This sermon is part of the sermon series "If Jesus Came to Your Town ...". See series.
I want you to replay a video in your head about coming to chapel this morning. You leave your room, checking your watch to make sure you have enough time. Better hurry. You turn the corner, and there is a student just ahead of you carrying something shiny. It catches the light in a spectacular way. It's long and bright. It makes you think of a light saber in a Star Wars movie. Weird.
But you see that another group of students has shining sabers—that's really what they look like. Nearing Edman Chapel, you see many people with them. Even a faculty member striding out in front has one. As you go up the steps into chapel, you know this is going to be different. Normally, you know where to sit, but only people with swords are going in.
And then a voice that is kind but very stern sounds out:
Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to turn "a man against his father
A daughter against her mother
A daughter in law against her mother in law
A man's enemies will be the members of his own household."
Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
… If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, his wife and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.
Excuse me, but that cannot be right. The Jesus I know is all about love, forgiveness, and peace. He loves family; he wants people to be together. I cannot imagine for a moment that he would say such stern, horrible words and mean them to be taken seriously.
I remember hearing once in a Sunday School class that sometimes his teachings use Semitic idioms—very strong language, like gouging out your eye, cutting off your hand, or taking a plank out of your neighbor's eye—to grab your attention. This talk about having a sword and turning against our loved ones must be like that.
But if you mean me to take stuff like this seriously, it makes going to church, my way of being a Christian, and even my relationships feel very uncomfortable. Surely he doesn't have the right to do that. But he does.
Once you take Jesus seriously, he takes you seriously. These words come from Matthew 10 and Luke 14. Matthew 10 is full of red-hot instructions for sending his 12 disciples on their mission. It's intended for disciples only. It means adventure, high energy, and utter realism. They belong to him and they have to go for him. "Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.'"
Do you think this will be an easy message? "Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it … If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town." You are bringing the best news there ever has been but as you bring it people will reject you. " … They will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues … Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child … All men will hate you because of me …." Jesus, who specializes in love and peace, gives his uncensored charge to disciples.
If you are not serious about Jesus, if you have not deliberately accepted his forgiveness and his sacrifice upon the cross for you, if the cross is not the defining moment in your life, then he will not trouble you with being a disciple. I have to say that you are in great peril, for there is no more important choice than to decide for Jesus. But if you have taken him seriously, accepted that he died for your sin and that he is everything, then he wants you to take him seriously.
It is possible to have a picture of who Jesus is, what Jesus expects of us, and how I am to behave that long ago became a comfortable fit—he hasn't said anything I disagree with for a long time. I haven't allowed him. I've put Jesus in my own terms. I've constructed a faith in which I am the strong personality, not him. I'm a Christian my own way. But Jesus, the real Jesus, has the right to shock disciples with teaching that they don't like, because he is Lord.
Jesus' shocking teaching about peace
When Jesus says he comes to bring a sword, he doesn't mean: I want you to go out and fight.
Actually, Jesus taught his followers the very opposite—to offer no resistance or retaliation: "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also," (Matthew 5:39). "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God," (Matthew 5:9). When Simon Peter draws his sword as Jesus is going to be arrested and strikes the high priest's servant, cutting off his ear, Jesus says, "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Jesus is for peace; he weeps because Jerusalem misses the things that make for peace. Peace and reconciliation are at the heart of the Christian faith.
But it's peace in a hostile world—peace from the Prince of Peace, won upon a cross that we might be put right with God. And the world hates the cross and the Lord upon it. It hates the thought of a God who calls us to account and provides a way of salvation. Whenever a great cause emerges, it confronts people with a choice to accept or reject it. And the world wants to shut it down, shut it out, shut it up.
When Jesus talks about the sword to disciples on his mission, it's not that they are going to make conflict for Jesus, but that they cannot avoid conflict because of him. They won't shut down, shut out, shut up. Jesus is not into false peace, where people compromise faith; he's into truth lived openly and courageously.
David Murrow caused a stir a little while ago. He's written a book called Why Men Hate Going to Church. The Tribune headline read: "Men bored out of their churches. Services and Bible study classes have become too safe, too soft, too nurturing. Men don't want to sit around talking about feelings and relationships. They want to be assigned tasks and goals …. Most churches try to tame men instead of helping them find their own adventure." I don't think boredom is a gender issue. Women can get just as bored in church, I think. But it's true that we can miss the adventure, in so many ways.
I went to a party in London shortly before coming the USA. A friend of Carol's invited us to share their 25th wedding anniversary party. "Dress up in 1950s clothes," they said. It turned out to be a high-drinking, high-money, high-cussing, high-confidence party. I was talking to a woman and a man who were near me. He was flamboyant, larger than life. I asked him how he knew the host. "Oh"—he blasphemed—"we work together, cleaning up the streets of London, putting criminals in jail to make it safe for you. And you?"
"I'm principal of a theological college."
(Blasphemy.) "What, train pastors? (Blasphemy.) Are you one yourself? (Blasphemy.) What kind?"
(Blasphemy.) "Oh, you sound so defensive," he said.
"I'm not defensive," I said.
The woman said, "He's not defensive," but by now he was wheeling off to where the party was brighter, completely dismissing me. And I felt on the fringe. Someone has said, "It's easier to be a Christian in a prison cell than at a party." I had missed the adventure of living for Jesus, of finding a stronger way of using the sword of the Spirit. Why couldn't I have said, "I am cleaning up the streets of London by training pastors for Jesus Christ"?
Too many people in a culture that is blaspheming its way from God have not met enough disciples who stand up for Jesus and courageously wield the sword of real peace.
Jesus' shocking teaching about family
Jesus also has shocking words about turning against family members. Of course, Jesus never wants you and me to neglect our family. Jesus rates family highly. When dying on the cross, he was concerned for his mother. "Honor your father and your mother," is a vital command. Remember how he criticizes people who don't support their mother and father by avoiding giving them financial support (Mark 7:9-13)? Scripture has clear teaching on families. First Timothy 5:8 spells it out: "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." Family ties matter.
But family ties must never, never come before Jesus. This is the point Jesus never wants us to forget. Many Midwestern fathers and mothers don't need to be told to care for their kids, for example. They spend everything—money, energy, worry, and the rest on their kids. They become so involved they can even become violent for their kids, like these bizarre dads who've been in the news for punching umpires or shooting coaches. Parents can feel like this because their kids are an extension of themselves. They don't need to be told to care for their kids, but they do need to be told to care for Jesus and his kingdom. Jesus must be a higher priority than family.
It was probably difficult for Jesus himself. In the gospel record, members of his family didn't rave about him and his message. In Mark 3:21 we are told his family says: He is out of his mind.
John 7:5 says that "even his brothers did not believe him." In many different relationships, belonging to Jesus is costly; a person's loved ones can become, in effect, enemies because they are in danger of preventing the person doing God's will.
I recall a believer's baptism service in Cambridge where Philip, a man in his late twenties, was baptized. He had a story of conversion and new faith in Jesus. There were other people and, as was our custom in worship, they each told their story. He said he was brought up in a home where he was loved but he didn't hear about Jesus' love. He did not hear about his sin and need for forgiveness. When he heard about Jesus, he gave his life to him.
Later that afternoon, a very angry lady telephoned me: "I am disgusted with you. I am Philip's mother. You manipulated him to appear something he is not. He said he didn't know about God and was a sinner. How dare you allow that to happen to my son. I am talking with my lawyer—you need to be sued to stop manipulating people." I tried to explain. She cut me off. I only saw him once more. His head was hanging. His mother was strong. She was right, you see—it was all rather exaggerated, and not that important to stand up for Jesus. And he loved his mother more than Jesus.
Each generation of students who care about Jesus can know how easy it is for their keenness to be blunted by others, even parents.
Jesus' shocking teaching about the end
The picture I began with—of us coming into chapel with light sabers and discovering, to our amazement, that there are things about us that we never really saw—is as nothing compared with how it will really be at the end.
We don't often think of the details beyond our physical death. It's uncomfortable—heaven and all that can wait. And I pray that each of you has a lifetime of health ahead of you.
But there will come a time when everything that I think is so important stops. In heaven, we shall enter the strangest, most glorious experience. We will have nothing but ourselves. No possessions, no social security number, no "to do" list, no worries that we just don't know how to cope with. There will be so much brightness and music and friends, and family who loved Jesus and died some time ago, and we shall feel better than we have ever felt. We'll feel as though all the pressure is off, as though someone knows everything that you tried to do and understands you and loves you with all your mixture of good and bad. And there will be just one relationship that matters more than anything else.
Jesus will be there. And I have no idea how exactly it will be, but this text gives us warrant to believe that something like this will happen—I will meet Jesus, and he will say: Father, This is Michael. Michael acknowledged me before people. I know him and I love him.
And at the end, nothing will matter more—nothing—than that Jesus acknowledges me.
The most important relationship is an eternal one. Everything boils down to knowing Jesus, and him knowing you. And he has given me assurance that, as I have given my life to him, he will hold me securely in eternal life.
Michael Quicke is professor of preaching at Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and author of 360-Degree Preaching (Baker).