A SWORD AND A CROSS
So much of who Jesus is, and what he does is unexpected. Is it because he is mysterious and beyond us, or is it because our sinful flesh has warped expectations of God? Perhaps both. But in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus shatters some expectations – at least puts some hard truths before us, concerning “swords and rewards”. But he also gives promise, and hope.
First, the Prince of Peace shocks us with talk of violence. What? Isn’t this Jesus who teaches “turn the other cheek”? Isn’t this the one who told Peter, “if you live by the sword you will die by the sword”? Isn’t this the Jesus who isn’t a military messiah but a humble donkey-riding king whose kingdom is not of this world? Yes, to all of that. But how do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements? Is he a peace guy or a sword guy?
Perhaps Jesus’ own life is a starting point. For though he preached good news, healed the sick, and never thought of rebellion – violent men found him anyway, and pierced him with thorns and nails and spear. He didn’t bring the sword, but his words and actions brought the sword down upon him. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, so our Lord was taken. Like a robber they came to arrest him with torches and clubs at night, though he taught openly every day in the temple.
Jesus suffered violence for doing good. He was persecuted for telling the truth. He made enemies by loving people. Who would have thought?
The world isn’t fair that way, because the world is sinful and full of sinners. And if it was that way for Jesus, it will be all the more for us, his people. So he warns us, he came to bring a sword. Following Jesus does not mean peace – at least in the sense of a peaceful coexistence with the sinful world around you. In fact, being a Christian might even mean trouble for you, even in your family. Holding to Christ’s word may bring a sword – it may cut you, or cut you off from those you love in ways you don’t expect.
The peace that Christ does bring is a true peace – with God. Not an outward, false peace. Not even an emotional peace. Sometimes it doesn’t feel peaceful. But he declares it to be so – and his word of forgiveness is the greater reality. You are forgiven. You are righteous. You belong to God, in Jesus Christ who died for you. You are at peace.
After all the hard words of warning about sword and trouble and family turmoil – he does not leave us without hope. He never does.
To make sense of Jesus’ words here we have to understand what kind of sword he means. He is speaking of the divisions that sometimes come when believer meets unbeliever. When Christian is faced with non-Christian, especially in the same household. Jesus is telling us that following him is more important than anything – and everything – including your own family.
Martin Franzmamn, the seminary professor who wrote the hymn, “Thy Strong Word” puts it this way:
He brings no cheap pace, no half peace, no peace by compromise. He can create peace only by destroying evil; and since men love evil and cling to that which excludes them from the whole peace of God, His coming forces a decision between good and evil and proves to be, for all its peaceful intent, the sundering sword.”
And Luther says,
We must be guided by the principle that one must obey God rather than all men, be they parents, government, preachers, yea, even the whole church, if it were possible for it to oppose Christ.
You can see why Jesus also likens the experience of being his disciple to that of bearing a cross. It can be painful at times, dividing us, cutting us off from even our family, like a sword. But it can also make us suffer – like a cross. Jesus calls his disciples to follow him not just in the niceities of the faith, but also in the cross-bearing.
Here we aren’t talking so much about trouble we bring on ourselves (though we must bear that too). Nor are we talking about the troubles of life in a sinful world, like illness and sorrow and all other problems. Instead, bearing the cross means suffering for the sake of the Christ.
We don’t like to suffer. And we don’t like to be on the “outs” with family. Ridicule and persecution don’t’ sound like fun. These words of Jesus about swords and crosses, discord and suffering, are hard to swallow. They are even harder to fulfill.
How often do we, faced with even the mildest of persecution, bend like a reed, wilt like a flower. How often do we miss our chances, take the easy way out, and throw the cross from our shoulder. How often are we not worthy of Him.
But then there is His cross. Jesus never ran from his cross. His mission was always to bear it. To carry it, to die on it. Jesus’ call for his disciples to follow him and carry their own cross implies that Jesus goes to his cross first. His cross starts it all, fulfills it all, and brings life to all who believe.
Because of His cross we find forgiveness for our poor cross-bearing. In His cross we come to peace in our warfare with God. And in his cross we receive life, even life eternal. His cross makes us worthy. And only in the shadow of his cross can Jesus seriously expect us to carry our own. By the power of His Spirit, and under his forgiving grace.
Jesus also shares another paradoxical saying, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”.
In other words: if you seek after life in this world – if your only worries are how to live long and suffer little, watch out – because life is fleeting and we all die in the end. But if you lose your life for Christ – that is, if you receive him as he comes to you, if you trust in him and his promises, and therefore even suffer for his name and carry that cross – then life is yours, and not just life but eternal life. Try to do it yourself, you will die. But if Christ dies for you, you will live. In fact, his death and his cross are our only hope for life.
When Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, he was sending them out on a mission. Yet there is a wider application here as Jesus wasn’t JUST speaking to them. These words are for all of us.
We all have a mission and a commission from God. We are to witness, and to serve God in whatever vocation we hold. Being a Christian isn’t always easy. And so hear these words of encouragement from Christ.
There will be hardships, persecution, sword and cross to bear. But there will be those who receive the message. There will be those who welcome the prophet. There will be those who show an openness and a hospitality. For them, and for us, there is a reward waiting.
Not a reward that we have earned. But a reward Christ has earned at His cross. This is the promise that encourages us in the face of swords and crosses. This is the hope that inspires us and the glory we press on to one day see. In comparison to the reward, all else seems a small thing. St Paul writes, “I consider that our present suffering are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18).
So today, the Prince of Peace brings us a sword and a cross. And it’s not always easy. And sometimes we fail him. But in his own cross, we find true life. And by his grace we are forgiven when we fail, and empowered to carry on, and carry our own cross, for his sake.
The Gospel of Jesus brings peace and division, even in the family. But the cross is our only hope for life – and he encourages us as we follow him.
There is reward enough in doing what is right. But when this world rewards your faithfulness with hatred, your trust in Christ with ridicule, and your works of Christian love with derision – know that your reward isn’t ultimately here, but in Heaven.
We don’t deserve these rewards – unlike earthly rewards. These are not dessert for cleaning your plate at dinner, or a paycheck for a hard day’s labor. The rewards Christ promises are always of grace.
Our “just desserts” would be scary. We’re sinners. But what we truly deserve isn’t what he promises. Instead he gives us his own righteousness. His own blessedness. His own life – a resurrection and a glorious eternity. A kingdom that never ends.
Jesus never said being a Christian would be easy. No, he talks about crosses, and suffering, and swords. There’s no promise of peace this side of heaven. But for the faithful, the reward awaits. The hope endures, always, only in him, who by his cross has conquered, and by his word sustains us. Believe in that word, come what may. And look for that reward, for it is sure.
This message by Rev.Chryst is brought to you by Grace Lutheran Church, Web and Park Street, Mountain View, Arkansas. For prayer or more information, contact Pastor Kenneth Taglauer by email: [email protected]. A Pass it On Project , You can read more at Preacherblog; Tom Chryst