“The Sword and the Light”

Homily delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson

The Church of the Intercession, NYC

September 8, 2019

Text: Luke 14:25-33

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In think I speak for most of us when I say that our world today seems incredibly divided – by religion, race, economic class, gender, and ethnicity – just to name a few of the ways that our various identities have been pushing us apart. Hatred and violence have sprung up between various groups, fueled by fear and the desperation to insure one group’s protection, even survival, at the expense of another. Often, it seems that respect for human life itself is becoming increasingly rare.

Now I also think that I speak for many of us when I say that I believe that Jesus came into our world to heal divisions between us, not exacerbate them.   And I also firmly believe that Jesus certainly did not come to promote bigotry, hatred, or disrespect for human life.

Yet, there are certain passages in the gospels that seem to say just that. Today we have some of these disquieting verses, from the Gospel of Luke:

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

And lest we think that today’s Gospel passage is an aberration that somehow crept uninvited into the Bible, we should note that it’s only one passage of several that contain similar, even more strident language. This is from the Gospel of Matthew:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 

Before we jump to preaching about how the meaning of these passages is merely metaphorical, please allow me tell you that I personally experienced this “sword” that Jesus speaks of when I first converted to Christianity from Judaism. Back then, the step that I took when I chose to be baptized was viewed as an act of hostility by my family, and for a while, there was severe distress all the way around that I felt as the presence of a sword, cutting me off from my family, and causing deep pain in my soul. Thank God it – and my family – healed after a period of time, but for a while, the sword of Jesus was very real in my life.

Sometimes Jesus’ presence even causes physical pain, including death at the point of sword, sometimes for those who are utterly innocent. We should always remember that the sign in the stars foretelling Jesus’ birth caused King Herod to slaughter all of the male babies under the age of two in Judea. Jesus’ Incarnation was indeed the cause of division and murder – and you could not tell the mothers of those murdered babies that Jesus’ sword caused only metaphorical pain.

But why? How could the Prince of Peace also be the Prince of Pain? The answer lies in what Jesus’ presence truly brings into the world: his purpose is not to destroy, but to expose. Jesus does not create divisions and enmity between people, he reveals the gap between faith and pride that is already there. His presence forces a choice: Who do you believe in, me or the world? As a result, those threatened by Jesus’ presence can do what some are liable to do when they feel that their very survival is at stake: they can turn murderous.

This can include Christians who think that they are truly following Jesus when they try to create a world populated only by Christians, and so feel justified in murdering others in his name. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are only two of the genocides that have been perpetrated at the behest of this incredibly misbegotten interpretation of Jesus’ kingdom. And we have people today, Americans, both in and outside of our government, who believe that people of other faiths do not deserve a place not only in our country, but on our planet.

What does this say about us, and our response to Jesus’ sword? I know this may sound strange, even unbelievable to you, but if our country and our world survive this period of bigotry, cynicism and violence – which is by no means certain – but if we do, we may have President Trump and other similar world leaders to thank for it. Make no mistake – I am in no way supporting their worldview or their policies. But they are performing a very valuable service. That is because they have unwittingly, accidentally brought Jesus’ sword into the world: they have exposed the toxic and vile beliefs and behavior of some people and dragged it into the sunlight, so that we can no longer pretend that if things seem fine on the surface, then all is right with the world. And light is the only way to kill darkness. Remember: Jesus is not only the sword but also the light.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus calls himself “the light of the world, “ and he tells his disciples that

The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.

But then in Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Once Jesus left this world at the Ascension, he bequeathed his light to us. We now have the ability to do what Jesus did, exposing the darkness in our world to the light for healing. But this can be dangerous business. Just as many innocents throughout the ages – even Jesus himself – had to pay a cost, we should be prepared to do the same. Today’s gospel speaks of “counting the cost.” Jesus is telling us to be aware that Herods live in our time, too – those people who are terrified of the light and who will fight to the death to prevent it from driving their evil away. Light does not win without a battle.

My sisters and brothers, our discipleship as Christians brings us joy, but also the weight of responsibility and the possibility of pain. There is a very real chance that the cost we are called on to pay may be beyond what we anticipate or even fear. But with clear eyes and trust in God for guidance and strength, we can and should be prepared to be true Christians bearing both Jesus’ sword and Christ’s light into our troubled world in our own time. Let us pray that, in so doing, we may help transform our broken and hurting world into God’s true kingdom, where all God’s children may live in true peace, mutual respect, genuine compassion, and love. In Christ’s name we pray,