"Conflict and Carrying a Cross" (Matthew 10:34-42)
Conflict is a normal part of family life. When people live in such close quarters, with their individual personalities and idiosyncrasies, their own particular wants and wishes, conflict is bound to occur. Siblings who cheerfully play with one another one moment angrily yell at each other the next. Spouses who dearly love each other also do things that irritate the dickens out of the other … leaving the toilet seat up, leaving dirty laundry all over the floor, delaying home projects, coming home late for dinner, snoring, taking too long to get ready, spending too much time on the computer. And how do we deal with these problems? We talk about them, right? Wrong! We let them go on and then expect the other person to know exactly how we feel!
But conflict does not just occur between people who live together under the same roof. It also arises with extended members of your family. In-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on. A missed birthday. A hurtful word. An unpaid loan. Time passes. Resentment builds.
Inject Christ into the mix, and this can be a real relationship killer. There are members of our families who either neglect Christ or out-and-out reject Christ. When they see that you take your connection to Christ seriously, division is bound to occur. Perhaps you are not as close with them as you used to be. Perhaps their lifestyle choices prevent them from spending as much time with you as in the past. And when you do spend time with them, there always seems to be that proverbial elephant in the room. You know you should talk to them about Jesus, but it seems so hard to start. You don’t want to make it any more difficult than it already is.
The message of Jesus brings division in our families and into all our relationships. Jesus said, “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.”
Now, the fact is that Jesus DID come to bring peace. When Jesus was born, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Lk 2:14). “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” Jesus said to his disciples in his discourse at the Last Supper (John 14:27). And St. Paul, in Romans 5:1, makes clear what this “peace” is that Jesus gives: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus did indeed come to bring peace …peace with God through the forgiveness of our sins, and the peace of mind and heart that comes along with knowing that our relationship with God has been restored through Jesus’ dying for our sins and his rising to life again.
At the same time, the Gospel does not always meet with success and positive results. There are those who, because of their hardened hearts, will refuse to repent and believe in Jesus. Jesus uses the imagery of a “sword.” Just as a sword causes painful, brutal, deep wounds, even killing lives, the truth of the Gospel may cause painful, brutal, deep wounds among family and friends, even killing relationships.
Nevertheless, Jesus makes it clear that there should be no question where our loyalty ought to lie. He says, “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.” One author has written that this “saying is either of the Messiah or of a maniac.” (Carson, quoted in Gibbs, Matthew, p539, n12) In other words, only the Incarnate God can make this kind of claim on someone. A madman might make this kind of claim. Perhaps some madmen or charlatans have over the centuries. But no madman or charlatan has ever proven their words by rising from the dead. So, when it comes to Jesus, there must be no divided loyalty. We can still love and serve our family members. But if someone should ever give us the ultimatum, “It's either me or Jesus,” then it should be clear what our answer must be.
The message of Jesus brings division. And the message of Jesus brings a cross. Jesus said, “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.” Forget about what you already know about what happened to Jesus on Good Friday. Put yourself in the shoes of those who first heard these words from our Lord's mouth. This was the first time Jesus mentioned anything about a cross. It was an instrument of torture and capital punishment. This must have been shocking and confusing for the disciples. They had probably seen many processions of criminals carrying their crosses to their place of execution. Jesus implies that those who follow him could very well face a similar fate as those condemned crucified criminals. If they deny Christ, then they will “find” their life. It's given back to them. No cross for them. But at what price? A worse fate awaits those who deny Jesus. He says they are “not worthy of me.” They have lost their life … their eternal life, that is.
For successive hearers of Matthew’s Gospel, confessing faith in Jesus could mean facing a real cross. For believers in parts of the world today, a martyr's death is a daily reality for them. For us, our lives are not in danger, but we still bear the cross of strained and broken relationships.
Jesus calls us today to take up our cross and follow him. And we can only do this because Jesus first took up his cross for you and for me. He lost his life so that we might find our life in him. We lose our life now as we are baptized into his death, but in so doing, we gain our lives back, forgiven, restored, renewed, redeemed, resurrected … life as God intended it to be … and with the hope and promise of the fullness of life in the life to come.
Jesus unites himself with you as you carry the message of his cross. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person's reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” Jesus goes with you so that whoever receives you receives the Son of God, and whoever receives the Son receives the Father. Baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God goes with you wherever you go, in whatever situation you find yourself in, even in the face of opposition and division.
You and I are prophets who carry the message of Jesus with us. We are righteous because we are righteous in Christ. The Church is made up of “little ones,” as Jesus calls his followers. Compared to the rest of the world, a tiny child is small, insignificant, and vulnerable. In the same way, Christ's “little ones” are small, unimportant, insignificant in the eyes of the world. We are “vulnerable” and “subject to attack” (Gibbs 545). Yet we are sent with an invaluable task … to carry with us the Good News of Jesus and to proclaim it … and sent with God himself surrounding us, supporting us, and guiding us.
Those who welcome the ones who carry the message of Jesus will not lose their reward on the Last Day … resurrection to eternal life. It’s a reward not earned, but given by grace. It’s a reward earned and guaranteed because of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It’s the same reward given to all who have been baptized into Christ and who believe that Jesus died and rose for them. And when you give something as humble and simple as a cup of cold water to one of Jesus’ “little ones” … that’s a sign that you have received what was offered to you: the peace of God in Christ Jesus, peace even when faced with a sword.