The difficult reality of the life of discipleship: a sermon on Matthew 10

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

I don’t know about you, but I feel a little whiplash when I hear today’s gospel.

On the one hand, Jesus utters comforting and assuring words that we are of more value than the sparrows…

And on the other hand, apparently, we are doomed to conflict and pain as followers of Jesus Christ.

Of particular difficulty for me, is when Jesus says “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace but a sword.”

This statement appears to me to be at odds with most of what I believe about Jesus.

Jesus comes with mercy, compassion, forgiveness and love, not with swords.

Part of the disconnect we experience when we hear Jesus’ words today comes from our own association with symbols and what they represent.

For many of us, myself included, when I hear of Jesus coming not in peace, but with a sword…

I think of the sword as a weapon, an instrument of violence and destruction.

But the symbolic attachment with the image of the sword is actually different in today’s gospel.

Rather than being a symbol of violence and death, the sword is a symbol of division.

Jesus’ sword is not a weapon used to harm someone, it is a tool that is used to divide things, that separates one thing from another.

So Jesus is not threatening violence and death…

but he is pointing out a difficult reality of the life of discipleship.

That discipleship can cause painful divisions between people.

I talked last week about the fact that, for the original audience of Matthew’s gospel, these words would have been heard as words of comfort, rather than as fear.

The Matthean community had been forcefully removed from the synagogue because of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah…

so, for the original audience of today’s gospel, many of them would have already experienced division and pain as a result of what they believed.

Jesus’ words about coming to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother;

much of that would have been painfully true for the Matthean Christians…

who, once they were removed from the synagogue, were unable to associate with their family members who still worshipped there.

For the Matthew Christians, Jesus was speaking to the painful reality of what they had already experienced.

But the kind of painful divisions that Jesus talks about today do not just dwell in the past, do they?

Conversions still break up families today.

And not just religious conversions, but political ones, social ones, gender and sexuality, race, even basic lifestyle choices.

And it is not just families that are afflicted with deep divisions; sometimes I feel as though our entire nation and world are in the same situation.

Deep divisions exist between us, whether they are religiously motivated, politically motivated, racially motivated, and more…

And so Jesus saying that he comes not to bring peace but a sword, speaks to our current reality as well.

We can hear these as words of comfort, as the Matthew Christians likely did, but for me, I sometimes struggle to hear hope in these words.

Where is our hope of reconciliation, of unity, of fullness of life for all people, if even the life of discipleship creates painful divisions between us?

And here is the point that I think Jesus is ultimately getting at—because it’s important to know what a life of discipleship actually means.

On our best days as people of faith, being a disciple of Jesus Christ does indeed mean that things are going great for us and for the world.

We know that we are beloved children of God, that we are called to serve God and others, that our sins are forgiven, and that we offer that forgiveness, love, and service to others.

But sometimes, the many blessings of the life of discipleship distill down into a kind of cozy comfort for Christian people.

Many people of faith, indeed many churches, hear and preach only a message of comfort and assurance as part of the Christian faith.

And such a message can sometimes become inherently self-serving, it can become all about us and our own needs and strengths…

This attitude can create complacency, and at it’s worst, this one-sided approach can create a kind of watered down gospel,

where we hear only the things we want to hear, and ignore or deny what is difficult about what God says to God’s people.

Because we know, personally, and sometimes painfully, that we live in a world that is divided,

where people do not agree, where people are separated from each other, and where people wield far more swords than messages of peace.

And God talks about that reality too, as much as God speaks of comfort and assurance.

Jesus speaks to this reality today, painful as it is.

We cannot ignore or deny the brokenness of the world we live in, as people of faith, as disciples of Jesus Christ.

And Jesus’ message of God’s forgiveness, of acceptance and love for all people—that message itself, the very thing that Jesus is about in the world….

Jesus causes divisions in our world, because the reality of the world we live in is, in its current state, so far from being the blessed Kingdom that God desires it to be.

Just look at the ministry of Jesus in this world.

Jesus heals the blind, the sick, welcomes the stranger.

And yes, people flock to Jesus’ message of healing and liberation, but the Pharisees and Sadducees, faithful Jews of their time….

…and not just the religious establishment, but also other people who think that they’re doing right thing, think that they’re following the letter of the law and God’s commandments….

…and yes, the representatives of the Empire, Roman officials and those aligned with Rome…

all these people see Jesus not as a messenger of love, hope, and peace, but as a threat to their way of life,

a complicating factor, as bringing unwelcome change.

And Jesus dies on the cross because he is indeed so dangerous to the world we live in.

Because our world may be broken, but that brokenness is also very familiar to us.

And we often do, out of fear, out of greed, out of apathy, or simple confusion…

….resist changing what is familiar to us, even when it does us harm.

The reality of discipleship is that discipleship causes change.

And sometimes change can be welcome; sometimes it is very unwelcome.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we can expect that the transformative work of God that we do in the world, will change lives.

It already has; we ourselves have been changed, we live life differently because of what we believe as Christians.

God’s kingdom is becoming a reality in this world, as certainly as God calls God’s people to serve.

There is both hope and certainty in our calling.

But, by God, it’s not always easy, and discipleship can sometimes feel like we are at odds with our friends, our family, our government, our nation, our world.

Jesus wants us to know this, as those who choose to follow him.

Today’s gospel reading is the first time Jesus mentions the cross in Matthew’s gospel.

“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Matthew’s images of worthiness and unworthiness are not actually the point here.

The point is, as disciples of Jesus, our ministry in the world is like Jesus’ ministry in the world.

We have the power to change people’s lives, to transform the world, just as Jesus does.

But at the same time, we will experience some resistance, some challenges, even sometimes hostility, just like Jesus.

God willing, we probably won’t die for our beliefs, as Jesus does.

But we will, sometimes, be at odds with the world, because of what we believe.

We welcome the stranger, even when they are indeed very strange to us,

and when welcoming them makes us ourselves seem strange to others.

We serve the poor, the outcast, without judgement and without blame.

We strive for peace, even when others call for conflict.

And yes, we love.

Even when it is hard to love, and when others do not love us back.

Because that’s what disciples of Jesus do.

We come not to create comfortable complacency for a few, but to bring about God’s kingdom for all.

And, with God’s help and the help of our fellow disciples, our fellow people of faith, we will succeed.