Several years ago, I was teaching Sunday School to some middle school youth. The Bible passage we were studying was from Ephesians–the one where Paul talks about the “armor of God”–you know, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. I was a still a pretty new pastor at this time and was proud of myself for using a knight-in-shining armor costume (plastic helmet, shield, and sword) to demonstrate the “armor of God.” After that lesson, I kept the “armor of God” in the credenza in my office and never touched it again until I cleaned out my office to move over here.
I took the plastic armor home, thinking maybe Oliver would like to play with it when he got a little older. Of course, when he saw something new, he wanted to play with it immediately, and especially with the sword.
Ian and I weren’t crazy about allowing our toddler to play with a weapon at such a small age, so we would use it to knight him, and then, after he discovered what a broom was for, he started using it like a broom, which was just fine with us.
When I recently told a pastor-friend about this, she remembered the prophet Isaiah’s vision of peace, that the people would beat their swords into plowshares. It’s in the second chapter of Isaiah, if you want to look it up later.
There are many of us today who prefer Isaiah’s promise of peace to Jesus’ words in Matthew, that he came to bring a sword instead of peace. We might also prefer it to Ephesian’s “armor of God,” which also associates Jesus–the word of God–with the violence of the sword of the Spirit. Certainly there’s enough conflict, discord, division, and violence in this world without Jesus contributing to it, too. In our dear city of Charlotte, for example, there have already been 46 murders this year, compared to a total of 67 in 2016.
These words from Jesus about bringing a sword certainly fall into the category of “things I wish Jesus hadn’t said.” But since he did say them, we might as well try to make some sense out of them, or at least allow ourselves to grapple with them a little.
Jesus was warning those he had just called to follow him that following him would not be easy. Jesus was starting a movement–a new way of living and being in the world. Becoming part of that movement would necessarily mean going against the grain. We know from biology that organisms and ecosystems strive for homeostasis–a state of equilibrium, or balance. Well, Jesus threw a wrench in this balanced state by tipping the scales in favor of love. No longer did social status, or the family into which you were born, or physical ability, or gender, or sex, or accomplishments in life provide the basis for one’s worth. Jesus showed us, over and over again, that we are worthy simply because we have a God who created us and who loves us what was created. As you can imagine, or as you may know from experience, those on the other side of the scale (those for whom love depended on certain behaviors or characteristics) retaliated. Yes, sometimes love can be offensive.
The result of all of this was what Jesus described as a sword, slicing right through families and society so that the result was not necessarily the promised peace of the prophets, but conflict, discord, and division. When Jesus said he came to bring a sword, what he really meant was that he came to tip the scales in favor of love. Division with the sword was simply a consequence of such love. You probably don’t need too many examples of this, but we certainly see it when Christian denominations split over the issue of who can love, or marry, whom, and when Christianity is accused of being hypocritical for this very reason. My primary question, however, is not, “Why the violence and discord?” or “Where is the brokenness and conflict?” but “What do we do with the sword?”How do we go about beating this huge dividing force into sometime creative and life giving, like a plowshare?
It’s certainly tempting to pick up the sword and wield it ourselves, but Jesus didn’t say he came to give us the sword; he said he brings the sword himself. We’ve got enough world history behind our belts to know that violence only begets more violence. Trying to force others to see things “our way,” even if we claim that it’s the “Jesus way,” will never work.Force and violence are not the way to teach love. I’m convinced that we can only teach love with love.
It’s why I’m thankful that just before Jesus said the bit about bringing a sword, he also said, this: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Though he was speaking to his disciples, I don’t think he was implying that his love and care were exclusively for them.It was for everyone; even the people with whom Jesus and the disciples would butt heads, even the people who were offended by such love. I don’t care who you are, or on which side you stand.There’s great comfort in knowing we have a God who knows and cares for us so intimately. Being confident in that love for ourselves, being sure of its expansive quality–meaning, God’s love for other people doesn’t diminish God’s love for me–and modeling that love ourselves has got to be the only way we’ll ever be able to beat our swords into plowshares in the end.
Paul helps us out here as well. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” he writes.“Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” If these words sound familiar to you, it may be because they are part of the Lutheran service for the burial of the dead–the funeral service.
In fact, the funeral service begins with these words, while a white pall is placed over the casket, if there is one present. The pall is a symbol of baptism, a baptism that we claim is completed in death.It recalling the white garments that adorn the newly baptized, and being “clothed with Christ.” In addition to signifying baptism, however, the pall has one other important function–it hides the details of whatever casket was purchased. It could be the most ornate and expensive casket money could buy, or a simple pine box. Under the pall, however, that division is erased. That’s what baptism does–it erases that which divides us, places us equally under God’s good grace, and gives us the glasses through which we might see one another, as being of way more value than many sparrows.
It’s a hard, long, laborious process, this task of seeing one another, yes, even our opponents,even those with whom our divisions go back generations, centuries, as falling equally under God’s care and grace. In fact, we’ll never fully get there on this side of the grave. But God needs us to try.Oh my goodness, God needs us to try. For if we don’t….who will?
Shane Claiborne is a Christian activist and a leader of an intentional Christian community in North Philadelphia. On the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a friend of his transformed the modern-day sword–an AK47–into a garden shovel. Since then, they’ve made it a habit, collecting guns from the neighborhood, melting them down, and converting them into guitars, and jewelry, and more garden tools. They are literally beating their swords into plowshares.
That’s what I think we’re supposed to do with the sword that Jesus talks about that divides us to the core. But we can’t do it alone, for we can’t do it without Jesus.But thank God we’re not left alone, or to our own devices, for we have a love that blankets us in the waters of baptism, and that gives us a “vision despite division” that does promise peace.