Not Peace, But A Sword
Sometimes I hear the words of Jesus, and I’m immediately struck that I think, That doesn’t sound like Jesus. For example, when we call him the Prince of Peace, but then he says, “I have come not to bring peace but division.” And then he goes on to clarify what he means by division, “I’m going to bring division right through the middle of the family unit. Father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.” How can this be? Well, first of all, you need to know that I do believe these are the words of Jesus. Absolutely.
But we have to wrestle with them, trying to understand what the Prince of Peace is challenging us with. There’s a strong resonance with Jesus’s words when he says, “I have come to cast fire on Earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Strong resonance with the words of John the Baptist earlier in the Gospel of Luke. John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Truly his winnowing fork is in his hand. He has come to clear his threshing floor” (Luke 3:16-17). Jesus is saying nothing different than John the Baptist. There is an aspect to the Ministry of the Lord and Savior of the world which is an aspect of judgment and condemnation.
Baptism of Fire
He has come to bring a baptism of fire to this world. As Jesus often referred to his baptism, not only is he referring to the baptism he received in the River Jordan with John, but he looked forward to the baptism which would be the cross.
Remember the conversation that he had with James and John when they said, “Hey, when you get to your kingdom, can I sit on your right hand and you know maybe let John sit on your left hand?” (I don’t know which one was bucking for the left or the right, but they were both wanting to be right there ruling with Jesus.) And Jesus says to them, “Let me ask you guys a question. Can you drink the cup which I am about to drink? Can you be baptized with the same baptism?” They said, “Oh, yes we can.” (See Mark 10:35-39.) But really they did not know what they were saying, because he was speaking about the cross.
For Jesus, the cross was the baptism which he was agonizing over in great distress until it was accomplished. More than that, he would look forward to the baptism which would come through the outpouring of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Baptism would involve death and resurrection.
Parables of the Vineyard
So how is the baptism of the cross a revelation of the fire and the judgment upon the earth? It’s a little bit complex, but stay with me. In the prophet Isaiah, chapter five, we hear a parable of the vineyard where Isaiah the prophet tells what starts off as a wonderfully sweet story about “my beloved” – the Lord – who has who has created this wonderful vineyard for his bride. The vineyard has a nice hedge around it, and it’s got a watchtower, and he’s planning some wonderful vines. But then the stewardship of that vineyard was for naught; it actually was for evil. When the lord of the vineyard comes in, he looks at his vineyard. He sees it not producing sweet wine but wild grapes, and all of the sudden what starts off as a beautiful story turns into one of concern and judgment. The lord of the vineyard destroys the hedges and tears down the watchtower and judges that vineyard as a corrupt and wicked vineyard because of the bloodshed and the unrighteousness of the people of Israel.
Jesus would recast that entire story and tell it again. He would tell about a man who was the owner of a vineyard who went away for a long journey. He decided to send some servants to take account of how the vineyard was doing. He would send one servant, and they would beat the tar out of the servant. So he sent in another one, and they beat him up, too. The owner thinks to himself, I know what I’ll do. I’ll send my son. But instead of the tenants embracing the son as the master of the vineyard, they think to themselves, Here’s the heir. And they decide to kill him in order to have the vineyard for themselves, for their own evil agenda. And that’s exactly what they do.
Jesus would say to the Pharisees and the scribes and the Sadducees, which were basically the various political parties of the day, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” He was telling the story about himself. (See Matthew 21:33-44.)
The Cross is a Mirror
You see, the cross is like a mirror. It reveals just how ugly human beings can be towards their God. Just how evil, and corrupt, and prideful, and self-centered human beings can be in their political agendas and their factions – in their hatred of the ways and the holiness of God.
And when God sends his only begotten Son because he loves his vineyard – he loves the world, instead of embracing him, the political systems of his day (both religious and secular, the Romans and the Jews) crucify him.
So when we when we align our lives with that cross and we say, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior,” what we do is we lift up the mirror of human sin, and everybody that’s confronted with that mirror has to make a choice about how they’re going to live their life. They will look in that mirror and say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or they’ll say, “No, that doesn’t apply to me. I’m not that bad.”
There’s no way getting around the baptism by fire that comes from having the cross of Jesus Christ lifted up. What happens as people begin to appropriate Jesus into their lives is that it becomes a dividing line within families.
I remember when I became a very strong Christian in college, and I had to tell my father that I was going to go into the ministry. He said, “That’s not the plan that I have for your life.” The plan had been that I would inherit the family car wash business. For three years, my calling became a source of tremendous conflict with my father.
It gets worse than that. That was minor compared to what some have gone through for the name of Jesus Christ. Twenty years ago, I was counselling with this wonderful young couple. I thought that out of all the young couples I had counseled, they were so fun, and they really loved each other. They were just a great match. I was so excited about doing their wedding, and every time we met, I had a great time with them. Then one day they came into my office for premarital counseling, and they were just despondent and in despair. They told me they were calling off the wedding. I asked, “Why? Y’all are great!” It was his family. They were Iranian Catholic, and they looked at her, an Episcopalian. They said, “You cannot marry her unless she becomes a Roman Catholic. And if you do without her converting, we will disown you.” That’s family pressure. Family ties are powerful, and sadly this young man chose to stick with his family rather than embrace the new possibility of a wonderful Episcopalian bride.
But think back to the pressures of the early Church where the powerful ties of ethnicity and Jewish identity were challenged to the core. God was creating this new Church in which racial divisions, socioeconomic divisions, and ethnic identities would all fall away, and the dividing walls of hostility would come down at the foot of the cross. The biggest conflicts of the early church were racial conflicts, ethnic conflicts, socioeconomic conflicts. It’s what all the letters of Paul are about. The cross of Jesus Christ calls you to a new reality which will challenge the old patterns of family tradition and heritage right to the core of their being.
Four hundred years ago in 1619, a British ship intercepted a Portuguese ship and captured twenty what they called, “odd Negroes” – twenty Africans that were enslaved to be taken and pressed into slave labor. This British ship landed in Jamestown with these twenty Africans, and they were sold into slavery. This next weekend, we will be commemorating the anniversary of that event. The National Park Service, and especially Jamestown, has invited churches around the country to ring bells at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the 25th in order to remind us about that first moment where slavery of African-Americans got its seed in this country. It’s going to be a very powerful moment for our country, and we’re going to ring bells here at St. John the Divine.
I want to tell you a little personal story about that. Two years after those Africans landed in Jamestown, in 1621, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Randall Holt, landed in Jamestown. He was rounded up by the Orphan Act in London and forced to be an indentured servant to Dr. Pott, who was the first doctor of Jamestown. When an indentured servant received his freedom rights, he was given a barrel of corn and a new suit of clothes from head to toe. The Christmas that Randall received his freedom rights, he married the girl next door, who happened to be the heiress of a thousand acres of land across from Jamestown and the James River. (She was a good catch!) The Holts have owned that property for about two hundred years.
As I’ve studied my own genealogy, I think it’s interesting, and I think a lot of people you know maybe have ancestors who were indentured servants. But there is a major difference with Africans. Some of those Africans that were brought over in 1619 were indentured servants and given their freedom rights, but others were not. Institutionalized slavery became a norm for the colonies and eventually the United States of America. The values which we expressed, both in our founding documents like the Declaration of Independence – that all men were created equal and given inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and in the pulpits of our churches, began to support the institution of slavery. I can look back in my own genealogical history and see where Holts left their black slaves to other Holts in their wills. Personally, I’m not at all proud of that history.
Confronting Racial Divisions
One mile away from the church that I was a pastor in Orlando a young man of 17 or 18 years old named Trayvon Martin was shot as he was walking home with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea and a hoodie on, looking a little scary, apparently. A man named George Zimmerman overreacted, to say the least, and a conflict ensued, and the result was that Trayvon Martin was shot. That happened right across the street from my daughter’s elementary school. As the environment of the news and the politics of all of that started to really heat up in that area and around the national news and even around the world, there was a part of me that said, Stay out of that; don’t get involved. But I called up one of my black pastor friends named Lowman Oliver and I said, “Lowman, I was driving my daughter to school, and she pointed at the memorial to Trayvon Martin, and she said, ‘Is that where that young boy got shot?’ And I realized that I couldn’t stay out of it. I would like to go to lunch with you, Lowman.”
That started a conversation between me and Lowman, and we decided between the two of us to invite all of our clergy friends to come to Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Sanford, Florida, on Good Friday to pray for our community. Black and white, we had an equal representation at the front. All of the clergy of Seminole County that came to that gathering stood facing the four walls of our church, and we prayed for our country and for our nation and for our community, that the Lord would protect us from the political agendas and divisions that were happening and lead us through a very complicated and complex time.
Another day, Lowman and I were walking out of a meeting together, and he said, “You know, Charlie, I’m a descendant of a slave.” I said to him, “You know, Lowman, I actually am a descendant of an indentured servant myself.” He replied, “Those two things are different.” And I said, “Yes, I know they are. But listen to me. I want you to also hear this. I’m also a descendant of slave owners.” That little conversation started something a little bit deeper for the two of us. It’s very complex, and I don’t know what all the answers are to the challenges that we face in our country.
But I do know that almost 80% of African-Americans in this country are descended from slaves. That’s a very significant fact that we have to wrestle with. I also know that we must begin to look inside and confront the challenges that run deep within our very family lines. I could tell you things about my family from a bigoted and racial standpoint that I would be ashamed about and embarrassed about, and I would also embarrass a lot of my family members.
But we nevertheless have to have the hard conversations. Some of those difficult conversations will divide our families in two, and some of those conversations will cause us to look at ugly parts of the inside of our hearts and our lives. Jesus said, “I’ve come to bring fire to the earth.” There’s an aspect in which the unity which God is calling us to will also cause divisions as political agendas, family traditions, and heritages which we have passed down from generation to generation are confronted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And this is a day in which we have an opportunity to embrace that Gospel.