Several months ago our conference pastors had our monthly meeting down at a Lutheran church just south of here—Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Petersburg. After the meeting we wanted to see what the sanctuary looked like and so the pastor was happy to turn on the lights and take us in there. There above the altar was something I’d never seen before. A large cross was suspended from the ceiling, and affixed to the cross was a large sword. That was it. Nothing else. The sword, almost as large as the cross itself, was sharp and it was shiny and it looked real and it was pointing straight down, as if, like a sword of Damocles, it could let loose at any minute and impale the pastor right as he or she consecrated Holy Communion. Immediately it caught everyone’s attention. Joseph and I talked about how, if we had been little boys in that church, we’d have wanted to get our hands on that sword every Sunday and play with it.
Now, I’ve been around the church for a long time and I’ve seen a lot of Christian symbolism and art but that one was a new one to me. We could make several guesses about what it meant, but none of us really knew for sure. Maybe it’s symbolic of the sword of the Spirit, mentioned in Ephesians 6. Or perhaps it’s meant to call to mind Hebrews 4:12, which says the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit. Suffice it to say, not many people enter a church expected to see something like that, a weapon that is used to kill or maim.
And, truth be told, I don’t think many people encounter Jesus and expect him to speak like he does to us this morning. His entire message sounds sharp—like a sword, in fact. So often we run the risk of painting Jesus with one color paintbrush that favors some calm, mild-mannered pushover who is kind of accepting of all people no matter the circumstances and we miss these places where Jesus is hard-edged. And since a disciple is not above the teacher we also then run the risk of painting discipleship in Jesus’ name with the same kind of bland, pastel tones that don’t really stand for anything. Jesus does not really leave us that option this morning. It sounds like there are some things and people that Jesus does not want to accept. He says things like, “Whoever denies my before others, I also will deny before his Father,” and, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” and “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth…but a sword.”
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A-ha!! Maybe that’s why that church in Petersburg has a sword over the altar! It’s a constant reminder of the cost of following Jesus. It’s a symbol of the real division that can occur when we respond to the call to be a disciple. If I had to stand under that sword every week it might help me remember that ministry in Jesus’ name is really about losing my life.
A few weeks ago I was able to catch a concert of one of my favorite music groups, a rock band called U2. U2 have been around since the very early ‘80s. They’re don’t enjoy quite the widespread popularity they once did, and their style has changed a bit through the years, but they’ve still won more Grammy’s than any other group ever. In the past twenty years or so they’ve become especially vocal about certain social causes, most notably the AIDS crisis in Africa, the war in Bosnia, and women’s rights. They’ve raised millions of dollars for various humanitarian organizations, and they’re concerts have increasingly become a platform for their stances on these issues.
At the concert I attended a couple of weeks ago, they came out for an encore and it was clear they were going to use the stage once again for a chance to bring these causes to our attention. Some people are really bothered by this, and I heard some heckling behind me. They just want rock stars to play music and stop moralizing. Even I was a bit concerned about how far they were going to go to preach to me about the plight of others in the world who could use my charity (especially after I had spent money on a ticket). But the band has decided to follow Jesus’ call and take what they’ve heard Jesus whisper and proclaim it from the mountaintops. If I had a stage out in the public sphere, would I be so bold as to risk fans and followers for the sake of pronouncing my faith and who it compels me to help?
Jesus wants disciples, and he wants them to be aware of the risk of that sword. As he sends them out into what would have been hostile territory, he wants them to understand there will be hecklers. There will be people who want them to just shut up and play music instead. There will be situations that may even require them to hand over their lives. This has been called the “cost of discipleship” and plenty of people with way more guts than me know more about it. People like the Lutheran reformers who on this day—June 25—in 1530 stood up in front of a unreceptive emperor and presented the Augsburg Confession, an explanation of what they were preaching and teaching in their churches, full-well knowing that they were probably going to be excommunicated for doing so…and might even be executed. That Augsburg Confession is still the basis of what the Lutheran Church across the world preaches and teaches today, even though the stakes for doing so are not quite as severe. There are countless others who have stood up and proclaimed Jesus from mountaintops and have faced dire consequences for doing so. Maybe Libby Gonzales will be one of those people. Today we initiate her into this cost of discipleship, this life of the sword of Jesus hanging over her head, teaching her to speak boldly for the cause of Christ Jesus in the world. We can hope so.
In all honesty many of us will not find ourselves in such stark situations or have big rock stages to preach from, but we do have the opportunity to follow. And we need to understand that Jesus leaves no middle ground. It’s either him or it’s not. It’s either you represent him in your life, you worship him and follow whenever you have the chance, or you try to keep things covered up. And I think we don’t like that division. We want to go “halvesies” somehow.
The fact of the matter is that Jesus knows the truth about us, and that it’s that we all worship something. As the great American writer David Foster Wallace once said, there’s no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. People can choose not to come to church, or synagogue, or to the temple of some other transcendent god, but they’re still worshipping. They still are following something. They still have a god. That’s what all this stuff about mother and father is about. In Jesus’ day those were allegiances that really pulled at people. They were idols. It’s the truth: everybody worships, and we worship somethings without even realizing we’re doing it. The only choice we get, as Wallace and Jesus point out, is what to worship. Or, better put, who to worship.
Hard-edged, stern Jesus is just being very explicit it about that here, and it’s actually good for us. Here’s your chance, he says, to follow the Lord of life. Here’s your chance, he reminds us, again and again, to worship the one God who has conquered death. Here’s your chance, today, tomorrow, the day after that, to pick up the cross and follow me.
And there’s another thing he’s very clear about, too, and it’s that he’s got our backs. Big time. He’s 100% explicit that he loves us and that he has died for us and has therefore given us his very life no matter how many times we fail. We can have no fear of the heckling and the turning away and the losing of friends and status because we are of so much value to him. All of our hairs are counted. And I know that means more for some people than it does for others 😊, but the point is that God loves us and cares more than we can know about what is going to happen to us. This is the love that anchors us in our discipleship. This is the love that calls us forward to worship and to proclaim and to share message of Christ.
I saw an image of that love this week while I was away with Melinda at a camp in the mountains of North Carolina. We were Bible study leaders for a group of 3rd- 5th graders and part of that responsibility involved patrolling the cabins late one evening so the counselors and staff could go worship together. Because the patrol was happening Thursday night and the kids would be dead-tired after a full week, we were told there wouldn’t be much to do…just make rounds every fifteen minutes and listen for activity. That’s what we did and, sure enough, it was dead silent. Until we got to the last cabin, where there was some noise. I’ll spare you the gory details, but the noise was from a little 9 year old boy would had just thrown up all over his bed. And by “all over his bed” I mean it we eventually had to remove everything from his corner of the cabin, including the mattress and some other kid’s pair of shoes.
This was not the easy patrol I was anticipating. The poor kid was miserable and just wanted his counselor, not some patrol people. As we assessed the needs standing there in the dark, we radioed the staff, and down the hill the area director came bounding. Without hesitation she walked right into the cabin and knelt down in front of him to see if he had a fever. Then, without any care for what she was wearing or her own well-being this college-aged young woman scooped him up in her arms and held him as they waited for the nurse to arrive. She comforted him and assured him he’d be OK. I was thinking, How brave! He’s all pukey! Plus, he could blow again any moment! But she wanted him to understand that even the hairs on his head were counted. She wanted him to be assured of that truth even in his dark hour because that’s the kind of God who had sent her there.
This is the kind of love that Jesus with which loves us, the kind of love that compels us to get up and try again, the kind of love that we are entrusted to then share with the world. It’s the kind of immeasurable love that empowers us to stand underneath that heavy sword of division, to not be afraid, and proclaim what has been whispered here. In some form it is whispered and sung and prayed and lived here every week:“If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
He has died, but now he lives, and every hair on our heads will too!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.