By Jacob Smith
In our Gospel reading, Jesus says some things that if we are completely honest, they sit hard in the ears. Do not think that I have come to bring peace, but a sword. Whoa! That statement just seems so un-Jesus-like. What Jesus is doing here is articulating in an actual sense the real cost of peace.
Now all of us actually want peace: We want peace in our world, we want peace in our communities, in our families. The issue is we want peace on our terms. We seek peace by making other people villains, and if we can just get enough people onto our side, then things will go our way. We seek peace through avoidance. How many of us have never spoken to a former friend or family member because we would rather just sit with the elephant in the room rather than be truly reconciled?
We seek peace through our accomplishments and wealth. And if we can just get that recognition, then we’ll have peace. Some of us think we will find the peace we are looking for through self-medication. This parish, through the ministry of Alcoholics Anonymous, has been deeply involved in debunking that myth. I know for me sometimes it is just easier to find peace behind the computer screen, mindlessly checking out your lives on Facebook, or curating my own, living in a virtual world I think I can control.
This is my first point: We seek by ourselves, for ourselves, peace. We want peace on our terms, and when the truth is on our terms there is no peace. The truth is, there can be no peace on our terms because the horizon of satisfaction with those things is constantly moving and eluding us as they fail to live up to our expectations, as they fail to save us. On one level, I would love to give you a recipe for peace, but sometimes the only thing to do is recognize the mess and ask for forgiveness, ask for grace.
For it is in that petition that we can begin to understand what Jesus is saying in our Gospel reading. In Jesus’ day, the familial relationship was everything. This is where one found peace: The stability that came with a son living for and representing his father. The peace that came from a mother taking care of her daughter. The idea that one’s foe would come from a household was offensive, because a solid household, your lineage, was your peace.
Jesus, as if speaking prophetically to a 21st-century American, makes the point here that even our identities must ultimately die. I have heard it preached “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” as this noble choice, as if Jesus is teaching you to toughen up and choose to take up a cross.
Not correct! Because to everyone hearing Jesus’ teaching they would have thought this guy is out of his mind. They and we all know how brutal the cross was. No one ever thought, “take up a cross, gosh, that sounds like he is talking to me, I think I’ll choose to take that on, I’ll give it the old Harvard try.” No! This is no choice. The cross is not the little inconveniences of life that we push through.
Rather, to grasp what Jesus is saying is actually the key to and the heart of the Christian faith. Jesus is telling his disciples and all who would follow him that to have real peace, everything we are, and everything we have in this life, must be nailed to the cross with Christ.
We must become nothing so that Christ might be everything. And he must stand above and in the breach between all things, because Christ on the cross is our peace. Christ on the cross is our strength, and Christ on the cross is our reconciliation, with not only ourselves and our family, but with God. Christ on the cross is our courage as our crosses are flung on our backs, following him, to finally discovering who we truly are: beloved children of God.
Christ must be at the center, not high on the list of priorities. You may have heard it preached it: Jesus, family, work, etc. Nope! It is only Christ and his cross. He must be central in all things. Christ must get between father and son, mother and daughter, between each and every one of us, so that he might bind us together in his lasting peace. For to lose your life in the world for the sake of Christ, to die with him and be joined to his cross, is to find the one real life who is the life.
This is no cheap life, this is no cheap peace, that Jesus is speaking of here, and it comes by way of the gospel only. It comes by way of the God who knows that we want peace, the God who knows that we want life, and on our own we have no idea where to truly find it. As a matter of fact, we will look for it everywhere but Jesus. Nevertheless, real life and peace comes by way of the God who still loves us anyway, the God who loved us first, the God who loves us so much that even the hairs of your head are all counted by him.
The God who loves us first: remember that as we are given the peace of God in this life, remember that as we take up our crosses in this life. Jesus first. His cross comes first, then your cross. His death comes first, then your death. It was for the sake of our sin and our salvation that he came under the Law, that he refused the easy peace of compromise with this world.
It was for our sake that Jesus was divided from his Father on his cross, which caused Jesus to experience the God-forsakenness of our humanity, the darkness of God’s wrath, the suffering of our sin. Jesus took up his cross to lead humanity through death to life. This is the only way for a sinner to live before God, to have real peace with God: to die with Jesus.
Notice I did not say simply to die. Everyone does that sooner or later. But to die with Jesus. To take up your cross and follow Jesus in the way he goes, namely through death to eternal life. Where at the end of time we will hear him say, “Peace be with you,” but for now, in the midst of this troubled world, through the words of a sermon and bread and wine.
The Rev. Jacob Smith is the rector of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan and is the co-host of Same Old Song, a lectionary preaching podcast.