Grace, mercy, and peace to you—from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text is this morning’s Gospel reading.
For the last few weeks, our Gospel readings have come from the book of Matthew—from what is often called Jesus’ missionary discourse. It begins at the end of chapter 9 when Jesus tells his disciples to pray that God would send laborers into the harvest. In chapter 10, Jesus answers the very prayer he commanded, and He sends twelve of his disciples to proclaim the kingdom of heaven.
Now this was a mission specific to the Apostles at that time, for most of us haven’t been given authority to cast out unclean spirits and heal every disease and affliction (10:1) just as we haven’t been instructed to avoid the Gentiles at this time(10:5). But as Jesus continues to teach the twelve to prepare them for that mission, he gives instruction that does apply to the entire church throughout time and space and to the mission that is shared among each one of us.
We can see it in the way his language changes. At first the discourse is mostly made up of fairly specific “you’s” “They will deliver you over to the courts and flog you in their synagogues.” “You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” But as Jesus continues—particularly starting with verse 24—we find much broader statements: “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.” “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
So it is with our Gospel reading this morning, in which Jesus tells all of us:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother… And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.
Not peace, but a sword. It’s an odd way of thinking about the One we worship as the Prince of Peace—whose birth was heralded by angels proclaiming “peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.” For that matter, about 30 verses earlier, Jesus was telling his Apostles to give peace to those who receive them. And about 60 seconds earlier, I began this message by declaring peace to you from God. So what gives?
Well, when we speak of peace, we speak of a reconciliation or an end to hostilities between two parties. And Christ did indeed come to bring peace between God and Man. For we were enemies of God—we hated Him. Oh, most people like the idea of God well enough—an all-powerful creator who loves and cares for us when we need Him and quietly goes back to the servants quarters when we don’t. But the reality of God… that’s different: That perfect love that we in our selfishness don’t even recognize; That holiness that doesn’t budge an inch for our favorite sins no matter how much we demand He make room for them; That unerring justice under which every last one of us rightly stands condemned. That God, we’re not so fond of. That God, the natural man hates.
But the end of the story is not our hatred, but God’s love. As Paul tells us in Romans, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” You see, despite our hatred, he took our guilt and sin upon himself and replaced it all with his perfect righteousness. And Paul goes on to say “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” No more hostility. No more guilt. No more condemnation. Just peace and abundant life in Christ given freely to everyone who believes.
But this unfathomable gift of peace between God and man is not the same thing as peace between one man and another. Despite our peace with God… or rather because of it, we who believe… now have conflict with the world. Being reconciled with God, we are now on His side against those who still hate Him the way we once did—the way we often still do. And in that sense, Jesus does not promise us peace, but rather persecution.
And this has always been the normal state of affairs for the Church. As soon as it was founded, the Church was persecuted first by the Jews and then by the Romans until Christianity was finally legalized by Emperor Constantine. From the 7th century onward, a warlord named Mohammad and his followers put the once-Christian Middle East to the sword for more than a thousand years and counting. During the Reformation, we often persecuted one another because different groups of Christians insisted on rejecting different parts of God’s word. And it continues today, as all over the world Christians face penalties, imprisonment, and even death. Though the severity of persecution may wax and wane in different times and places, it is nevertheless business as usual for the Church.
And yet, we’re somehow surprised when it starts happening in front of us—when the targets are the Christians around us or even ourselves. We’re shocked when the latest florist or baker is sued into oblivion for refusing the celebrate sodomy. We’re aghast when a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate publicly argues that accepting Jesus’s statement that those who don’t believe in him are condemned makes a person unfit for public office. It catches us off-guard when people call us bigots for nothing more than believing things that were common knowledge until about five minutes ago.
We’re surprised because most of us grew up in a rather exceptional time and place—one with extremely broad religious liberties. What’s more, it wasn’t that long ago when America could at least plausibly be called a Christian nation. It was a wonderful blessing for which we should be thankful, and within our vocation as citizens, it is a blessing that’s worth contending for. After all, we should be in the business of loving and protecting one-another. But this blessing is not the norm for the Church. And what we see beginning around us today is simply a return to form.
And so, the time has come once again when the world demands our loyalty—to prove to them that when the going gets tough we are on their side against the unsettling reality of God. What proof do they require? Well, that’s always changing. In the 3rd century, Christian citizens of Rome were obligated to obtain a certificate proving that they had made an animal sacrifice in honor of the gods for the well-being of the Empire. Today, you’re more likely to be asked to pretend that a man wearing a dress is actually a woman or that two women are married to one-another. It’s weird, sure, but not any weirder than setting a cow’s guts on fire to honor the god of thunder. The specifics change, but the world’s only real requirement is that we deny Christ and the things he has clearly taught us. The other details are circumstantial.
We’re also surprised because we still labor under the illusion that if only we mind our own business, phrase things the right way, or try hard not to offend, the world’s hatred will pass us by. But do not be deceived. You’re not going to escape this by being quiet and unassuming. Faithfulness always leaves a paper trail. Maybe it’s a comment you made at dinner. Maybe it’s a tweet or a blog post. Maybe its a donation to a Christian charity. The world isn’t going to just forget you’re there if you keep your head down. And even those who escape the notice of judges and senators may yet have to face coworkers, friends, and even beloved family members as Jesus warns us.
Neither are you going to escape it by being nice or sensitive. There is no amount of sensitivity that will save you from the world’s hatred of God. Now, don’t misunderstand: when we confess God’s word, we are to do so with gentleness and respect. Likewise, whatever enemies we make, we are to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. Though, to be sure, gentleness and respect are not always the same thing as being nice, nor is love and goodness always the same thing as sensitivity. But however well or poorly you love your neighbor, you’re never going to be more loving than Jesus was, and he was put to death.
So there’s no escape for us, but why should we be concerned with escape? Remember who we are in Christ! Why should conquerors retreat from the field of victory? In his first epistle, Peter tells us, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” For if we suffer with our Lord, how much more will we be raised up to eternal life with Him. Oh, the world can do some cruel things to us, but the one thing the world can never do to us is defeat us, because our victory is in Christ. We have absolutely nothing to gain by being timid; but we have every reason to be bold.
So heed our Lord’s warnings. For Jesus says,
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
In other words, don’t seek the approval of the world—even when mother or father or son or daughter are counted among them. Don’t seek safety and security in this life by taking the world’s side against God and His Church. Instead, bear your cross, for this kind of suffering isn’t something we can lay aside without also laying aside Christ.
We must indeed heed these warnings, but boldness comes from laying hold of our Lord’s promises. For though Jesus warns that “Whoever finds his life will lose it” he also promises that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” No matter how hard they try, the world cannot truly take our lives because we are alive in Christ. Though we are sent into the world to die, nevertheless we shall live eternally.
And of those he sends bearing the Gospel, Jesus also promises:
Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.
The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.
And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”
So who are these prophets and righteous persons, and how do we receive them? Christ goes with those he sends into the world—they bring Him with them. The Apostles brought Christ to the Roman Empire and beyond. Pastors bring Christ to their congregations. Fathers and mothers bring Christ to their children. Christians bring Christ to those around them—even those who persecute us. And we have received such people by believing the Word of God that they brought to us. After all, receiving a prophet because he is a prophet means you believed his prophecy and receiving a disciple because he is a disciple means having faith in his teacher.
And having received Christ from those he sent, Jesus now goes with us as well and we bear him to our neighbors. Oh, we may all be poor excuses for prophets, disciples, or righteous men, but the reward is borne by Christ and received by faith alone. And the world cannot take it away. So pick up the cross that’s been entrusted to you, and confess Christ boldly, for our lives rest in Him.
And may that peace of God—that peace with God—that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.