True Peace and True Justice

Many of us know that true justice also often comes only after some kind of conflict. Sometimes we have to fight, at least figuratively speaking, to make sure something is done, done right and done well. This is true in our legal system, in bureaucracies, in schools, in workplaces and even in the church. This fighting costs as well; it can break both people and relationships.

In much of ch.10 of Matthew, which includes our text for today, Jesus is giving his disciples “mission instructions,” as Dale Bruner puts it. In vv. 5-15, Jesus gives them travel instructions, telling them to travel light. In vv. 16-25, Jesus gives them trouble instructions, saying that they should be ready for the worst. In our text for today, and the few verses preceding it, Jesus gives trust instructions, telling his disciples to stand up for him. In these verses, Jesus also tells the disciples that their mission in the world will cause conflict.

In words that sometimes shock the new Christian, or the Christian reading them for the first time, or even some of us lifelong Christians, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the Earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus says his purpose is not an earthly peace, but division. The sword image here symbolizes something that divides, and it also hints at violence and persecution. The new Christian, the new reader, we lifelong Christians, hear these words and wonder, “What? I thought Jesus was all about peace, and shalom, and all getting along.”

In order to begin to understand this passage, we have to distinguish between two kinds of peace spoken of in the Bible. The first is an individual peace, the serenity of faith, the knowledge of and trust in God. The second is peace in the world, that which will come in the new Earth at Jesus’ second coming. While the disciples will have individual peace in their faith, this does not mean that all will be well in the world. The message the disciples will bring to the world will cause division and conflict.

In order to understand the passage, too, we need to understand the context in which Jesus was speaking and Matthew was writing. There already was division and conflict because of the clash of Christianity and Judaism, and Christianity and social, cultural and economic mores. These words didn’t shock their hearers.

That Jesus put himself in front of family also wouldn’t shock the hearers. The order of the time for Jews, scholars write, was in fact already God, teacher, family. Family was important and a gift of God, but it was third on the list of priorities if something clashed.

We are perhaps a bit put off by Jesus’ words on conflict and family. With regard to conflict, we live in a world in which much of this takes place, yet we often ignore it or try to smooth it over. We say things like Rodney King’s simplistic line, “Can’t we all just get along?” We emphasize tolerance and letting people do what they will. Like the people of Amos’ time, we say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

With regard to family, we Americans have become almost obsessive about family. We live in child-centered households, we celebrate mother’s, father’s, grandparents’ day, and we often put family first and applaud those who do.

But Jesus will have none of this. He makes it clear that in the case of Christian discipleship, God must come first. He also makes it clear that when we become disciples, we are accepting the cross, which symbolizes difficulty and trouble, and perhaps even a violent death. A violent death was the case for many of the disciples and for martyrs through the ages and even today. A recent “Voice of the Martyrs” video which my husband Michael and I watched reported on how Christians today in many parts of the world are killed for their faith. A recent lead article in Christianity Today wrote of the persecution of Christians in Sudan. (See also THE OUTLOOK, Aug. 6-13.)

I chose this text months ago as part of my series on “I’ve Always Wondered About,” and that it is the text for today, it seems to me, is certainly timely. Some of us are aware, and some of us are not, of the current conflicts in our denomination, the PC(USA). At the recent General Assembly meeting in Louisville, the yearly gathering of commissioners from presbyteries, the GA voted on at least two controversial things. First, the GA voted to send back to the presbyteries for their approval an overture that would have the effect of allowing practicing unrepentant sinners, including those practicing sex outside the bounds of marriage, whether they be single or married heterosexuals, or homosexuals, to be ordained as officers and ministers in the church. Yes, you heard me correctly; the idea is to remove from the Book of Order a provision which requires officers and ministers to be chaste in singleness and faithful in marriage, the so called “fidelity-chastity” amendment. Second, the GA refused to say that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior. The Assembly would only say that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, that is, “a” Lord and Savior, perhaps one among many. Yes, again, you heard me correctly.

Some people in the church at large suggest that these things are nothing to get upset about. “Let’s not have conflict,” they say, “Let’s have diversity and tolerance and peace.” I have to say, based on our text for today, that that is not what Jesus would say. Jesus would say, rather, true peace and justice sometimes require conflict; they require standing up for Jesus, even though it may be difficult.

Many of us in the larger church know this, and we refuse to ignore the great problem before us. Our denomination is at a crossroads — following Jesus is causing division, and we can ignore it no longer. The Bible tells us clearly that Christians are to be chaste in singleness and faithful in marriage, and that homosexuality is not God’s intention for life. Not one of us, no not one, is perfect in this regard, or in any area of our lives, if we are to include thought, word and deed, but we all must recognize our sin, confess it, and accept forgiveness, not ask for or demand acceptance and affirmation of it. The Bible also tells us clearly that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior, “I am THE way, THE truth and THE life; no one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus said. And if we say any different, we make God and Jesus liars.

This text in Matthew has, in the past, been sanitized by preachers and teachers. It has been read to omit “sword” and “cross,” and any suggestion of real conflict and pain. The passage has also been spiritualized by preachers and teachers. Jesus doesn’t really make this radical demand, they say, it just tells about conflicts within us.

Today, we cannot and must not sanitize and spiritualize it. We must read this passage as it is, and take it to heart in our Christian discipleship. There are times when all people of faith have to do this. The people of God were called to choose either life or death; Joshua said, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Esther had to speak up to her king, for she came to the kingdom for such a time as this. Peter and Paul had to speak up against the civil and religious authorities. Martin Luther said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Please hear me well. I am not some wild-eyed fanatic calling for a holy war — you all know me better than that. What I am is a person of faith, who has been called by God to be a minister of the Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA). What I am is someone who cannot be silent in the face of such events in our denomination. What I am is your pastor, sharing the Bible and my heart with you, calling you to look to the Bible and to your hearts as well, during this time in history, remembering that sometimes, true peace and justice cannot come without conflict.

May God have mercy on me, on this church, on this denomination. Amen.

posted Aug. 28, 2001


Cathy Northrup is pastor, Derita church, Charlotte, N.C. This sermon, based on Matthew 10:34-39, was preached July 1, 2001, at Derita church.

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