“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Not exactly the words we expect to hear from the “Prince of Peace” are they? Most often, what Jesus speaks about is the way things ought to be, the divine ideal of what the Kingdom of God is like. So it is hard to hear his words in passages like this one, where he starts to “get real” and talk about the way things actually are. We like our world to be black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, but the reality is that it just isn’t that simple. There is what we consider “good” from our limited point of view, and then there is the capital-G “GOOD” that belongs to God, who sees the big picture. We strive for the capital-G GOOD but often get it confused with the lowercase one, the good that is just our own and not necessarily good for the rest of the world.
To try and understand better, let’s start by looking at what was going on when Jesus said these confusing words to the disciples. He had just come from a healing spree, where he had gone around the countryside healing the sick and the lame. Seeing so much more work that needed doing, he then turned to his disciples and commissioned them to go out in pairs and heal people also. Before they went, though, he acknowledged the danger he was asking them to take on. He starts his warning by pointing out how the Pharisees accuse him of evil in his healing work and ends by foreshadowing his own death, saying “take up the cross and follow me.”
The Pharisees see Jesus as a threat to their own perceived “good,” which is the power and privilege they hold, so they cannot see the GOODNESS of God’s healing work happening right in front of them. When people cling to their own selfish sense of the way things are supposed to be, and their own sense of superiority, they often find themselves at odds with each other and with God’s justice. No one likes to be told that they are wrong in their certainties, that what they think of as “good” might not be God’s idea of GOOD. It was true then, and it is true now.
My ancestors came to Canada and the United States from a variety of different places at a number of different times in history. One branch of them came from England, and with the help of a government program started a good new life for themselves. They worked hard and invested the money they made back into the family business. It grew, and they prospered, building a nice big home. This sounds like a good story of success– good for my family. But the government program they used was one that took the land by force from indigenous Mississippian people in the southern United States and gave it to settlers for next to nothing. And the investment in their business that they made was to buy some African slaves.
Does it still sound like a story about “goodness”? Does this still sound like a family I should defend and be proud of? It seems that my values are at odds with theirs. Should I then align myself with the side of the family that picked up the sword and came down from the north to free those slaves? They, too, lived on land forcibly taken from the Sioux nation. We can’t change the past, we can only change the path we are on now and point it towards a more just future. When Jesus heals the sick and lame, he doesn’t take away their past suffering. He simply gives them a new reality in the here and now.
Another troublesome bit of this passage is where Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid of mere bodily harm, but to fear the one who can “destroy both soul and body in hell.” The word “hell” here, is a bit of a mistranslation in English. What it says in Greek is “Gehenna” which is the name of an actual physical place just outside of Jerusalem where ancient inhabitants had engaged in the ritual murder of children as burnt offerings, and subsequent generations turned the place into a garbage dump. This isn’t some hell of the afterlife, but more what you might call “hell on earth.”
As you might imagine, God took a pretty dim view of having children sacrificed saying in Jeremiah 7:31 “They…burn(ed) their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.” What the people thought they were doing to honour God was so far off God’s sense of GOOD, that God had never even imagined they would do something like that! There’s something in this that speaks to me of the Residential schools here in Canada. Good Christians thought they were honouring God by teaching indigenous children about Jesus, but they failed to see the ways they were confusing their own European culture with the Word of God.
In missing God’s GOOD, “good” Christians created hell on earth, a place where abusive people could often find their way to positions of authority and the bodies and souls of a people were destroyed. Not every residential school was as horrible as some, and there are stories of individuals that had good experiences in them, but the destruction of a culture and a failure to recognize the GOODNESS that culture held was a failure to recognize God in indigenous people – people, who like all other people, God counts even the hairs on their heads as precious.
Jesus sent his disciples out into a world where God’s GOODNESS faced opposition and conflict, knowing the troubles they might face and the crosses they might have to bear. He sent them out knowing that those closest to them, their families, might reject them. But he sent them out anyway because the need for God’s healing love was so great, he would not let the enormity and difficulty of the task overwhelming. He urged them to look beyond their own individual perspective and fears, to try and glimpse the big picture, the big capital-G GOOD of God.
We, too, are called to carry God’s healing love into the world. The process is slower than we would like. It seems we walk like the disciples, only two at a time, with no money or even sandals, facing frequent rejection by others, and yet all we can do is persist. Slavery is long ended, but the healing of an end to racism is still needed. The Residential Schools are closed, but entire communities still live with the trauma of their legacy. Yet, Jesus tells us, God is watching, walking with us on this journey towards reconciliation.
The Holy Spirit calls us towards God’s GOODNESS. The United Church’s 1986 Apology to Indigenous Peoples was a start, and we continue to find new ways of living out our commitment to reconciliation and an end to racism. Those of us who are not indigenous educate ourselves about the issues faced by our indigenous siblings, not by placing the burden of teaching us on them, but by being proactive seeking out information, resources and stories ourselves. We listen to what is said, even when the stories are sad and hard to hear. We listen without trying to insert ourselves into another’s story. And we follow the example of our God and journey with people on the road to healing. We stand as witnesses when racism rears it’s ugly head and do not avert our eyes or turn away. We name that demon and cast it out.
Jesus’ call to the disciples is clearly not a call to go on a luxury cruise. It’s a call to long walks and hard work. It’s a call to stand up for God’s love and justice. It’s a call to keep going, even though we know we will likely pass the torch before the finish line ever comes into view. And it is a call to faith, that death never gets the last word, but God’s love and life go on. The Sacred Fire goes on.
May it be so.