In High School, one of my favorite teachers was Mr. Smith. I enjoyed his humor, his teaching styles, and his supportiveness. I also really enjoyed him as a soccer coach. I know I was one of his favorite students too, as he once said that in a class. He was instrumental in getting me a $2,000 scholarship for college. There was only one problem with Mr. Smith: he was a staunch unbeliever. One time at soccer practice, when the Varsity Coach said something like, “now, when you guys go to church on Sunday….” Even though the coach said this in a joking manner, Mr. Smith chimed in and said, “Church? Ha! I would never waste my time doing that.” He wasn’t shy about his unbelief.
During one of the last days of my senior year, he asked me in the hallway: “So Nick, I heard you got one of the big scholarships. Where are you going to college? What are you going to do with your life?” What followed next was one of the most awkward and flat-out uncomfortable moments in my life. I debated about what to say. I knew that I wanted to be a pastor at that point in my life, and I knew that as one of the people who got me that scholarship that he would be upset with my decision. I valued our friendship and our relationship, but I couldn’t hold back the truth. So I mustered up the courage and told him the truth: “I am going to Concordia University Wisconsin and plan on being a pastor.” He looked puzzled, betrayed, and speechless. There was silence for a moment, and he awkwardly said, “Well, hot tamale,” and went into his classroom. I don’t recall having a conversation with him again.
Following Jesus can be a challenging thing to do. It can lead to uncomfortable moments like the one I just described. It can lead to a loss of friendships and close relationships. It can lead to hardships and suffering. In our Gospel text, Jesus says that this will unfortunately happen. It is not fun, nor is it easy when it does. The message of Jesus’ peace can bring problems. The message of the Savior and salvation can bring strife and suffering. Jesus tells us and the disciples this morning that division and suffering will happen when we follow Him.
Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” What a shock this must have been to the disciples. They are sent out to proclaim a message of God’s peace and told to let their peace come upon the home that they will stay in. But now they hear that their Lord has come to bring a sword. It can be a surprise to us as well as people who focus on Jesus’ saving work. It is strange to think that He comes to bring a sword. The Lord wants them and us to know that His coming is like a sword that splits people in two: some people will believe and be for Him while others will not believe due to sin and stubbornness, and be against Him. There is no fence sitting when it comes to Jesus. You are for Him, or you are against Him. There is no middle ground.
As a result, this brings division. Jesus quotes Micah 7 to illustrate His point, and to show the depth of this division. The prophet says, “Put no trust in a neighbor; have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your arms; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.” In Micah’s prophecy, the terrible conflict within families is symptomatic of the sinful condition of the people in his day. In a tragically similar way, even though divine peace, reconciliation with God, comes to those who are given faith to trust and follow Jesus, conflict will result between those family members who refuse to repent and believe in Jesus. It too is a result of the sinful condition.
This division is not easy, especially when it is in our family and with close people in our lives. This division can be painful as we may have arguments about faith at family parties and gatherings. Perhaps it is a family rule to not talk about faith at these events. This division can be devastating as we see people in dangerous spots spiritually. The division created by Jesus can be awkward and uncomfortable as you have your beliefs, and someone else has their own that they are not willing to change. This can also be hostile. The message of Jesus’ peace creates division, and it creates division to the closest people and places in our lives.
Jesus continues by telling us the cost of following Him. He says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Jesus mentions two of the important relationships in our lives. He talks about those above us, parents, and those below us, children. These two relationships can be among the most cherished and precious in our lives. They can also be some of the most sensitive and emotionally charged ones too. Following Jesus may cost us these things.
Implied in Jesus’ words is this thought: “You are to love me more.” We are to love our Lord more than the cherished and precious people in our lives. Our loyalty to Him is to be greater than that which we may show to others. In situations in which we are to pick between our parents, children, other loved ones, or Jesus, we are to pick Jesus. When someone says, “Choose me and my ways rather than your Jesus and His ways,” we choose Jesus. This is not easy. There can be fallout, fighting, and a constant friction in our relationship because of that. Things might never be the same again.
What do we do when that happens? We still love them. Notice what Jesus says. He says, “Whoever loves father or mother….and whoever loves son or daughter.” Notice we still love them. We love both Jesus and them, but love Jesus more. We make a loving witness to them when they are hostile against us. We are to show love when people are upset, and when things are awkward and tense because of this division. We show that person the love that Jesus has not only for us, but also for them. Another thing we do is pray. We cannot change hearts. Only Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit can do that. We pray for patience as we wait and we ask for His peace and comfort as we do. We are to love Jesus more than the precious relationships in our lives.
We are to also love Him more than the things of this world, and life itself. Jesus says, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” The talk of a cross would have been intriguing to the disciples. The cross was the most vile way to die in the ancient world. It was considered the epitome of suffering and shame. In our Christian life, we will have to bear crosses like this. Following Jesus can bring suffering and hardship, maybe even death. We might be ridiculed or mocked for our faith. We might lose a promotion at work because of our beliefs, and our beliefs and consciences will be challenged. We can lose our jobs, opportunities, the chance to fit-in, all at the cost of following Jesus and believing in Him. But our Lord comforts us with these paradoxical words. He says, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” It is in our loss of this life by either suffering, sword, and shame for the Savior, that because we cling to Him, that we have life forever. Jesus says that in our loss we have the greatest gain and comfort. The cost of following Jesus can be great, but the cost of not following Him is even greater.
As we wrestle with the division and strife that following Jesus brings, what do we do? Micah said these words in his time as he saw the division that sin created: “But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.” In that conflict and strife, he looked to the Lord. It is the same for us. We too are to look to the God Who loved us more than His life or the world and all it can give. We look to the One Who persevered for us when His family thought that He was crazy and should go home. And we look to the One Who bore the cross for us. Jesus endured the suffering and shame of it all for you, and for me, to give us His peace. The author of Hebrews says it another way: “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” He gave up His life and did it joyfully for you, and for me, and is seated victoriously at God’s right hand. Nothing can separate us from Him or that peace, not even a sword. IN JESUS’ NAME, AMEN.