I have a standard trope I trot out whenever Jeremiah comes around: Look at this guy, he had the worst job in history. When God commissioned Jeremiah to prophesy, God did not tell him that everyone would hear him and love him, obey him and thank him, erect statues to him, name streets after him, and teach his ideas in school. Instead, God told Jeremiah to go to the rulers of Judah, a portion of the ancestral land of Israel and home of Jerusalem, and tell them they will be destroyed and everyone will be carted away into exile. No one, God says, will like you or listen to you. Everything you say and do will be useless. And the Lord says to him, by way of bucking him up, “But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them.” Thanks, God.
When we get this snippet of the prophet’s book today, Jeremiah has just spent the night in the stocks for prophesying. The stocks are a torture device in which your arms and legs are locked in place so that you can’t sit or stand. Jeremiah is tired of having the worst job in the history of the world: people laugh at him, revile him, whisper and gossip about him, shun him, and seek any way they can to wrong him. He longs to quit the work of being a prophet: “The word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” But, he says, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary holding it in and I cannot.” Do not break before them, or I will break you before them: that was God’s promise. “But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior.” That was also God’s promise. Still, you get the feeling, reading this passage, that Jeremiah would rather have anyone other than a dread warrior at his side. Death follows him. Violence is his most constant companion. He is the kind of man who leaves a wake behind. He’s the kind of guy who says, “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” And God is the kind of God who says, “I am with you. You do it for me.”
So, when Jesus talks like he does in today’s Gospel—“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father…”, and so on—careful readers of the Bible will not be shocked. Well, that’s not true. How could what Jesus says not shock you? They shock me every time I read them, even when I expect them. But nothing Jesus promises is different than anything God promises to Jeremiah, or really any of the prophets, or even any of the patriarchs and prophets. God’s first words to Abraham were: leave your home and everything you know and go to a land I’ll show you. This was a sword, cutting Abraham from his family. But it was, at the same time, a promise of life. Jesus is faithful and obedient to this. God consistently tells his followers: do not hedge your bets. Do not diversify your spiritual portfolio. Stick with me, because I am sticking to you.
What is God doing, giving us this Bible? What are we supposed to glean from stories like this? No wonder people like Thomas Jefferson and Adolf von Harnack wanted to cut the Bible up into more humanized versions. Because it seems that in the end, Jesus is just following the long line of losers, kooks, and wild-haired fanatics that preceded him in the Bible, except that he makes it worse by adding a cross. No fame, no fortune, no glory—just a cross and a willingness to leave everything you love behind.
Don’t you know, Paul writes, that if you have been baptized into Christ Jesus you have been baptized into his death? Death severs us from everything—even thought, even pain, from our families, from our struggles and our loves. Baptism, the word, actually comes from the word that means the sinking of a ship or drowning. Death is etymologically inherent in it. Paul goes on to say that our old self is crucified with Jesus so the body of sin might be destroyed. Imagine everything that has happened to give you a self—billions of years of evolution and genetics, tens of thousands of years of culture, your own brilliant mind, your soul. Did you know that Paul thinks when you were baptized all of this died?
We live two millennia after the life of Jesus. We live in a culture that has been thoroughly Christianized, so thoroughly Christianized that sometimes we forget the kind of claim God makes on us—a claim that is far beyond any claim of culture or history. Until the last year, people were writing long essays which claimed there weren’t any liberal religious voices in public anymore because the liberal religious people won the culture wars: we got a Voting Rights Act, Equal Opportunity Employment, an end to the Cold War, even gay marriage, which we remember with special gratitude today. Each of them were achievements of a lifetime, and yet somehow, they all came in the span of a lifetime. Christ’s words are here to put a sword to our faith in social progress, or the belief that if a culture or country is sufficiently Christian it will somehow be good. All that work is now in danger, and the song sung during the civil rights movement still rings true in our streets: which side are you on, boy, which side are you on?
Put away any notion you may have that Jesus is the great placater and dialogue partner, the interlocutor who has a retreat house in the mountain stocked with good wine and conversation, or the host of a CNN panel that is fair and evenly balanced in different points of view. Jesus is a sword-carrying idol-smasher, and the chief idol he comes to break are the ones that we work up and hold closest to our hearts—idols that seem, by any other measurement than the cross, to be good things, godly things. Social justice, family, literature, music, baseball—I have come not to bring peace but a sword. At our side stands a dread warrior, always cutting and slashing our bonds. For Jesus’ disciples, there is only one view—the view that you get when you at the foot of the cross.
I have been struggling with this for a while now, ever since Ferguson, Missouri. I have struggled with what to say and what to do. Saying what seems to be right comes more easily to me than doing what seems to be right, to my shame. I have been fortunate to see the church on several continents, and everywhere I’ve seen it is has been as incompetent and even corrupt as it has been beautiful and amazing. I have seen governments that made me thank God that I grew up in the United States of America. I no longer have hope that a perfect society awaits us in the future, but I do hope we can make a better one. But I am reminded, today, that Jesus does not come to make a better society for the sake of a better society. He has come to lead us into the reign of God. He asks us to die to the world and live to God. Everything else, everything else, comes to us through the cross.
I don’t know how to articulate how much this matters. God cuts away the world, but somehow it comes back to us new. But instead of the world being a threat to us, God gives us the world again as a gift. The cross is not an escape but an invitation to the freedom to love without counting the cost. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both the soul and body…” In other words, with the dread warrior at your side, do not fear those who live to enrich themselves and wreak havoc on the world. Do not even fear your own participation in sin and the machines of death. A theologian says the cross is the axis around which the world spins. It is the still point in the hurricane, the foundation of the world. The kingdom of God is coming among us, and it is a reign of true freedom.
That’s what the cross really means. That’s why Jesus has come with a sword. Aren’t we tired of this constant struggle against sin and death? Jesus says: come with me and be free.
Reverend John Flack