Growing up Christian meant toddling into the idea that Jesus is a friend, that God so loved the world, that we are brothers and sisters and children of one Creator. I never had the chance to wonder about humanity’s worth or our place in the universe. We were here to be loved and to love. Christianity, like a mother, brought me into the world and she raised me in what she believed was true.
But along with that idea came a lot of weird shit. There was a period I only wore long skirts and could not listen to any music with a drum beat without begging for forgiveness. What that has to do with God loving the world is another post for another day, but it was vastly important to me at the time and highlights that even the Truest Truths can be swirled up with things that are not only off-beat (pun intended), but often gravely harmful.
In two of the four gospels, Jesus is quoted as saying that he didn’t come to bring peace, but division.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Which, honestly, doesn’t sound very Jesus-y. This is the guy who praised the peacemakers, who explicitly stated that the reason he came was to give people peace, who spoke about radical unity and oneness. Yet here he doesn’t seem shy about saying that the message he’s brought is not going to bring people together, it’s going to tear everything up.
I have seen this sentiment used as fodder for religious exclusivity. When one denomination disagrees with another, instead of working out their disagreement for the sake of unity (an ethic more defined and elaborated in the rest of the New Testament as Jesus’ followers came to terms with the implications of his life and work), they split and then each side believes they are on the right side of the sword.
A tradition born out of accepting the outcasts, venerating the vulnerable, lifting up the outsiders has become just another exclusive club. Or clubs, rather, as many Christian factions do not consider each other on the same team.
And passages like this one from Matthew 10 quiet the Spirit when she nags us about our supposed unity. When we hear in whispers during prayer or from heretics on blog posts shouldn’t we be more united? we answer with things like this: Jesus didn’t come to bring kumbaya, he came to divide Right from Wrong, Truth from Lies and those guys – the Catholics who think the Eucharist is literal flesh, the charismatics who fall on the floor, the Methodists with their liberal theology – are Wrong and they are Not Us.
Or maybe we’re pretty open to views on communion or priesthood or baptism, but we still have a line. Our beautiful atheist friend, who loves hard and gives generously, is on the other side of that line. He can be lovely, but he can’t be “in.”
Several years ago I had a revelation moment that set me on a new trajectory. It has not been easy, but as I’ve honestly and earnestly sought the heart of God I have come to an understanding of this Jesus Way that is many things, but absolutely and unequivocally not exclusive. It’s the opposite of exclusive. My husband and I have compared what we’ve experienced and where we are to floating in space. It’s so open and so everything. I know, this is getting super ethereal. I’m sorry.
But you know it when you see it/hear it/sense it. This is Love and it’s everywhere, for everyone. This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1 – the thing you don’t need to be taught, the thing you find just by being in this world. Jesus talks about “sheep you know not of” because people don’t have to hear his words to know his Word. This is the summation of it all: Love God and Love One Another – because loving God is loving one another.
And that drives people away.
Not, as Jesus said, the sick. People who are looking for a cure, looking for a better way to be human, looking for healing from the hurts that come with living find it here. They find it in the Good News that God wants all of us, loves all of us, has hopes and dreams for all of us. To them, the Kingdom Jesus talked about brings relief.
But for those who think they have an answer – the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the religious of ours – this is not good news. There is no way that God would tell them to knock down all these walls and fences. Jesus’ message means they have been striving to build them for nothing, it means they may have missed what God wanted and pleasing God was the point of everything, right?
So they keep their walls and fences. But instead of keeping the Good Stuff to themselves, they keep themselves from it. In their attempt to block others from the God who occupies Space – whose Kingdom is everywhere, whose sovereignty covers the eternal universe – they quarter themselves off from what the sinners get to relish in. They remove themselves from the party. A table set by God himself, but the guests invited don’t seem good enough to sit with God so the God people go outside and make their own table – one more suitable.
Only God doesn’t join them. God stays inside with the sinners.
And this is what Jesus is talking about. This is the sword. Not that you will be asked to form a club and decide who is in, but that you will be excluded from the clubs you used to be a part of.
You will be called not to build walls, but to stand at them with a sledgehammer and the people you love will push you out and close the gate. You will begin to genuinely see other humans as your family and feel the stabbing pain of their exclusion. They will see you as outside their group and you will lose something with them you cherish, they will share less of their lives with you because they will sincerely believe God wants them to remove themselves from you. You’ll understand it, but it will sting.
The religious say, “Look there, Jesus said that if you love your family more than him, you’re not worthy” so we cut people off to honor God – even people we love. We offer those relationships as sacrifices a la Abraham with Isaac. But how can that be true? How can the Law which is to Love God and Love Others call you to abandon one for the other? Is the Law divided?
Or are we missing it?
Jesus spoke those words to Jews whose mothers and fathers and in-laws would have all been Jewish. For these people, agreeing with Jesus that God loved everyone and that even the enemies of the Jews were “in” would have been terribly offensive and divisive. It’s not hard to imagine; the same is true today. There are groups of people we are not allowed to say are “in.”
But if I choose my tradition – my mother and father – over Jesus and his way, I will miss it. If I strive to save my life by playing by the rules presented to me, I will lose it to these walled-in clubs. I will miss the vast for the finite.
If instead I choose Love – to keep chasing this God who leads me into Space, to keep showing kindness, patience, deference to the person right in front of me whether my religion accepts them or not – I am choosing the sword. It will cut and I will bleed. I will lose whatever my tradition sets up as an ultimatum for me to stay and sometimes it means I’ll lose relationships I hold very dear as people cannot keep me and my sledgehammer around.
But I’ll choose it anyway. I’ve gotten a lot of good and beautiful things from Christianity. It has been a good mother in many ways. But when she tells me to condemn whom Jesus says to love, I hope I have the courage to leave her with a kiss and pray she follows.