Those of us old enough to remember Les Dawson will remember his mother in law jokes. They’re not very PC, but some of them are pretty funny. These are a few of the cleaner ones:
“I really DO have a soft spot for my Mother in Law. It's out in the garden behind the garage.”
“I wouldn’t say my Mother-in-Law is mean ... but she switches the gas off when she turns the bacon over!”
“I haven't spoken to my mother-in-law for two years. We haven't quarrelled. I just don't like to interrupt her.”
I should say hastily at this point that my mother in law and I get on pretty well. We went through a bit of a difficult patch about 25 years ago when every time we visited, I seemed to break a piece of china, but I think we’re over that now.
The reason Mother-in-Law jokes are funny is because of that painful grain of truth they expose. We get to poke fun at something that is otherwise difficult to talk about. Human relationships are difficult. Family relationships, the closest relationship any of us have, can be very difficult. And when they fracture, they cause more pain than the fracture of any other relationship.
At first reading of today’s Gospel, it might seem that Jesus is condoning the fracturing of family relationships. He says that he’s come to set a son against his father, a daughter in law against her mother in law. Really? Is that really what Jesus wants? In this collection of instructions as he sends his disciples out to evangelise, Jesus says some pretty extraordinary things. Perhaps most extraordinary of all is when he says “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus, the Prince of Peace is telling his disciples, telling us, that he comes to bring war. Do we conclude that Jesus is rejoicing at the current events in Syria, the US or on the streets of London? Of course not. No more than he wants families to fracture and relationships to fail.
So many of Jesus’ actions tell us the reverse is true. Jesus restores a brother to distraught sisters, he restores a daughter to a distraught father, he restores a son to a widowed mother. He tells stories of father and son reunions. He ensures his own mother has an adoptive son in his absence. Jesus no more wills broken families than he wills the violence of the sword. At yet, he says, these things are an inevitable part of his message, of his coming. Jesus is telling his disciples that these things are an inevitable part of discipleship. As they go out into the world to spread the Good News, it will not always be plain sailing. Chose for Christ and we set ourselves up to be different. If we follow Christ, there will be people who don’t understand our choice. More than that, there will be people who actively oppose our choice. That was certainly true for the community in which Matthew wrote his Gospel. And it’s true to this day. If we chose for Christ, the time may come when a relationship fractures as a result. Or when we meet face imprisonment for our faith, as in North Korea right now.
Which begs the question, do we really have that sort of faith? Does our discipleship really affect our lives to that extent, to the extent that our faith could divide us from our family or friends, to the extent that it could bring people of violence with swords to stop us? If we follow Jesus, do we follow him all the way to Jerusalem and the cross?
Before we give up all together and write ourselves off as Christians, lock the church and decide it’s all too demanding, let’s remember the first part of the Gospel reading. Jesus says “Don’t be afraid”, or perhaps more specifically “Don’t be afraid of the people who would hurt you for your faith, God has got you. God has counted every hair on your head.” God cares for us as we do our new born children, looking at every part of us with wonder. With that sort of care we need never be afraid. God always wants the best for us, wants our relationships to be whole and our lives to be peaceful.
And so we face a paradox. It is the paradox which comes of living through the in-between times, after Jesus, but before God’s sovereignty covers the whole world. A time when family values and kingdom values are not quite the same thing. A time when seeking God’s peace can be met with human violence. And the thing is, that if we have faith, we don’t have a choice. We are inevitably people of paradox.
There is a poem attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta written on the wall of the orphanage she founded. It has become known as the ‘paradoxical commandments.’ They tell us how to follow Christ in the face of a world that does not see things God’s way. The verses say this:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
The paradox of faith can difficult to talk about, and even more to live with. So, we trust God. We trust God that he holds us as we live out faith, live out life in the imperfect in between times. We trust that in God fractured relationships will be healed and Christ’s peace will rule in this world as it does in the next.