"Living Beyond Fear"
“Not peace, but a sword.”
A lot of us resist this saying of Jesus. We may find ourselves wondering, “How did this ever get into the Bible?” And yet here it is, in the Bible. So, what do we do with it?
To a lot of us, it sounds so wrong. But deep down, we know it’s true. When you’re called to speak your truth, to stand up for what you believe, it may not be received well.
Peace can be hard to come by when the truth gets told. The way Karoline Lewis puts it, “the Kingdom of Heaven is not a tranquil or quiet existence free from disturbance and discord. Rather, the Kingdom of Heaven disrupts. The Kingdom of Heaven is unsettling. The Kingdom of Heaven up-ends especially the reigns that feign peace. The Kingdom of Heaven calls into question the rulers and systems that promise peace, but in doing so wield a sword of terror and weapons of forced allegiance, armed with what they think is power. The Kingdom of Heaven comes with the demands on which true peace insists-- and never lets go of the kind of peace God has in mind.”
Jesus has commissioned his twelve disciples and is about to send them out on a mission of their own. As part of what seems almost like a pre-game “pep talk,” we hear Jesus leveling with the disciples about some of the challenges they will face, challenges that could include rejection and slander and persecution and perhaps even death.
Jesus names the suffering the disciples might face and its causes, and describes some worst-case scenarios, and weaves them together with statements of reassurance and repeated calls to resist fear. The disciples are called to proclaim the gospel “in the light and from the housetops.”
“Have no fear,” Jesus says.
Did you notice how many times Jesus says that in today’s passage? Three times. “Have no fear.” “Do not fear.” “Don’t be afraid.”
Jesus recognizes that fear can cause the failure of discipleship. His first disciples leave the security of their homes and families to follow him, as they proclaim the coming of God’s reign. When disciples faithfully proclaim and practice the gospel, the time will come when they will come into conflict with the powers of this world.
Jesus reassures the disciples that God is not like the powers of this world. God knows and cares even for the sparrows that are sold “two for a penny.” God knows even the hairs on our heads better than we do. The threat of violence and death are real concerns for the early disciples, but they’re no longer the determining force in their lives, for the one who has ultimate power over our whole being exercises that power with mercy and love.
These sayings of Jesus encourage disciples to remain firm in their commitment to Jesus and his mission, even when that mission generates inevitable conflicts, even within their families. Even though Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that peacemakers are blessed, he says here in these discipleship teachings that his mission does not bring peace, but a sword.
Jesus’ own ministry demonstrates that the very act of peacemaking can generate conflict and violence. God’s peace requires justice and righteousness. God’s peace demands that every person is valued and cared for.
To “take up the cross” means disciples align their mission and fate with that of Jesus, which could bring humiliation, suffering, shame, opposition, and even death. The call to discipleship also makes claims upon our identity and allegiance, even to parents or children.
When he hear Jesus calling us to take up the cross, we join Jesus in his identification with marginalized people or rebels who were subject to Roman crucifixion because they did not align themselves with or submit themselves to the authority of the Empire. Discipleship is costly.
In our time and place, most of us don’t live under the threat of death or dangerous situations. But following Jesus can mean involve conflict. Fear of conflict may be one of the most debilitating of all fears.
This difficult passage gets to the heart of one of the most paralyzing characteristics of many faith communities—both congregations and denominations. We can be so afraid of conflict -- within our immediate families… our congregations… or the larger family of faith -- that our witness is muted. Fear of conflict may keep us from acting on our values and convictions. When we’re afraid of “upsetting the apple cart,” we get stuck and are unable to move forward.
In the early church, some disciples were rejected by their family and friends because of their faith. But today, we may be held hostage by those who threaten conflict when things don’t go their way. Or we may be so conflict-avoidant that we just don’t want to make certain people unhappy with us.
In some ways, it feels like more than three years since we hosted the General Assembly in Detroit, but that’s how long it’s been. I remember that it was a fearful time for many people. The Presbyterian Church and other denominations had been struggling with issues related to human sexuality for decades. Over that time, people have been coming to understand sexual orientation and identity very differently, and changes had been occurring in society and in the church, albeit more slowly.
In the Presbyterian church, we do things “decently and in order.” So, over the years, a series of committees studied the issues, including all the research and the advice from various church agencies. They listened to the testimonies of various people, including biblical and theological experts and a variety of other people who testify for and against the overture. They debate it in the committee and pray for God’s guidance. They make a recommendation to the whole Assembly, and the Assembly debates it in the plenary session.
During the plenary session in which the Assembly considered the committee’s recommendations on Civil Unions and Marriage, there were people who came to the microphone and talked about how God is calling us to do something new in response to new understandings of human sexuality and what our Christian faith is calling us to do. Some people spoke for holding fast to traditional understandings and values. And some people spoke of their fears, mostly of fears that some congregations will leave the denomination in protest. Change in general can be scary. And we fear alienating people we care about or dividing the community. No matter what the decision was, some people were going to rejoice, and some were going to grieve over the decision, and we all knew that.
The 2014, General Assembly took two significant actions on same-sex marriage and an even more controversial action to divest from corporations that support or profit from the Israel’s occupation of Palestine. These were emotionally charged, fearful debates, as was the debate over ordination of LGBT persons a few years ago.
[To put this into historical perspective: the Presbyterian Church split over slavery and it wasn't until the 1980's that we reunited. Older Presbyterians who were around for the debate over the ordination of women have told me that conflict was every bit as divisive, emotionally charged, and fearful as that over LGBT ordination.]
Following General Assembly, a few congregations did leave the denomination, and some who decided to remain aren’t completely in agreement with the decisions. But we keep working and worshipping and praying and doing mission together. We are united at the Lord’s Table, in mission, and in our commitment to follow Jesus. There is diversity in our unity.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus invites us to remember that there are worse things than conflict. Indeed, the call to follow Christ and take up his cross will have costs, including conflict.
Some of you have heard Jim and Marilyn Marble talk about their work with the Koinonia Community, which was founded by Clarence Jordan. Jordan was an agriculture major at the University of Georgia and a Master of Divinity graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also earned a PhD in New Testament. He founded the racially integrated Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia in 1942. You may be familiar with Jordan through his Cotton Patch translations of the New Testament or because the Habitat for Humanity movement originated from the Koinonia Farm.
When the Koinonia community tried selling peanuts from a roadside stand the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the stand. Remember, this was in the 1940’s, in Georgia. Stubborn like most saints for justice, Jordan put up another stand. It got blown up too. Finally, Koinonia Farm resorted to mail-order ads: "Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia."1 To this day, Koinonia Farm has a mail order business, selling peanuts, pecans, fair trade candy, and baked goods. I buy some of my Christmas gifts from them.
Whether it’s shipping the nuts out of Georgia or bringing Palestinian crafts to the United States to sell to help people living under occupation feed their families through Pal Craft Aid or speaking and acting for God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness, we are called to live beyond our fears to follow Jesus.
We can be inspired by heroes of the faith, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Archbishop Oscar Romero or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whose lives and Christian witness ended in violent deaths. We can give thanks for Congressman John Lewis and others who as young men and women put their lives on the line to protest racial injustice.
We can be inspired by the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi voting rights activist was beaten so badly in jail that she couldn’t lie down, yet she led a jailhouse choir in singing a freedom song we’ve heard Kevin Dewey’s Henry Ford College Chorus sing: “Paul and Silas, was bound in jail--let my people go.”
The work isn’t done yet. Every week there is heartbreaking news in our nation and the world-- news that must break God’s heart. This is not a time for a middle-of-the-road, lukewarm, comfortable Christianity.
So, go out in the light with the good news of God’s love. Shout it from the housetops. Don’t cling to this life, but give your life for the sake of Christ.
“Have no fear, says Jesus. Even the hairs of your head are counted. So, have no fear. You are of more value than many sparrows. God loves us. Don’t be afraid.
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
June 25, 2017
 Karoline Lewis, “Not Peace, But a Sword,” at Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4927