Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Assistant Priest

Jesus – the sword of God’s peace

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I am sure our gospel reading this morning is well known to all of us; and I’m equally certain that we may often have enjoyed serenely reflecting on part of it, while we might have wished Jesus had not said another part. If I am right in my presumption, then it is that the portion dealing with sparrows which would have led to warm reflections. Unless you are a farmer, those fragile, cute morsels of avian life endear themselves to many; and so we feel a warmth when we read that Jesus chose them as an example of life to compare to us. If God cares about each little sparrow, then imagine how much he cares for each of us? There seems to be no possibility for any contention of interpretation here. Indeed the translators of the Bible may have deliberately sought to have removed a possible source of contention by their choice of word for translating στρουθίων (strouthiōn) which appears in the original Greek, using ‘sparrow’ in place of other real possibilities to which this word also referred in ancient times. For the word actually referred simply to any small grain-eating bird. The late Dr Joe Temple, of Bob Jones University, wrote:

I want us to think about the sparrow and the swallow. The reason that I am putting these two together is that the Scripture often combines them and Scripture often uses the two words interchangeably.

Wisely, the translators have traditionally chosen sparrow instead of swallow in this reading. I say wisely for, as we know from the profound theology to be derived from Monty Python and the Holy Grail there are mortal risks associated between not knowing the difference between European and African swallows. Fortunately, no such theological peril is associated with the humble sparrow.

Leaving ornitheology aside, we then have to turn to those lines that most often have quietly troubled us when we read them; and I quote:

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 daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

I am certain that you, like me, have struggled with those words – ‘not come to bring peace but a sword’ – is this the same Jesus who preached love, compassion and forgiveness? And what about his anti-family statements? Have we been commiting small acts of heresy every Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day?

I take a punt now in assuming that you may not often have quoted these verses of the gospel when talking to others about your faith. Am I right? They certainly haven’t been my top choice when I am  describing my theology to others. Indeed I wouldn’t be talking about them this morning if they hadn’t been in the lectionary for today.

But they are in today’s lectionary, so we must treat with them – reconcile them to the loving Jesus we heard in the Sermon on the Mount.

And that is a very good starting point for doing such a reconciliation. The Sermon on the Mount – the first of Jesus’ sermons to have been recorded. The reality is that the verses read to us this morning all come from the second of Jesus’ sermon recorded by Matthew. The first sermon had been delivered to a crowd of thousands, this second sermon was delivered some days or weeks later to the twelve disciples before Jesus sent them out on a mission. So, if we understand two things – first the difference in the congregations listening to his sermons; and secondly the prime purpose of each of the sermons, then we will discover that both sermons complement rather than contradict each other. It is then that we will be on the way to have a better understanding of the overall message Jesus gave during his ministry before his crucifixion.

Unfortunately, our gospel reading this morning only gave us fifteen verses of Jesus’ second sermon; a full reading of Matthew 10 reveals that the evangelist’s record of that sermon contains thirty seven verses. So this morning I want to consider the whole of the sermon, not just our edited extract provided in the pew sheets.

The complete sermon, as recorded by Matthew, has the following fifteen key messages. Jesus obviously didn’t go to theological college, for all of us who did were told to keep our sermons to three key messages at most, not fifteen. Nevertheless, may I encourage you to read all of Chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel and cross check these key messages with the verses that are there. The messages are:

*   Go to the lost sheep of Israel

*   Preach that the kingdom of heaven is near

*   Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons

*   Carefully choose with whom you stay during your mission

*   Be careful – be aware that there are those who will seek your harm

*   Be encouraged that your ministry is the Father’s

*   There will be persecutions – you may have to flee

*   As students everyone learns from a chosen master, be that master good or bad

*   Do not be afraid of those who can physically persecute you but of those who can kill your soul

*   God loves all his creatures, including sparrows (and swallows) but especially humanity

*   Be loyal to me and I will be loyal to you

*   My message is not the world’s message and so there will be conflict, division

*   Of the two great commandments, the first is still prime

*   You can be my light to others

*   Refresh the thirsty both spiritually and actually

Do any of these key messages contradict the key messages of the Sermon on the Mount? Actually that is a poor question to ask for the Sermon on the Mount served a different purpose to this sermon. It was a message of hope offered to a crowd yearning for hope. In the closing verses of Matthew 4 we have some sense of distressed circumstances of many of those who came to hear Jesus:

… and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralysed.

On the other hand, the sermon of Matthew 10 was a targeted message of preparation for discipleship for those taking up the banner of hope, to spread the message who Jesus would not physically be with them. Of course, it contained elements that resonated with the Sermon on the Mount – God’s universal, encouraging and healing love, a love that proved God’s conscious reaching out to people, a love that invited reciprocation.

But alongside these elements which resonated with the Sermon on the Mount were two significant additional matters. Firstly there was a clear delineation of difference between hope as the world may understand it and the hope which God gives. Secondly there then were a series of tactical and pragmatic issues about which Jesus wanted to instruct his disciples before they set out on their mission.

Dealing with the first issue – that of differentiating a world view from God’s view – is summed up by Jesus’ statement that he came ‘not to bring peace but to bring a sword’. Tragically, through history, that statement has been used to justify some abominations in the name of Christ, such as the Crusades. But this was not a call to arms rather it was an instructive highlighting for the disciples of the difference between a world view and God’s view in terms of in terms of the Kingdom. There are many references in the Bible to what God’s Kingdom will look like, emblematic of them are the words of Isaiah 65:17-19:

Behold I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people, the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.

This vision from Isaiah was no modest transformation of an existing order to a new enhanced, updated later model – Earth 2.0 if you like. Those words promised a radical change from what the world had become. The word radical derives from the Latin radix  or ‘root’. The promise of God, in these verses from Isaiah, is to root out the old and to plant a new world, a very different world from what was being replaced, not just a renovated one. The new world could not be expected to grow from the roots of the old. And therefore if the Book of Isaiah were to have contained an implementation strategy to go alongside this vision of radical change, we could be certain that it would have been challenging to established comfort zones. It would have seemed like a very sword cutting right through the existing order.

In Matthew 10, Jesus did give an overview of an implementation strategy to do the radical change that was preached about in the Sermon on the Mount when he said “do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”. Here he was not talking about the goal of the ultimate peace of the Kingdom but peace along the way, along the journey of change. We know from John 14:27 that Jesus differentiated the peace of the Kingdom from that of the world when he said:

My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.

We know that radical change can seem frightening when we are caught in the midst of it; and so, we might feel an understandable temptation when we are on the brink of such radical change to pull back, to weaken the objectives, to gut the goals. In the political realities of our world, such tempering of change might seem better than the prospect of revolutionary change. Indeed, such caution to radical change might even be wise as the history of radical change proposed by human beings has inevitably hurt without being able to guarantee the promised ends.

But the radical change that Jesus promised was – is – qualitatively different from any that humanity might concoct. When, in verse 7 of this second sermon, Jesus said:

As you go, preach this message: The kingdom of heaven is near.

He was preaching something real not illusory. But because it was real in much more than just a temporal sense, but an eternal one, it could only be achieved by breaking free of the roots of the world; this then was the sword of which Jesus spoke – a metaphorical sword, not like the real one that Peter had carried on the night of the Passover and which Jesus had told to be put down.

Turning now to the tactical and pragmatic issues in Jesus’ sermon, I remind you that this sermon was being delivered to the twelve before they were about to embark on ministry on their own. Jesus did not want to fool them about the conflict and dangers they were about to face. He knew they would face arguments and resistance as they went about their mission. These disciples would encounter people who had not had the benefit of being with Jesus as much as they themselves had, and therefore would not easily understand what was driving the disciples.

And because of this, they were about to walk straight into dissension. Their own families might turn against them. Jesus warned ‘a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’. The disciples had gone through the first stage of conversion by means of their contact with Jesus. Of course, later that conversion would be completed after the resurrection; but up to the point of this sermon, they had already become radically transformed as people. We know from so many other stories of conversion in our time how difficult a process that can be for such converts within their own families. In a portion of the Matthew 10 not read this morning – verse 21 – there is the warning that ‘brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child’. Sadly the history of conversion has seen many cases of such divisions within families.

And in terms of the reaction they would face in the wider community, he felt the need to issue some stark warnings. Verse 16: ‘I am sending you out like sheep among the wolves’; and so, he needed to prepare them – the same verse continues: ‘Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.’ And he gave further warnings about where they should stay, and to be aware of the almost certain reactions of those in power. And most of all, his injunction to them to stay loyal to him and true to God in their preaching.

But these warnings were all about the how of the ministry to which the disciples were charged, they were not the purpose. For returning to this second reported sermon of Jesus, the purpose of all this was to nourish spiritually a hurting world by ‘bringing even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones’ as it says in verse 42; these little ones whom he referred to earlier in the sermon as ‘the lost sheep of Israel’. And why? For God who loves the sparrow, loves us even more.

As the 1905 gospel song goes,

Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion?
My constant friend is he;
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.