Years ago, a baby boy was born to a wealthy Italian family. They called him Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. He grew up surrounded by luxury and privilege and I’m afraid he became terribly spoiled. He spent his money lavishly and he lived for pleasure.
As a youth, he earned a bit of a reputation as a town troublemaker, so his family enlisted him in the army to teach him a thing or two about discipline and responsibility. About that time, he started to read about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. He was converted, left the military and became a travelling evangelist.
Leaving behind his life of ease and luxury, he sold all his fine clothes and fancy stuff to further the mission of the church and serve the poor. But this new direction in his life was met with utter dismay from his father, who dragged him home, beat him up, bound him with ropes and locked him in a small storeroom. Somehow, eventually, he got away but his father ended up completely disowning him.
You may not recognise the name Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, but you all know who I’m talking about, because he is better known as Francis of Assisi. Like many before him, and many since, Francis could testify from personal experience to the painful truth of Jesus’ words from Matthew 10.36:
“A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Jesus Was Sent
As we enter Advent and count down to Christmas to mark and celebrate Jesus’ birth, we need to understand that, in one sense, it’s actually no big deal that he was born. Being born is, in itself, unexceptional. Everyone you have ever known, know now, and will ever know was born.
But Jesus is unique in that he was living and conscious before he was conceived; the Bible says he was sent. Jesus himself said, “I came not of my own accord, but [my Father] sent me.” Why? Why was Jesus sent, why did he come?
Over these next few weeks, we are going to look at a number of statements in the New Testament, including 3 from Jesus’ own lips, that answer that question. We only have time to explore a few, but there are about 30 verses in the New Testament that speak about why Jesus came. For example:
· He came as a light
· He came to call sinners to repentance
· He came to destroy the works of the evil one
And today, one of the strangest: Jesus said that he came, not to bring peace, but to bring a sword. Yes, it’s weird isn’t it? Everything we know about Jesus points to this statement being factually incorrect.
The Prince of Peace
“I did not come to bring peace” he said in Matthew 10.34. But centuries before he was born, Isaiah prophesied about him saying: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given… and he will be called… Prince of Peace.”
In his ministry, he healed the sick saying, “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” He told his followers, “be at peace with each other.”
“I did not come to bring peace” he said. But just hours before he died, Jesus specifically said to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
Days later, after they had disowned him, deserted him and denied him, three times the risen Christ said to them not “I’ll never trust you losers again” but “Peace be with you.”
Jesus came in peace, he preached peace, he imparted peace, he secured peace with God on the cross and modelled a life of peace. Jesus never avoided conflict but his approach was nonviolent. “Love your enemies, and do good to those to hate you.”
A Sword of Division
Yet Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” So, what did he mean?
Jesus’ sword is not a literal flashing blade of steel. In fact, when Peter took up a sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Lord rebuked him and said, “Put it away Peter.” That’s not who we are.
In every single way, looking through the Gospels, it looks very much like Jesus didn’t come to bring a sword, but peace; every single way except one.
Jesus goes on to explain here that he’s not talking about a weapon that kills, but an instrument that causes inevitable division.
The sword that Jesus wields divides light from darkness, truth from lies, those who trust in him and those who trust in themselves.
Some people think that Jesus came to set up a hippy colony where everyone holds hands in a circle, eats organic yoghurt and sings Kumbaya. He didn’t!
He came to earth knowing that his revolution of grace and truth would bring disruption and upheaval to the ways of this world because as John’s Gospel says, “People prefer darkness to light.”
The English novelist George Orwell once said (prophetically I think and we are living in these times now), “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.” Even members of our own families sometimes hold some of us in contempt for rejecting the values of a society that has turned its back on God.
When Jesus said, “I came to a sword that will turn family members against each other” I wonder if his voice cracked. Because he himself was opposed by his own family.
In Mark 6.4 Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He was despised and rejected, like one from whom people hide their face.
John 7.5 says, “his own brothers did not believe in him. They sided with those who hated who he was, and what he stood for.
Jesus was seen as a bit of a nuisance. So, in Mark 3.21, his family came to confront him and take charge of him saying, “He is out of his mind.”
Verse 35 is shocking to read. “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
At the time Matthew was writing his Gospel in the 60s and 70s of the first century, brother actually did betray brother - to death - and fathers turned against their Christian sons as the net of persecution closed in and the hostility towards the gospel intensified.
In our own day, our country seems polarised and fractured more than ever before; male v female, socially liberal v socially conservative, red v blue, working class v middle class, leave v remain, and now deal v no deal …
But the most fundamental choice facing our nation according to Jesus is whether you accept him as Lord and Saviour or reject him. The sword that really divides is about allegiance to Jesus or enmity to him; there is no third way, there is no alternative option.
And this divides many families right down the middle. I know of a church leader who became a Christian some years ago. He is the son of a very wealthy City of London banker. When he became a Christian, his father was so enraged that he told him he was writing him out of his will. And he did. His siblings will one day be multi-millionaires. But he will inherit nothing. The sword that divides…
The Archbishop of Jos in Nigeria, Benjamin Kwashi, lives in one of the most dangerous areas in the world for Christians. Many Christians in his diocese know what it is to have members of their families killed, and to live with constant death threats. If you are not a Christian, you’re pretty safe. If you publicly follow Jesus you are a target.
Some families in his diocese have split down the middle because of this threat. It has seriously affected his own family too. A few years ago, 30 armed men attacked Archbishop Benjamin’s home, sexually assaulted, and blinded his wife Gloria, breaking her legs.
His youngest child, just six years old at the time, was punched in the face, resulting in a broken jaw and his eldest child was knocked out and left for dead.
The thugs came back the following year - big guys with a sledgehammer. They removed the back door. They came with a ladder and climbed up the back wall and into the compound.
When they were breaking down the doors and trying to come in, Archbishop Benjamin was making what he thought were his last phone calls to his friends. “I was afraid” he says, “but after I’d made all the phone calls, I heard the last bang and I knew they were coming in. I was no longer afraid, I was ready to die.”
He was taken outside his house, where a man was standing holding a gun and a knife. The man demanded 3 million naira (about £6,000) and when Benjamin said he needed time, they accused him of delaying tactics so he could call the police.
The gang leader ordered the other men to take him away to his bedroom, where they said they would slaughter him. “They brought me back to my room and I asked their permission to pray” he said. They agreed, so he knelt down, asking God to spare the others in his family and only take his life. The sword that divides…
His wife was with him and she held his hand, encouraging him not to cave in but to continue in prayer to the end, knowing he was probably seconds from death. He kept his eyes closed and continued to pray. The next thing he knew, his son was in the room explaining that the men had gone. “We still don’t know to this day why they left,” he says. But they’ll be back…
It’s shocking. But this has been the stark reality for Christians since the very beginning.
Just a few decades after Jesus rose and ascended, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about what happened to Christians in Rome after the great fire for which the Emperor Nero made Christians the scapegoats.
“Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments those people called Christians… The originator of the name, Christ, was executed as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius… Those who admitted their faith were… made the subject of sports: they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses, or set aflame [so] when the daylight passed, they were used as lights” [to illuminate the Emperor’s gardens].
Their family members who were not Christians survived. The sword that divides…
Pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who daily face false accusations, ostracization, humiliation, bullying, shame, the confiscation of property, violence, unjust imprisonment and ultimately death for the sake of Christ. I’ve given you some extreme examples of the sword that divides, because we are one church and this is who we are as the body of Christ worldwide.
But many of you listening to me now carry in your heart a lesser manifestation of this pain. A husband or a wife who does not share your faith and it inevitably introduces an element of tension between you. “Do you have to go to church? Do you have to talk about Jesus to our children?”
Maybe it’s your parents who can’t hide their disappointment in you because you’re a follower of Jesus. They don’t understand your faith, they don’t try to, they aren’t interested. And in light of that, you have a decision to make: Which relationship is most important to me? Is it to follow Jesus or my parents?
There is so much in Bible about investing love into your family; respect your husbands, loving your wives, be careful to not embitter your children and honour your parents, it says. In fact, it even says, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
But if it your family offers you a straight choice between them or Jesus, Jesus couldn’t be clearer as to what allegiance to him involves.
You’d think families would be pleased that one of their number finds meaning and fulfilment in Christ, but so often it’s not the case.
Some you’re made to feel guilty, like you’ve betrayed the family. Christmas is awkward, because what Christmas is about for you is definitely not what it’s about for them. Everyone’s uncomfortable, and you’re the one who’s created the problem.
In some cultures, it’s much worse than an uncomfortable Christmas. If you decide to be a disciple of Jesus, you are committing social and familial suicide.
In some Muslim families, for example, if someone becomes a fully devoted follower of Jesus, they arrange a funeral and consider them dead. And sometimes, much worse, they will even hunt them down for a so-called honour killing.
I have friends who were missionaries in Pakistan. It’s a dangerous place for Christians, as we’ve seen in the case of Asia Bibi recently. Because of the constant danger of attack, their children went to school in another country and they only saw them a few times a year. For the sake of the gospel, they accepted the pain of separation within their family. The sword that divides…
Sometimes people think, “Well, this is not quite what I thought I signed up for… I did this Alpha Course, bowed head, closed my eyes, said a prayer – and everything was wonderful but then it all kicked off.”
Jesus is always honest and realistic about the potential cost of following him. He never says it will bring harmony to your family. He never says everything will be great. He never says all your problems will be over. He does say your joy will be full, that’s different. But he says, “Prepare yourself for daily self-denial and carrying a cross.”
He says, “Whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” In other words, it is better to lose your life than to waste it. As John Piper said, “If you live gladly to make others glad in God, your life will be hard, your risks will be high, and your joy will be full.”
I doubt there’s one martyr sitting round the throne in heaven saying, “To be honest, it wasn’t worth it really.”
Well, I know this hasn’t been an easy message to listen to. It hasn’t been easy to preach either.
Jesus doesn’t bring division into homes and families for the sake of it. In fact, when a whole family comes to faith in Christ together, lives that were broken and fractured get mended and put back together.
But Jesus knows that when people stand up to follow him sometimes, regrettably, division is bound to follow.
Years ago, missionaries heading off to the ends of the earth would pack all of their belongings in a coffin. They would write a final farewell letter to their family and leave it with their mission organization in the event of their death. Here’s a brief extract of the letter that one young woman left:
“When God calls, there are no regrets. I’ve tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations… I was not called to comfort or to success, but to obedience. There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving him. I love you. In his care, Karen.”
Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 2 December 2018