The kingdom brought by Jesus, the kingdom that the disciples are charged to preach, has come near; it is the kingdom that is the alternative to all the kingdoms created by death. Jesus tells his disciples that, just as Mic. 7:6–7 predicted, brother will kill brother, fathers will betray children, and children will seek to destroy their parents; and all those so captured by the kingdom of death will hate the disciples who witness to the name of Jesus.
These are quite extraordinary results for preaching the kingdom of God, but Jesus instructs the disciples to expect such a response. The kingdoms of death, the kingdoms that rule through violence legitimated by the fear of death, are challenged by this one who has come to put an end to the rule of death.
Jesus even says that he has come not to bring peace to the earth but a sword. Moreover, it seems that the family is the first place that the divisions occasioned by Jesus will be apparent. Not only will governors and kings hate and persecute the apostles, but the family will be fractured by loyalty to him. The separation that Jesus has come to enact is as real as the mission on which the disciples are sent. The sword he has brought, the sword that is an alternative to the peace of the world, is the sword of the cross. . . .
That Christians carry no sword other than the cross does not mean, however, that we are sent into the world defenseless. In the book of Hebrews we are told that the word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing the soul and laying bare all before the eyes of God (Heb. 4:12–13). Scripture is the weapon of truth that enables those who follow Jesus to disarm the powers by exposing their lies and deceit. Christians are not without defense, having been given God’s word to shield us from our delusions that are the source of our violence.
Jesus, however, is clear. Attempts to secure our lives through the means offered by the world are doomed to failure. If we are to find our lives, it seems, we must be prepared to lose our lives. But this is not a general recommendation meaning that we should learn unselfishness—even unselfishness that may cost our lives—for the life we must be willing to lose is the life lost “for my sake,” that is, for Jesus. Self-sacrifice, often justified in the name of family or country, can too easily be tyrannical. The language of sacrifice is often used by those in power for perverse ends. Jesus does not commend the loss of self as a good in and of itself. He demands that we follow him because he alone has the right to ask for our lives.
Too often Christianity in our time is justified as a way of life that leads to stability and order. “The family that prays together stays together”—but such sentiments cannot help but lead to an idolatry of the family. “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” (Matt. 10:37) is a hard saying, but one that makes clear why Jesus must prepare the disciples for persecution. Our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, are now found among the disciples and not among the so-called blood relations. Let that be preached from the pulpits of America and see if those preachers will live free of persecution. Not a little is at stake. The violence of nations is often justified in the name of protecting our loves—our way of life. Yet it is exactly those loyalties that Jesus calls into question as he instructs his disciples.