Matthew 10:24 ff
Garrison Keeler was describing Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church and proudly talking about how diverse their membership is, he said, “We have both Norwegians and Swedes.”
We laugh, but the age old prejudice of those neighboring Scandinavian cultures caused sometimes insurmountable obstacles. Far too many communities continue to be divided by ethnic heritage, race, and other categories into which we pigeon-hole people. Those are just a few of the ways we hinder the work of Christ in the world.
In Chapter 9 of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is working miracles of healing. He heals a man who was paralyzed, gives life to a girl who was dead, heals a woman, two blind men, and casts out a demon from a man who was mute and gave him back the power of speech. The people were amazed, “But the Pharisees said, ‘By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.’”
This is the context for our Gospel lesson for today in which we hear Jesus make some troubling statements; specifically, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He goes on to talk about families that will be divided one against another because of him; and it disturbs us to think that Jesus would do that.
But Jesus is not describing his intent or purpose, he is warning his disciples and us of the consequences of following him. Because when we give our hearts to Christ, the Holy Spirit transforms us into new people, we are called to a new way of life, and those who have not had that transformational experience fear the change that living a Christ-like life brings. And they fight against it. This was certainly true for those of Jesus day who understood Jesus to be the Messiah. Many of them gave up everything to follow Jesus, because the Pharisees and other religious leaders rejected Jesus and demanded that the people do the same.
The more Jesus preached and taught, the more they resisted. And when Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, and cast out demons they came up with outlandish ways to explain why those were bad things. They were afraid of what they could not control, and the number of people following Jesus was growing daily.
Sadly things have not changed. Though no-one is being put to death in our country for believing in Christ, it still happens in other parts of the world. Yet the divisions are still real, and have major consequences for families and relationships.
But the saddest thing of all is when the church perpetuates division among Christians.
One of the most memorable experiences I have had as a pastor happened the day I visited a gentleman in the hospital who was facing open-heart surgery. I arrived and greeted him and his wife. He introduced me to his two older brothers and their wives who were also present. As we talked, he shared his fears and misgivings about the upcoming surgery, but also his firm faith that God was with him and would watch over him during the surgery. All six of them joined in affirming that truth.
I asked if there was anything specific I could do for him, and he asked if I would bring him Holy Communion in preparation for his surgery. I replied that all I needed was to retrieve the elements for the sacrament and I would gladly do so. When I returned the room was quiet and the brothers were looking back and forth between themselves. As I prepared the things I had brought one of his brothers asked, “Could I have communion too?” I explained what Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism that we are rightly prepared and worthy to receive the sacrament when we believe the words, “Given and shed for you.” He said, that’s what I was taught in confirmation class all those years ago. “But,” he said, “when my wife and I married over 50 years ago I joined the Missouri Synod.” I replied, “That’s not a problem for me if it’s not a problem for you.” He laughed and indicated that he would like to receive the sacrament.
Then the other brother asked if he could also have communion. I said, “You heard our conversation, if you believe the body and blood of Christ was given and shed for you, you are welcome to receive the sacrament.” He shared that when he had married his wife 50 years earlier he had joined the Catholic Church. Again I said, “That’s not a problem for me if it’s not a problem for you.” we laughed and he said he would like to receive the sacrament.
As I read scripture and prayed with them the tears began flowing from their eyes, because for the first time in over 50 years the three brothers were able to share in Holy Communion together. And their gratitude showed on their faces and in the money they pressed into my palm as they shook my hand (over $100 which I donated to the chaplaincy department of the hospital.)
Christ calls us to break down the walls and unlock the doors of division, prejudice and pride that get in the way of our experiencing the true joy of life in Christ.