Holy Conflict

Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 21, 2020 – Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” When you first heard this morning’s Gospel, you may have been caught off guard.

Jesus’ words reek of division, not harmony; they hint at war, not peace. Indeed, Jesus doesn’t sound like Jesus at all, but I think we can still figure out what he means. 

Perhaps, if we read this passage from Matthew in light of the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we might gain some perspective on it.

A portion of what we hear from Paul today will become part of the Pascha Nostrum (found on page 83 of the Book of Common Prayer). These words should sound familiar; we recited them together at the beginning of worship each Sunday during the Easter season. 

“We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

With these words, and those that precede them, Paul establishes a theology of the Christian life. He tells us that, as Christians, we are baptized into Christ’s death, so that we might be raised with him to new life.

In other words, we don’t have to wait until our physical deaths to be united with Christ. That unification first takes place in baptism, the ritual act that joins us to the Christian faith.

Submerged in the waters of baptism, we die with Christ, emerging from the font redeemed agents of the resurrection life. This is the Christian paradox: Jesus died, so that we may live, and so, in baptism, we die, so that we might live. 

Jesus took care of our sin on the cross. There is no guilt on this side of that great sacrifice. Sure, there is still sin—we see it all around: racism, bigotry, chauvinism, homophobia, and our refusal to take the perspective of others.

The difference is, through our life in Christ, we are freed from complacency to sin, no longer willing to submit to sinful behaviors, but instead empowered to fight against them.

In light of this understanding of Paul’s words, perhaps we will hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel anew?

“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.”

It might seem a strange thing to preach on Father’s Day—Jesus’ words are indeed words of division, of enmity, but if Paul’s understanding of our Christian life tells us anything, it is that, sometimes, division can be a good thing.

Creation is full of helpful division—cell division, by which a parent cell divides into two daughter cells and creates new life; root division, by which perennial plants are divided at the root, planted separately, and propagated just as beautifully as ever; division of labor, by which tasks are shared among many in order to improve working conditions and promote efficiency.

So it is with division between life and death, sin and grace. 

Jesus is clear. Preaching the Gospel will cause conflict, even in our own households, but that “division” can be helpful.

Think about it. It’s a good thing to separate yourself from your weird cousin’s conspiracy theories, right? It’s a good thing to separate yourself from your aunt’s particular brand of homophobic humor. It’s a good thing to separate yourself from your racist grandpa’s musings about brainpans and bone structures.

This week, Jesus asks us, do we value our relationships with friends, our families, and our neighbors more than the Kingdom that Jesus calls us to strive for?

At Pentecost, God gave the Spirit necessary for us to do the work that God has given us to do. But what happens when that work comes into tension with our closest earthly relationships?

No simple answers to these questions exist. So it is with questions of faith, no one answer is right for all times, all places, or all people. Nevertheless, these are questions that we must consider, lest we make peace with oppression.

We must start by remembering that our old selves were crucified with Christ. Our bodies of sin were destroyed, that we might become active members of Christ’s resurrected body. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Now, we are ruled by the grace of God. Jesus came to show us that grace in human form because we need it when we preach the Gospel, especially to the people we love the most. 

As we question our role in causing conflict for the Kingdom, we may find that it really is a holy thing whenever we “set ourselves against each other,” as it were, to have the tough, yet civil, conversations that our baptism calls us to have.

These conversations do not include picking petty fights or complaining about pet peeves. Nor do they include name-calling or spitefulness.

They do, however, include respectful, Gospel-centered dialogue about fairness and dignity, liberation and love.

Division between ourselves and our loved ones is not meant to imply giving up on them or desiring for them sin and death. Rather, it is a means of differentiating ourselves from particular brands of sin and death, which can breed fear, violence, and hate.

It is holy distance that gives us space to remember that Jesus, by his life, death, and resurrection, shows us another way.

It is holy conflict that gives us space to take a deep breath, to get a little perspective, and to remember that our role as followers of Jesus is to walk with all people toward eternal life.

It is holy division, that creates the space necessary to build bridges of love and a grace.

Friends, from time to time Jesus will call you to have tough conversations with the people you love for the sake of the Gospel, and today he reminds us all that to refuse to do so is to deny the presence of God in ourselves and in them.  

And so he gives us the grace to do it, now and always.

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