discord? Sure. Will it solve our divisions? Absolutely not. Living Christ-centered lives will cause some conflict.
This brings us to Jesus second radical idea. Now we don’t often think of Jesus as a radical. We see lots more pictures of Jesus carrying a lamb than carrying a sword. But as we know from the scriptures, Jesus shook things up all the time. He wasn’t afraid of the challenging the status quo. He wasn’t afraid of challenging the merchants in the temple by turning over the money changers’ tables. He wasn’t afraid of what people might think of him by eating with tax collectors and sinners. He wasn’t afraid to confront the religious leaders of Jerusalem. In fact, what all the stories consistently tell us about Jesus is that he was not afraid.
Jesus’ radical second idea was that no one needs to live in fear of who they are, because everyone is a child of God, and worthy to stand before God. We don’t have to be afraid of being on the wrong side of an argument as long as we’re on the right side of God.
Does all this mean that it doesn’t matter that people are dying in North Korea, or Syria, or Cleveland, or St. Louis, or Orlando, or Charleston, or San Bernadino? Of course not. But until we overcome our fear of each other, we will never be able to solve these problems.
God acts, and we respond. We respond by accepting God’s invitation to live our lives without fear. We respond by embracing one another in a spirit of true friendship and love. We respond by looking first for the face of Christ in each other, even when we disagree. We respond by not just loving our neighbor, but taking active responsibility for their health and well-being. Jesus’ radical new idea, for which he knew that we would all have to struggle and fight – and for which he ultimately died on the cross – was that God loves us, forgives us, and continues to act even today in the world. “Don’t be afraid,” he says, because God sent Christ to us so that we might be Jesus in the world. And in that way, love will always conquer fear.
Being a follower of Christ – being Jesus in the world – was never supposed to be easy. Sometimes, our work will cause even greater division and discord. But whatever happens, God is with us always, and cherishes us, more that all the sparrows in heaven.
If we are truly being Jesus in the world, there will be division and discord. Don’t be afraid.