Before I went to bed on the evening of Jan. 5, 2021, I got my first glimpse of what the next day might hold. It came in the form of a Facebook post from a friend who excitedly shared that he was part of a three-bus caravan on its way to Washington, D.C. Hard as it was for me to imagine any thrill in being part of a caravan of saints driving through the night, I thought little of it and went to bed.
The next day I realized that what some expected to be a typical day of protests on Capitol Hill would turn out to be a day of death, destruction and dismantling. And that the saints would be counted among that crowd gone wild — with “Jesus” and “Jesus Saves” among the flags proclaiming “Trump,” “Make America Great Again” and “No More Bullshit.”
It was clear that the saints had made it to D.C. Kind of like when the saints made it to Jerusalem during the Crusades, flags with the Cross flying, swords drawn — and the Crusaders’ witness to that Cross utterly destroyed for centuries to come. We still live in the shadow of those Crusades.
I have engaged widely with evangelicals and mainliners, but try as I have, I can’t for the life of me understand how the Gospels can be read without recognizing that the Jesus of those Gospels is nothing like the Jesus represented by the religious right these days.
I keep thinking of the Lutheran church during the Third Reich and the costs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church for drawing a line in the sand at the Cross, refusing to be co-opted by power and the corruption power brings.
It’s hard to understand how Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 could ever be fulfilled this side of the new heaven and new Earth. But perhaps that’s the point of the new heaven and new Earth: It is precisely because Jesus’ prayer can’t be fulfilled here and now that we long for it so expectantly and that the Earth groans so much inwardly for the day when lion and lamb lie down together and are led by a child.
It seems, however, that while Jesus aspires to our unity in that prayer before his crucifixion, he of all people understood the division and the sword that his coming had brought and would continue to bring — not a sword for him or his followers to bear but the swords that would fly because of the clarifying truth of the gospel.
In Matthew 10, Jesus’ warning of the gospel’s tendency to divide and clarify couldn’t be more clear: “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, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
Jesus is the divider-in-chief. The gospel he brings is so radical, so demanding, so countercultural that those who take it seriously are going to feel uncomfortable among those who do not. Today, it is likely that families, friendships and congregations in the United States have not been more divided since the Civil War.
We should not be surprised that swords are drawn in Jesus’ name, nor that the church is dividing and being dismantled right in front of our eyes. But this is good news, because a church in which no one had eyes to see what is going on and to name it for what it is would be a church unlikely to be around for our children’s children — who, by the way, I keep thinking about this week: What do I want Ezra, our little grandson, to know that Pappy said in response to the state of the church these days?
When I think of it in those terms, I care less about the immediate responses to what I’m writing. Because I’m writing for those to follow. Those who are going to need even more of the moral clarity we desperately need today. Those who may be as likely to be persecuted by the church as by the world someday.
Even amid Jesus’ dark warning in Matthew 10, his eyes are on the chil-dren as the chapter ends: “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
A cup of cold water for a little one in need? Or a sword and flag to protect my power and privilege?
We can’t nuance this one, friends. We are with Jesus, or we are not.