“Jesus and the Sword: The Paradox of Conflict and Forgiveness.” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on September 17, 2017. (Readings for 19A: Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:1-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35).
I want to talk today about Jesus and the Sword. The sword I am speaking of is a metaphor for a kind of spiritual power, but I asked Oliver Barson to bring one of his swords so that as I talk you can remember that the power I’m talking about is not something nice, but something that has the power to help or cause enormous harm. It’s something meant to help us free ourselves from that which would hold us in bondage, but it is so often used to dehumanize us and cut us off from our bodies and feelings and each other.
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel we hear: “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 one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36) (1.)
Then in Matthew’s gospel today we hear: “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” (Matt 18:21)
In the first we hear that the peace Jesus brings will only come through struggle and conflict. In the second, we hear this call to forgive. How do we reconcile these texts? How does forgiveness relate to struggle and conflict?
Last week I was struck by Paul’s clear and simple message in Romans:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8)
Loving your neighbor as yourself. That sounds so right and obvious until we remember how Jesus defined who our neighbor is: the one who is in need, the least of these, the one who is a stranger, a foreigner, someone from another faith or even a heretic, someone whose ideas or ways of living we totally disagree with. Ouch!
The First Letter of John brings the implications of this home in a powerful way:
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. . . . Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from (Jesus) is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (I John 4:11-12, 16, 20)
That seems flat-out crazy. What do you mean I cannot love the invisible God unless I love my visible sisters and brothers? The invisible God pours love and acceptance into my heart—my sisters and brothers often do the opposite. The invisible God doesn’t insult me, neglect me, judge me, piss me off—they often do!
But when Jesus talks about loving God, he’s not talking about a sentiment or an idea, he’s talking about reality. If God is present to us primarily in and through creation, if God is present to us primarily in and through our sisters and brothers, then the degree to which we are loving them is the degree to which we are loving God.
Jesus’ first miracle was showing us what it means to live from a place where we know ourselves as Beloved of God. His second miracle, which can’t be separated from the first, is to show us how, if we know and accept that love, it impels us to want to love God back, as God comes to us in need of love, in need of care, in need of nurturance—in the form of our sisters and brothers and through creation.
This is why the way of Jesus is a way of community. Community forces us to live in the reality of who we are and where we are instead of in our fantasies. I suspect that half the people in this country who consider themselves Christian, as following in the way of Jesus, aren’t really part of any church, aren’t really practicing community. It’s a lot easier to fantasize about being a good Christian if you are not having to deal with all the crap living in relationship to people stirs up in us.
The community of the disciples seems pretty representative of most communities which are composed of people who sometimes get it together, but other times don’t, who sometimes are shallow and petty and egotistical and sometimes are amazingly heroic, loving, and compassionate. Perhaps it is not an accident, or a mistake, that community and relationships stir this stuff up in us. Perhaps it’s because we are being called to learn to deal with this stuff rather than living in denial, or avoiding real intimacy for fear that its vulnerability will make us feel so angry when we, or our loved ones, are hurt or neglected.
Last week’s gospel told us how to handle things if a member of our community sins against us. First go talk to them on your own; if they listen to you, you have regained them. (Regained—that’s how much is at stake in dealing with conflicts over feeling hurt.) If they don’t listen, take one or two others with you to talk with them. If
they still refuse to listen, then tell it to the church, your community. Then we hear: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)
Now we tend to hear this as a call to have nothing more to do with them because that’s what so many churches do in terms of how they relate to people they view as not of their faith or as sinners. That’s using the sword to cut people off, something many of us are very good at, but that’s not what Matthew is saying. Instead, Matthew is saying relate to them as one who doesn’t share your faith or your values. And here we have to remember that Jesus didn’t cut off those who didn’t share his faith or values; he reached out to them, he loved them and he kept loving them, not from any place of denial, but in reality.
It’s a striking challenge to those of us who are so quick to draw the sword of judgment when we have felt hurt, neglected, or insulted. So often when that happens we don’t go talk to the person who has hurt us. Not all hurts require us to speak up—some hurts don’t really bother us. But if a hurts does bother us, how often do we go talk to the person who has hurt us: one in two times, one in ten, one in twenty, almost never? This is a huge problem because whether the person agrees with us or not, often simply speaking up is the difference between feeling alienated from them and not. Often we don’t speak up because the hurt keeps us from seeing how valuable they are to us. Sometimes it may be because we are afraid they will say something that will make us feel worse. That sometimes happens. Sometimes I suspect we fear they might say something to assuage our righteous wrath that we feel so attached to. Even more rarely do we go to step two and call on one or two others to help mediate or reconcile. If we did, sometimes it might mean we also had to recognize that we also did something that led to the harm that was done.
Instead of taking these steps that help to address and limit harm, we so often go right to judgment and cutting people off. We stop relating. We stop talking. If we do talk, it’s not to the person who has harmed or neglected us. Instead we share our righteous wrath with others, putting them in the position of absorbing our anger towards a person they can’t deal with because they have not really been invited to.
Our inability to deal with our anger about our hurts, neglect, and shame keeps us from being able to sustain marriages, friendships, and community life. When I see the harm it does to so many people I love it makes me want to cry out with Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole?” (Jeremiah 8:22) Is there no spiritual power to help us address these wounds? Is all this church stuff just a bunch of talk?
This is a despair I feel on a personal level, but it is also a despair I feel on a collective level. When I look at the history of this country I find it is a story of hope unborn. We have not been able to create a land with liberty and justice for all, in part because the harmed, the exploited, the neglected have not been able to come to a place where they can trust each other and work together. Instead, when we look back, again and again we will see that the various groups who have suffered from different kinds of racial or gender discrimination, those who have suffered from different kinds of economic exploitation, those who have suffered from marginalization and cultural domination, have been unable to achieve the kind of unity necessary to transform the structures of domination. Instead, they remain mired in the swamps of resentfulness, fear, and distrust because of all the past harms they have suffered and the narratives they have developed around those harms. This is part of why the New Poor People’s Campaign seems so essential—because it recognizes this and is trying to take on that challenge.
I think there is a balm in Gilead, but only for those who sincerely seek it. There is a balm in Gilead, but for it to help heal us requires of us a far greater degree of maturity, discernment, and practice then we’ve so far been willing to pursue. This is the kind of maturity the author ofEphesians calls for when he or she writes:
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of (God’s) power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Do you get that? Our fight is not against people, but against ideas and spirits, feelings and narratives. We have got to learn how not to confuse our fight with them with a fight with people. This is what Martin Luther King recognized and part of why he was so effective so it is perhaps helpful to think about him and the Civil Rights movement as you hear what follows.
“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all these, take the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:10-17)
Here I want to point out something that doesn’t come through in the English translation. According to Walter Wink, the Greek word that is used for sword here refers not to the long sword, which was often used as a defensive weapon, but the kind of short sword that the Roman legions used when they were on the attack. The author is therefore telling us we need to be ready to go on the offensive for the sake of the gospel of peace.
I know it may be hard to hear through a military metaphor, but the author is pushing us to have a radically different vision of how we are to engage people who are harming or neglecting others, or have harmed or neglected us, calling us away from the revenge and hatred our anxious grasping hearts want to a higher and more effective form of struggle that recognizes that so often when harm or neglect is happening it is happening because we are disconnected from ourselves or enslaved by forces, feelings, and ideas within us.
Here I want to take a moment to talk about the “anxious grasping of the heart” which is what Paul is taking about when he talks about “the flesh.” It’s so important to understand this that I’m going to say it again. When Paul speaks of “the flesh” he is not speaking about our bodies, but what arises from the anxious grasping of our hearts. I think “the flesh” is a terribly unfortunate phrase, for when Paul lists the desires of the flesh he lists things like idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, envy, and a party spirit (by which he doesn’t mean people who love to party but people who engage in partisan conflicts)—none of which have anything to do with our bodies or bodily desires. (Galatians 5:19-21
The anxious grasping of our hearts can transform physical desires into addictions, but the language of “the flesh” often confuses the two. There is all the difference in the world between the love of food and gluttony—where you are using food to stuff an inner emptiness. There is all the difference in the world between the beauty and wonder and goodness of sexual desire and the lust which transforms people into objects for us to use and exploit as a way for us to feel better regardless of its impact on them. There is all the difference in the world between enjoying alcohol and using alcohol to disconnect from our feelings and being intimate with others.
These are critical distinctions, yet so often when Christians use the word “flesh” they are not using it the way Paul did; they are instead calling on us to subdue and dominate and control our bodies and feelings or, worse, they are calling on us to use a spiritual sword to cut us off from our bodies, feelings, and physical desires.
It’s this latter message I heard when, as a confused seventeen-year-old, I landed in a Catholic Charismatic Evangelical Community. I was told we were to cut ourselves off from our physical desires, particularly sexual desires. I attempted to do this and the results were disastrous. Our bodies are the doorways to our souls. They are the means through which we experience the giving and receiving of love. When I cut myself off from my body I experienced myself cut off from the physical world, resulting in this incredible sense of inner emptiness, desolation, and anguish. I suspect it is where all who try to subdue the body end up. In the end, the attempt to dominate and control our bodies and feelings is usually a form of idolatry, the attempt to transform the divine, which is living and fluid and mysterious into something that can be possessed and controlled and that like all idolatry leads to spiritual death.
Jesus does not call us to do battle with our bodies, but instead with the anxious grasping of our hearts that would keep us from being open and loving, compassionate and ready to take risks. The whole call to take up your cross is not about subduing our bodies and their desires, or viewing them as the enemy, it is instead a call to live the death and resurrection that transform our anxious grasping hearts into the greater heart of being in communion with the heart of God.
However, while Jesus calls us to honor our feelings and desires he doesn’t want us to be enslaved by them, and it is here that the sword of the spirit, used very carefully, can be a means of freeing us from bondage.
Our gospel today confronts us with the picture of a man enslaved
by the anxious grasping of his heart. This man has been given his life back though having his debts forgiven. But rather than being able to receive and appreciate this gift, he’s still controlled by his desire for gain and by his inability to see and honor the needs of others. The result is that he ends up being tortured.
The Lord in this story is not God because God doesn’t torture anyone. Instead, the story is a metaphor for the kinds of torments people suffer when they are unable to forgive. Every day I encounter people who are tormented because they have not learned how to claim and use the power to forgive. The result is that they walk around with their cups brimming and overflowing with resentfulness, anger, frustration, and fear. You can hear it in conversations that are unkind and inconsiderate. When pushed, it comes out like a monster of harsh punitive anger, anger intended to inflict pain. So many of us are only able to keep our cups from overflowing through drugs (I find so many young men use marijuana as way to disconnect from their anger), alcohol, TV, video games, exercise, meditation, or through avoiding intimacy and connection with others lest it bring that monster to the surface.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider how addictive and satisfying we find revenge fantasies. We feed ourselves with them constantly through books, movies, and TV shows, or replay them in our heads as soon as we’ve felt slighted or hurt. A good revenge fantasy can give you a serotonin-like release. But revenge almost never works in reality the way it does in our fantasies. In our fantasies, when we take righteous revenge on others, they are confronted with the evil they have done in such a way that they cannot deny it and are left to die in that awareness, or to feel forever indebted to us because of our magnanimity. When or where does that ever happen? Yet we continually live and act as if that fantasy were something real.
I think suicide can be about a kind of revenge fantasy aimed at others or aimed at ourselves. Again, part of my incredible frustration is that people can come to a point where they can no longer see that it’s a fantasy and that it will not bring any kind of real relief to themselves or others.
I also keep hearing about revenge fantasies being played out on campuses in the name of calling people out. Just this week I talked with a young activist who said she is still recovering from the kind of bullying and shaming she encountered in her college and the kind of disconnection it fostered in her.
It seems Jesus’ message about the power and importance of forgiveness seems to go significantly unheard, is not understood, and is largely not practiced, except perhaps in places like Twelve Step communities and in the offices of good therapists. But Jesus wants to free us from being in any kind of abusive relationship with ourselves or others. He wants us to learn how not to be possessed and controlled by our fears or anger or any other feeling that would treat us like an object. He wants everyone to understand that through the Spirit we can find the power to forgive. Our anxious frightened hearts want to punish, usually both ourselves and others, but we have been given the power to let go of that desire to punish.
Here I want to come back to the image of the spiritual sword, now not used to attack others or ourselves, but to cut through whatever
chains would enslave us by keeping us bound to unhappiness and replaying the ways we were harmed or neglected over and over and over again. That’s a chain that needs to be broken, and I believe we can learn how to break it.
It’s important to note that when I’m talking about forgiveness I’m not talking about any kind of spiritual or emotional amputation. I’m not talking about forgetting or denying how we’ve been harmed or neglected or shamed. I’m also not talking about reconciliation— that’s a more complicated process because we can’t be truly reconciled with someone who doesn’t share our values. I’m talking about forgiveness as a process of death and resurrection that allows us to live no longer enslaved to past harms, no longer continually drinking from the cup of resentfulness, so that we are able to live as free people with clear minds and generous hearts.
The miserable unforgiving servant in today’s gospel is an image of us if we don’t learn how to use and exercise the power of forgiveness. As Madeline Diehl said last week, the heart is a muscle and like any muscle it needs to be exercised for it to function well. If it is a muscle we need to learn to exercise, it’s worth heeding C.S. Lewis’ advice that if we have not learned how to forgive we probably don’t want to start with Adolf Hitler. It’s much better to start with smaller things like the righteous wrath we feel toward our kid who inconsiderately borrowed our car without asking us. We probably want to start with ourselves when we realize that they hadn’t borrowed our car; we had just forgotten that we had parked it down the block for some reason.
The whole promise and hope of the gospel is that we can live lives of thanksgiving—that’s what Eucharist means, thanksgiving, that’s the opposite of resentfulness. But to go from the nightmare of unforgiveness, resentfulness, and the lack of empathy, compassion, and connection that they give rise to, it is up to us to learn to use and claim the power of forgiveness. For us to grow in our ability to be intimate with others, our ability in Adrienne Rich’s words “to expand the possibility of truth among us, the possibility of life among us,” we have got to learn how to use the power of forgiveness every day—even in those situations where forgiveness doesn’t seem really warranted, as when a loved one dies, or something bad happens to us that we had no real control over. Let us learn to forgive, forgive, forgive so that we can live resurrected lives, no longer bound or controlled by the deaths we have suffered, so that we can learn how to live as free people, with good lives and good relationships, and an ability to do battle with the forces that have enslaved so many of us and so much of our world. For if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen
1) It is important to understand that the relationships in which this conflict is breaking forth are the hierarchical obedience relationships that structured the patriarchal household of the
time. The gospel of freedom cannot be contained within such relationships.
2) Jesus taught the way of paradox; that is a way in which you embrace opposite truths. Today we hear we are called to engage in conflicts to promote the creation of good relationships.
We also hear we are called to do this from a place of love and forgiveness. Neither works without the other.