Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 25, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Readings: Jer. 20:7-13; Ps. 69:8-11, (12-17), 18-20; Rom. 6:1b-11; Matt. 10-:24-39
Well, he has done it again. In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus has managed to unsettle some of our deepest held assumptions about him, leaving us to wonder if we ever knew him to begin with. “Don’t think I have come to bring peace,” he says. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Did we hear that right? Jesus has not come to bring peace? Did he not just say five short chapters ago, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (5:9)? And has he not instructed his disciples to turn the other cheek, love their enemies, and forgive seventy times seven times? Will he not soon tell Peter in the garden of Gethsemane to put his sword away, saying “those who live by the sword die by the sword?” (26:52). Will he not choose to submit to the humiliation of the cross instead of taking up arms against his unjust accusers? “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you” (John 14:27)—those are the words we associate with Jesus. That’s what sums up the life and ministry of the God we know and love so much. So what is this business of “not coming to bring peace”? Has Jesus had a mental lapse? Or is something else going on?
Even at this early stage of his ministry, Jesus seems to be aware that certain assumptions are spreading, and a particular reputation is growing around him. The words, “Don’t think I have come to bring peace,” suggest that a good number of people already think that they’ve got him figured out and that his message can basically be boiled down to one of peace. And why wouldn’t they? Remember that many of those in Jesus’ audience would have been expecting the Messiah, the long-delayed heir to the Davidic throne whose reign, by all accounts, was understood to usher in an age of perpetual peace. They would have known the words of Isaiah well:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
Authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace
For the throne of David and his kingdom (9:6-7).
Micah prophesies of the day when the people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (4:3, see also Isa. 2:2-4), and Zechariah proclaims that the Messiah “shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from the sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (9:10). To assume Jesus has come to bring peace is high praise; it is a reflection of the conviction that he is the Messiah. And if his followers assume that his proclaiming of the kingdom is the beginning of the reign of peace, then who can blame them for that?
Yet as this morning’s Old Testament lesson reminds us, the message of the Hebrew prophets was about more than peace. The promise of peace was caught up in a much more difficult message about judgment and repentance. Jeremiah is known to most of us as the author of that singularly beautiful word of counsel, “Seek the peace of the city… for in its peace you will find your peace” (29:7). Yet look at where Jeremiah’s message has landed him in our reading this morning: “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me… For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (20:7-8). Jeremiah is abandoned and alone, assailed on all sides by critics, accusers, and despisers. This is because, like the other prophets, he has made any talk of peace conditional upon a dramatic reckoning with Israel’s moral behavior. His audience honors peace with their lips (14:19), but not with their lives.
For from the least to the greatest of them
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
where there is no peace.’
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not ashamed,
they did not know how to blush (6:13-15).
Jeremiah warns, “Woe to you, O Jerusalem… How long will it be before you are made clean?” (13:25, 27). But his entreaties have fallen on deaf ears. The people don’t listen, and the result is a catastrophe: their city is laid waste, their families are torn apart, and the people are carried off into captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah’s first word is not peace, but a sword, a clarion call to wake up, repent, and return to the ways of the Lord. “Act with justice and righteousness,” he declares, “and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place” (22:3).
It sounds a little like the famous words of Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, work for justice.” It certainly makes peace something more demanding than is typically recognized, more than merely the absence of violence and something more like the positive presence of social justice and right relationship, what the Hebrew word shalom captures so powerfully. Augustine may come closest to the Hebrew notion when he defines peace as the “tranquility of order,” which he understood as a harmonious concord reaching from the family to the marketplace and city. In every great social struggle for civil rights, one sees its participants trying to articulate this basic point, that any peace worth the name demands something more, that the opposition of justice and peace is falsely posed.
This is captured vividly in an influential document that circulated during the Apartheid struggle in South Africa. Authored by a number of church leaders and theologians, the Kairos Document took inspiration from the biblical concept of kairos, or the decisive moment of truth, when the Spirit moves in a way that brings a particular social arrangement or pattern of behavior to a moral and spiritual head. In 1985, the authors believed that South Africa had reached such a point, but felt held back by those calling for a more gradualist approach that traded in the language of peace and reconciliation. The authors did not mince words:
There are conflicts that can only be described as the struggle between justice and injustice, good and evil, God and the devil… We are supposed to do away with evil, injustice, oppression and sin – not come to terms with it… In our situation in South Africa today it would be totally unchristian to plead for reconciliation and peace before the present injustice has been removed (292).
Like the Hebrew prophets, the authors of the Kairos Document desired peace, but a certain kind of peace: “There is nothing that we want more than true reconciliation and genuine peace – the peace that God wants and not the peace the world wants” (292). Noting that in John 14:27 Jesus not only gives his peace to his disciples, but explicitly says, “I do not give as the world gives,” the Kairos authors add, “The peace that God wants is based upon truth, repentance, justice, and love. The peace that the world offers us is a unity that compromises the truth, covers over injustice and oppression and is totally motivated by selfishness” (292). It is at this point that the authors refer to this morning Gospel passage, saying:
At this stage, like Jesus, we must expose this false peace, confront our oppressors and sow dissension… It would be quite wrong to try to preserve ‘peace’ and ‘unity’ at all costs, even at the cost of truth and justice and, worse still, at the cost of thousands of young lives. As disciples of Jesus we should rather promote truth and justice and life at all costs, even at the costs of creating conflict, disunity and dissension along the way (292).
They conclude, “There can be no real peace without justice and repentance” (292).
Reading the document now, some three decades after it was written, it speaks with a certain moral clarity that has been vindicated by the wholesale rejection of apartheid and the political re-ordering that followed in the wake of the 1994 elections (although the work of remedying structural justice has a long way to go). Its appeal to the language of reconciliation has also been vindicated by that great monument to peace, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has inspired so many peace processes throughout the world. Yet the document was not popular at the time, and its authors were not naïve about what its understanding of the demands of the kingdom would mean for them personally. It would mean slander and libel, threats to their lives, and charges that they were too political or Communist or unChristian. But Jesus does not promise his followers praise. As it was for the prophets, so it is with his disciples.
This morning’s Gospel lesson concludes his great missionary discourse, his commissioning of the first twelve disciples to go out and announce that the kingdom of God has come near, to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons (10:7-8). He tells them to take nothing with them and refuse payment. He is clear about the kind of reception they will receive, likening them to sheep sent into the midst of wolves (10:16). This mission will cause pushback. When Jesus calls disciples to throw down their nets and leave the dead to bury the dead, they should not expect their families to feel flattered. As he says, his mission will cause division. It will set sons against fathers, daughters against mothers, and daughters-in-law against mothers-in-law (10:35-36). An unjust peace, an unholy concord has been in place too long, and again, like the prophets of old, Jesus has come to unsettle the order of things. The coming of the kingdom means everything has changed, and a new social order is dawning. But if anyone thinks this will happen without resistance, they are fooling themselves. So the disciples will have to be prepared to count the cost. “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (10:38-39).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another 20th century Christian acquainted with the cost of discipleship, famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Hardly a winsome strategy for church growth, it nonetheless captures much of what is at stake in the kind of peace Christ offers his followers. We only get true peace, the peace worth the name, the peace of the kingdom, the peace that Christ gives, if we venture with him to the cross and allow all that we are, all that our society is, to die and rise with him. This is the message that Paul leaves us with in Romans. Are we in sin anymore? By no means! In Christ’s death, all sin has died. In his resurrection, we rise to new life. But we cannot experience this new life in any other way than through death. That’s the deal. The paradoxical wisdom of the cross is that life only gushes forth if there is first a death, the death of the sin and injustice that sweeps over and holds our world in bondage. Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin” (6:6-7). In Christ’s death, our sin dies. Our society’s sin—its violence, its structural injustice, its discrimination, its killings, its resistance to reform—dies as well. It must die if there is to be a true experience of the kingdom, a kingdom that is truly peaceable because it is a kingdom where death has truly lost its sting. Because we have died, because we have been willing to face our sin, because we have been willing to confront our injustice, now we can walk in newness of life. Now we can walk in peace. In death, life. In justice, peace. Just as there is no life without death, there is no peace without the justice of God. Amen.
- “Message of His Holiness Pope Paul VI for the Celebration of the Day of Peace,” 1 January 1972. ↑
- Augustine, City of God XIX.13 ↑
- The Kairos Document, reprinted in Andrew Bradstock and Christopher Rowland, Radical Christian Writings: A Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 286-304. ↑
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959 ), 89. ↑