“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.  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;  and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;  and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
Are these the words of the Prince of Peace? Are these the words of the gentle Jesus who teaches us so much about love and mercy and forgiveness? They sound so harsh; they sound so final; they sound very radical. Jesus comes not to bring peace but a sword that will divide families, a sword that will pit those who love each other against one another? And in order to be one of Jesus’ followers you must love him more than you love even your own flesh and blood, you must put him first before all things? That is pretty extreme.
If you are like me, than you may have a very difficult time with any sort of extremism. I was raised to be a good southern (genteel) gentleman. I was taught that extremes, excessiveness in anything was distasteful and to be avoided. I was taught that all things, even religion, ought to be done in moderation. The famous Via Media or “Middle Way” of Anglicanism was always held up as a model because it says that as a Church we like to be right smack in the middle away from the extreme ends of any spectrum. You know what I mean, let’s keep religion sensible, let’s keep it realistic. We must avoid the unseemliness of fanaticism whenever possible. In fact, so often I worry about people whose belief in anything makes them unreasonable. After all, the world is full of far too many religious fanatics doing all kinds of terrible things in the name of their religion – Shiite Muslims, radical Hindus, Israeli Jewish fundamentalists, so many of the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. And let’s be reasonable about this, let’s not get carried away here, isn’t there a whole lot more to life than just religion, isn’t religion just a part of our lives – isn’t it?
But wait a minute, in today’s gospel Jesus doesn’t give us room to be reasonable about our faith in him. In fact, Jesus’ words are precisely the words of a religious fanatic, a fanatic who was willing to undergo death for the sake of his God and his people. And this fanatic demands that his followers show the same type of radical commitment. Well then, you might wonder, what separates Jesus from all the other kooks out there spouting all sorts of extremism? If Jesus is in fact fanatical and if he demands that we be fanatics as well, then how does Christianity differ from the Moonies or the Hezbollah or any other leader and group? Our Lord wants radical obedience from all of his children, he wants us to be radically committed to God and God’s work in the world. But unlike all the others, radical obedience to Christ is not about power or influence, domination or control, violence and destruction. It is not about controlling people or defeating one’s enemies. It is not about having to win at all costs or being right all the time. No, the sort of commitment that Christ demands is a commitment to love and justice above all things – a commitment to love and justice even if that means standing in opposition to others, even one’s family. God is love and Jesus tells us that we must have our commitment to this God as central in our lives. We must be willing to love one another as Jesus has loved us even when that means going against our nation our community even our family. And to love as Jesus loved means to stand up for what is just at all times and in all places. As much as we might wish it were otherwise, the truth of the matter is – our Lord didn’t say that to follow him we could just be nice people, that to be his disciple we only needed to be reasonable and considerate. No, he said we had to be totally committed to him and his way of life and that means being totally committed to love.
That’s fine, those are nice words, but what does this commitment look like? What does it mean to be fully committed to love? Perhaps I can attempt to answer this question by saying what it is not. In the 19 th century the Church in this wonderful country of ours (particularly in the South) was not fully committed to love and its consequences when the Church readily maneuvered scripture to justify slavery. There were those who stood against their church anf their families to argue otherwise but they were too little heard. In the middle of this century, many Christians in Germany were far less than radically committed to love when they turned a blind eye to the evil and hatred of the Nazi party. Some Christians acted otherwise and went so far as to even hide Jews at the expense of their own safety, but their acts of love were the exception rather than the rule. Yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, there was a huge article about the failures of the Orthodox Christian Church in Serbia. It seems that a majority of the Serbian Orthodox priests and bishops were taken in by the patronage and nationalism expressed by Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic financially and publically supported the Church and the Church turned a blind eye to the violence perpetrated against Muslims first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo. And while the article does not say it directly, the evidence is overwhelming that our Serbian Christian brothers and sisters dramatically failed in their commitment to love when they failed to protect their Muslim neighbors. They allowed greed and nationalism to take the place of their faith.
Our Lord demands nothing less from us than radical obedience. Too much evil is allowed to take place when we are only partially committed. To Jesus there is no way to be reasonably Christian if that means compromising on love and justice. Often we think that our commitment to Christ barely makes demands on us beyond sitting in church on Sunday mornings. But in truth our Lord requires so much more. He is a fanatic about love and he commands us to be the same.
Let us pray. Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 1 Amen.
1 BCP. Page 832.