A Sword In Our Churches

How Jesus' promise to bring a sword prompts us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about our friendships and our church life.

This episode was recorded the day after the 2020 elections. As it was recorded, were still tallying up their votes. There’s a chance we’ll find out who won the electoral college tonight, and if we don’t we’ll probably know by the end of the week.

Please be patient.

There are a lot of misleading claims and explicit misinformation being shared on social media right now, and it is important for the witness of the church that believers do not repeat alarmist claims that are untrue or misinformed.

In this episode…
  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

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Reflection Questions

Consider your “inner circle”—the people you are closest with or the people in your life you admire most. What do most of these people have in common? And consider your church congregation similarly: 

TRANSCRIPT

Rick Barry: This is the second-to-last episode in a mini-series exploring what, to me, are some of the secretly scariest passages of the gospels. These are the passages of the synoptic gospels that give me the most pause, make me reflect the most about my own moral character, my own spiritual health, and especially the ones that make me reflect on those things in ways that I don’t think I am challenged to often enough in church life.

If you’ve been to one of our classes, you’ve probably heard me refer to Galatians 3 or Colossians 3—Paul’s declarations that, “That there is no man or woman, Jew or Greek, free or slave. All are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When we bring up those verses here at CXC, we’re usually talking about how, for any church in the US to live up to what the church is called to be, that church has to have a congregation full of people who relate to one another across huge cultural divides that the surrounding community thinks are uncrossable. Pastor Charles Drew, who helps shape our curriculum and teaches classes for us, describes it as, “A church the pundits can’t explain away.”

That vision is the aspirational side of our calling. But the Bible doesn’t just give us something to aspire to. It also also gives us a cost to count.

The passage we’re going to look at today is Matthew 10:34–38:

“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 turn a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a person’s enemies will be the members of his household.

“The one who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and the one who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And the one who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”

These are the words of our Lord.

The Galatians passage and the Colossians passage talk about our social standing—where we fit into the society around us. How other people view us, and how we view others in comparison to ourselves. Those were the biggest cultural divides of the time, maybe akin to something like, “Bush supporter or Bernie bro,” which is the way I phrased it at our launch event four years ago. There was a phrase at the time common among the Pharisees, “God, thank you for making me a man, not a woman; a Jew, not a Greek; and free, not a slave.”

To be in the church meant entering into relationships without those barometers, letting go of the things that make you think of someone as more or less valuable, more or less respectable, more or less worthy of honor and deference. But this passage from Matthew is not about how we understand others. It’s about how we understand ourselves.

In first-century Israel and surrounding areas—cultures that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “traditional cultures” or “familial-heirarchical cultures,” which I don’t think is a real sociological term but fits for my purposes—in cultures like that, who you were largely came from your family lineage. Think about how two of the Apostles are called “Sons of Zebedee,” or how two out of the three synoptic gospels start with genealogies. Dividing a man from his father didn’t mean making Thanksgiving dinner less harmonious. It meant making a deliberate break from the things the cultural stew you were swimming in said should define you.

If we’re going to come to Jesus, that means not just entering into a more democratized community within the church. It also means leaving behind the things that used to give order to our identity, and that used to help us understand where we belong, who we belong to, and who we make part of our in-group.

This kind of re-ordering of the way you think about yourself, your clan, your family, your most formative relationships and the things your culture says define you and order your life the most? These massive breaks with how the society around us tells us we should order our inner lives do feel like death when we commit to them.

Putting to death the old life for first century Jews meant putting more stock in the men and women, Jews and Greeks, free people and slaves that were in their church than they put in their family line. But we’re not in a familial-heirarchical society. For us today, what does making a similar break look like?

Well, it varies. Region by region, person by person, it’s different. That’s the frustrating thing about being in a more individualistic society—we each get to commit ourselves to whatever tribal identities seem right in our own eyes.

But there are some ways we can tell.

If you are a believing Christian in the US, there are a couple questions I’ve been considering that I think help make this passage more practical for me. I’m going to share them now, and encourage you to do take some time to reflect on them as well.

First, take some time to think about the people who are closest to you, or who shape you the most, and ask yourself what most of them have in common. What are the things that—with just a couple token exceptions—make these people in your inner circle similar to one another? It could be something like their education, or who they voted for, or their income levels, or their cultural background, or class signifiers, or what generation they’re part of.

Then think about the people in your church. What do you think the majority of people in your congregation on Sundays have in common besides Christian faith? Is it something about the way they think? The way they behave? The kind of work they do? How they were raised? Whether they are parents? The things they love? The things they hate?

Those questions may help reveal to us the ways in which we still love our other tribes more than we love Christ. The questions about the congregation will also help us start to understand ways in which our church may be accidentally reinforcing those tribal identities, rather than equipping us to make them secondary to our Christian identity—teaching us to stay as we are, rather than giving us a vision for how Jesus wants to change us. We may find that there are ways in which we are acting like Peter in the book of Acts, accidentally sending non-Christians the message that, to become a Christian, they have to not just accept Christ, but also become Jews, as well, conforming to another culture besides the missionary culture of the gospel. And they will help us start to understand ways in which our congregation has room to move forward toward that vision of becoming a place for man and woman, Jew and Greek, Bush supporter and Bernie bro.

Prayer

Heavenly Father,

You are the God who calls all people, of every tribe and tongue, and teaches us to sing your praise. Wherever we come from, you graft us into a new identity—what scripture calls “the new man”—and send us back into the world as ambassadors, as emissaries, as foretastes and missionaries of your coming kingdom.

It is not wrong to love the tribes we come from, but help us to discern our own hearts, to separate love of you from love of man, and teach us to live as lights to the people we are already the most sympathetic to. Teach us to be salt to the part of the earth that we already think of as home. To be witnesses and prophets to the people we already think are doing a pretty good job of living the way we want to see people live.

We probably talk about government and politics in ways that leave people confused about your gospel. Everyone needs redemption, even our political allies. Everyone reflects your image and is hard afflicted, even our political opponents. But we don’t speak that way, we don’t think that way, and we don’t react to people like that’s true. That compromises what you’re trying to do in this world, and for the ways in which we have been stumbling blocks, we ask you to forgive us, for Jesus’ sake.

We pray for our hearts, we pray for our relationships, and we pray for our churches. Make these local gatherings of Jesus’ body into places we can go to learn sympathy for the people we want to fight, and where we can learn to be skeptical of the people we want to win.

We pray these things because they will make us better at the responsibility you have given us, the responsibility of being some of the stewards of a representative democracy, but also because, if you make these things true in us, it will make your Son more visible to others, and it will bring glory to his name.

And that is the reason we pray,

Amen.

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