“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.”
In looking at this passage in Part One we asked, what on earth could he mean? Rejecting parents and children – not peace on earth but a sword – could this be Jesus himself? What’s going on? How can we get our minds around these strange sayings?
Jesus isn’t saying that what matters is following God in your own way. He is saying that what matters is allegiance to him; allegiance to Jesus must be at the forefront of every priority. Jesus came to begin and establish the new way of being for God’s people and unsurprisingly those who were quite happy with the old one didn’t like having it disturbed. He didn’t want to bring division within households for the sake of it. But he knew if people followed his way, division was bound to happen.
The implication of this passage is not just for our individual lives. The continuing presence of the living Christ sets the church against itself.
Nowhere in the New Testament is the institutional church, the church in its human expression, the church identified in those who make up its life, either defined or described as perfect. To be sure, whatever expression of the true spirit of God is resident in the church is perfect, but to ascribe this true spirit of God to all actions of the church’s members is both unscriptural and untrue.
The church, almost from its inception, has stood in need of self-examination, purging, reform, and, until the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, it will always be so. The proof, the evidence, is written in the history of the church from the Book of Acts until this moment. We have done Christ, Christians, and the world a damning disservice by ever proclaiming or thinking that we are devoid of dissension. We have made a tragic mistake in glossing over, covering up, hushing, and hiding in the closet what can only be reasonably expected: a deep division of opinion and attitude exists within the life of God’s people regarding the implications and demands of his truth.
We are composed of neophytes and veterans, adventurous pioneers and protectors of the status quo, the searching and the satisfied. At almost any moment, any one of us can fill any one of these roles – for none of us is perfect, and none of us is equally mature as a Christian in every area of our life and understanding.
Christ stands in our midst as a constant judgment upon our corporate life. His truth is an unsheathed sword that cuts deep wounds into our cautiousness and compromise. As Christ comes to us, he inevitably sets one against another until as individually we surrender our inner passions in obedience, we are led collectively to new vistas of service, new insights of understanding, new acts of love, mercy, and forgiveness.
Observe the early church in its dissension over the mission to the Gentiles, Peter’s defense of his eating with Cornelius, the debate at the conference in Jerusalem, where some insisted only the circumcised could be saved. At each point, out of the differences came new understanding, enlarged mission, and a more complete commitment to the spirit of Christ.
This has always been true in the creative moments of the church’s life – as men, in obedience to the direction of God, have dissolved their differences, broadened their vision, deepened their dedication, and related God’s will to their time and their personal circumstances. Dissension, in the sense in which Christ expressed it, is a necessary part of the process of God’s perfection, for it is only at his living Word, in one person or segment of his church, challenges error or a half-truth or complacency in another person or group that we grow into the maturity of the mind of Christ.
The mistake we make is in confusing accusation with aspiration, agitation with action, alarm with adventure. There is a divine difference between a “church fight” and a church that is fighting with its every resource for keener insight – asking, weighing, challenging, and debating the quality of its life and service. Christlike dissension is devoid of hate and cloaked with love – the kind of love that keeps us from making fools of ourselves.
God alone knows the disrepute into which we have plunged his church, the harm we have done Christ, and the persons whom we have disillusioned, driven away, and perhaps destroyed by the actions of our human folly rather than the expressions of our divine faith.
Thomas Russell has written:
If we would come to worship thus: Not because it is a duty, but because it is a delight;
Not because a preacher called on us, but because God has called us;
Not to display to the world our fine garb, but to witness to the world our faith in God;
Not to smirk at others for our goodness, but to search together for God’s righteousness.
Not to be complimented for our proficiency, but to be told how we have sinned.
Not to be satisfied with knowing religion’s rules, but to surrender to the kingdom’s rule.
Not to take away whatever God will give us, but to go away fitted for service;
We would encounter the God who searches for us.
At this moment, both within and without the church, those of the prophetic spirit are proclaiming unless we get beyond our ritual, past our ecclesiastical forms, beyond our petty spirits and little minds, this era in history labeled “post-Christian” is just around the corner. God may once again keep faith only through a saving remnant – a remnant that shall remain when the church as we know it and share it has gone through the fires of purification, no matter how or from whence they may come.
Determined devotion to the discipleship of Christ may mean for us, as hard as it is to take, a readjustment of those standards by which we have judged “success” in a church for the past 60 years – the biggest membership, the biggest budget, the biggest building. In the economy of God, success is measured by quality and excellence in our being the most dedicated, the most boldly courageous, the most sensitive and sincere people, unafraid to look at Christ’s gospel and to follow in his footsteps, wherever they may lead!
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”