First Sunday after Trinity
22 June 2014
St Mary’s Hadlow & Golden Green
Readings: Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39
May I speak this morning in the name of God +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On Monday morning of last week I was awoken, as usual, by the Today Program on Radio 4. I like to get a dose of news before starting the morning routine. It is probably quite a masochistic thing to do and certainly last Monday there were a string of headlines which added up to quite a bleak view of the state of the world at present.
The first headline was that of the ISIS forces in Iraq who no one seemed to have heard of until about two weeks ago but who are suddenly well armed, well financed, well organised and who were capable of capturing Mosul, a city of over a million people, and seemed to be sweeping towards Baghdad. Sunni muslims were killing Shia in their thousands and Iraq seemed to be going from one level of chaos and destruction to another.
The next was of Al Shabab terrorists from Somalia destroying hotels and police stations in Kenya and killing dozens of people – evidently anyone who could not answer questions about the Koran was murdered.
The next was of the Islamist Hamas group kidnapping Israeli teenagers and Israel threatening severe repercussions and arresting hundreds of Palestinians.
The last headline in this litany was of the schools in Birmingham being put into special measures because of the allegations that they were being taken over by Islamists.
Now you don’t have to be a genius to see the common thread running through each of these events and at times it certainly feels as though militant Islam is the big story of the 21st century. Now I am very conscious of media manipulation and if I were a moderate Muslim I may well have felt that the editorial decision to put those headlines together showed anti-muslim bias by the BBC but, interestingly, the story they actually choose to explore in detail was none of these but was something entirely inconsequential – I can’t even remember what it was but it felt like the radio equivalent of a fluffy kitten picture. In fact in terms of media manipulation it sometimes feels as though we get a mere glimpse of what is going on in the world and then shown a picture of Kate Middleton being lovely.
Anyway, later on Monday I received an email from someone saying that they couldn’t come to a church social event to which they had been invited because they had come to believe that religion was to blame for much of the conflict in the world. I think that person must have been listening to the Today programme too. But naturally I wrote back and said that I was very sorry they felt that way and that whilst religion has certainly played its part in many conflicts that perhaps they shouldn’t forget that the church also created the first hospitals, that Christians had created organisations such as the Red Cross and that many of the most prominent pacifists were motivated by their faith. And although I didn’t spell it out I could also have said that all the big wars of the 20th century were motivated not by religious faith but by a clash of political ideologies and would that be a good reason to turn down a cheese and wine invite by a political party?
Having written and sent that email I sat down to look at the readings for today’s sermon. I don’t write my sermon on a Monday but I do like to look at the readings so that they can sort of ferment during the course of the week. Anyway, having felt like I had scored a small victory for a peaceful vision of faith I looked at the gospel reading and what did I see? In Matthew 10 verse 34 Jesus says:
“ Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Does anyone remember Charlie Brown from the Peanuts cartoon strip? Remember his catch phrase? “Good grief”. I can tell you that, for me, on Monday that was a Charlie Brown moment. Good grief. Why couldn’t it have been a nice reading, preferably emphasising the peaceable nature of Christianity? God does indeed work in mysterious ways, and anyone who doubts that should try being a vicar for a day.
But we don’t throw up our hands in despair and walk away, do we? At least not for long. We know that Jesus did not actually usher in a militant sword wielding faith, so there is obviously something else going on here, and we need to dig a bit deeper.
When digging into scripture one of the most important things to remember is that Jesus did not speak the words we have just heard in English. He spoke them either in Aramaic or in Hebrew, they stayed as oral history for some years amongst the early church communities and were then written down in Greek and then translated into English. If anyone has ever studied a foreign language at school you will know that two able students are capable of translating the same material in quite different ways. For example the Hebrew word for ‘sword’ is the same as their word for ‘war’. So was Jesus saying that he came to bring a sword or to bring war? You may think that is a distinction without much difference but the difficulties in translation go deeper and W.F. Albright, who wrote the Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew translates v. 34 like this:
“Do not think that I have come to impose peace on earth by force; I have come neither to impose peace, nor yet to make war.”
It will be clear that this bears almost no relation to the first translation, in fact it is virtually opposite in meaning. Unfortunately I am not enough of a Greek scholar to do a fresh translation for you but I have gone through a lot of different translations of that verse and I have to say that most of them are much closer to the one who heard read in the gospel than they are to Albright’s, so I shall look more closely at that version, but I hope that illustrates the care one has to take when dealing with what are translated documents. Scripture may well be inspired by God but that doesn’t mean that all translations or translators are equally inspired.
So what did Jesus mean when he said that he didn’t come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword?
Well, I said a moment ago that we know Jesus did not usher in a sword-wielding militant faith. Can anyone recall the one time that swords were wielded around Jesus?
When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane Peter cut off the ear of Malchus but in Matthew’s account Jesus’ immediate response was:
“Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
Given that response to violence, and of course not forgetting all of Jesus’ other teaching about love and forgiveness for our neighbours, I hope we can agree that Jesus was not saying here that he came to usher in use of a literal sword or literal war in place of peace.
So can anyone think of a more figurative sword which might apply to Jesus and the context of this passage? There are actually two to think about.
The first is that spoken of by Simeon when Jesus was brought to the Temple as an infant – Simeon said to Mary:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against. And a sword will pierce your own soul.”
The sword which pierced Mary’s soul was of course the figurative sword of pain and loss when Jesus chose to follow his Father’s calling which led him away from he comfort and security of home and all the way to the cross.
And that is the context in which Jesus is speaking to us today – he is making it clear that to follow his call is not the easy path to comfort and security but it will cause division and pain. His early Jewish followers were expelled from the synagogues for being heterodox and some Jewish parents must have wept to see their children become followers of the Christian sect and turn their back on the family faith. In the gentile Roman world we know many Christians rejected worship of the pagan gods and many of whom were martyred because of their choice. In the modern world many Christian converts are still persecuted for choosing to follow Jesus and most of you will be familiar with the story of the woman called Meriam sentenced to death in Sudan for marrying a Christian. In fact more Christians have been killed because of their faith in the last 100 hundred years than in all the preceding 1900 years. I mentioned ISIS overrunning Mosul in Iraq a few moments ago and there have been many reports of them not only killing Shia muslims but also destroying all churches and killing many Christians.
So don’t take your Christian life lightly – people have died for the gifts you enjoy freely.
Jesus is making the point that to be his disciple is not the soft option and that when we choose to follow him we are not just choosing a worship style with which we feel comfortable in a social setting that suits us – we are, or we should, be choosing to pick up a cross and follow him wherever that leads, whatever the cost, however much the sword may pierce us or even, I am afraid, our loved ones.
But, and here is the good news, Jesus also promises that when we are prepared to lay down our lives for him, when we put him first and don’t look back that that is when we shall find our true lives – our true purpose – our true selves.
And as St Paul said in our reading from Romans:
“If we have been united with him like this in his death, we shall certainly also be reunited with him in his resurrection…Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him…In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
The faith we inherit and proclaim is truly a radical and sword-wielding faith – but it is not one that calls us to put to death those who disagree with us. Rather it calls us to put to death within ourselves all that which disagrees with Christ’s call – to put to death sin and our past selves, not so that we may be extinguished but so that we may become the people we were made to be.
I said there were two figurative sword images that could be brought to bear here and I shall touch only briefly on the second, although it would be worth exploring more another time. In Hebrews 4:12 we are told that:
“…the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
And in the Book of Revelation the Son of Man is portrayed as having a sharp double edged sword coming out of his mouth. This is indeed Jesus bringing not peace but a sword, but this sword is the word of God being wielded by the eternal Word of God. And if you find that even more awesome than a real sword made of metal then I think that is the point.
Perhaps I should set my alarm for five minutes later, so that I only get the fluffy kitten stories.