God’s word is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. Hebrews 4
Carry the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Ephesians 6
Swords do not play a big role in my life. My kids were not really into sword play – and anyway, those would have been Nerf swords right? But here it is – twice in two months in the lectionary – God’s word as a sword. In English, word and sword are spelled almost the same but we don’t generally put them together, though we might say: “those words cut like a knife” or “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
So here is this sharp sword, in Hebrews, separating things that seem like they can’t be separated, shouldn’t be separated – It pierces so deeply that it divides even soul and spirit, bone and marrow. God’s word sounds like a laser, cutting with such precision that it is a little bit scary. Not only that – It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Whoa. How do we feel about the bible, God’s word, having that much power? Does the bible really read us – even as we read it? C’mon. It is just a bunch of words on the page, words translated from language to language to language. Holy words, yes. Words received and written by holy people, yes. But the words from the bible aren’t magic or anything. We have to give them power, don’t we?
And we do, we give them power. When we get scared, we might recite words from Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.
Or from Psalm 27 – The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?
Or when we need direction we might remember Matthew 5 – Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God.
These words, when they are familiar and resonant in our souls, they can cut through us and place comfort just where comfort is needed.
The “Word of God” also has a more expansive understanding, beyond and through the bible. Remember in the gospel of John, how Jesus is called the Word. In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God.
What does it sound like to say – God’s word is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, with Jesus as the Word? Jesus is truly a living and active Word, the kind of word that leaps off the page.
And the Jesus word is quite sharp. It surely gives a hard poke to the person in the text from Mark today. This pitiful person just wants to find eternal life, is hoping for the right words to say, the right commandments to follow. And instead Jesus comes back with a word that separates soul from spirit, money from wallet – There is one more thing you must do. Go, and sell what you have, and give it to those in need; then you will have treasure in heaven. After that, come, follow me. This person is pierced by Jesus the Word, poked straight in the wallet. And it is too much. It is too painful to be truly known and the person walks away full of sadness instead of fully alive and active.
Sometimes we try to hide who we are from others when it doesn’t feel safe enough to be our most living and active selves. The writer of Hebrews says, Nothing is concealed from God; all lies bare and exposed before the eyes of the One to whom we have to render an account. We might hide from others, but this word of God/sword pierces us; it knows who we are.
This past Thursday was Coming Out day, when people are encouraged to let others know who they are in terms of gender identity, sexual orientation, and allyship. There is power in claiming who we truly are, not just in front of God but with someone else. There is power in naming ourselves as who we truly are because then we can live into who are as full, living and active people created in the image of God.
I am so grateful to be part of this congregation that has the audacity to believe that church is a place where we don’t have to hide our true selves from each other. We are not perfect of course, but we try to live out, who we truly are as LGBTQ people and allies. We try to make a safe place to live out who we are as people that live with depression and anxiety, and as people with disabilities. We try to make it a safe place to ask unanswerable questions about God, hard questions about the bible, and faith. We try to be a place where we can name how our souls are being pierced with the Word of God even when it make us feel divided from our very selves.
And while that is a long list of ways in which we try to be truthful in this congregation, there are other things that we find difficult to talk about. It is still pretty intimidating to talk about addictions, and sex, and of course, money. That is not the case for Jesus the word/sword.
Mark writes about this episode during Jesus’ travels when a person comes running up to Jesus. (In Matthew and Luke the person just “approaches” Jesus but Mark is a book of action so here there is running.) Has the person been chasing Jesus and finally catches him? All out of breath the person asks their big question – What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus realizes that the person is a cradle Mennonite, I mean, Jew because they admit to knowing all the commandments and following all the commandments throughout life. They have been following the law to the letter, have been doing all the right things, and now they have a ton of money. They are just verifying, since Jesus is passing by, that they are in the right line to “inherit” eternal life. Isn’t that the way it works, especially when you are rich? You receive your rightful inheritance?
Somehow this person, for as much as they follow the commandments, has missed that it doesn’t always work out the predictable way in God’s word. Remember how Jacob cheats his older brother Esau out of the inheritance – and is blessed anyway? How the youngest son, David, becomes king? How Ruth, the immigrant from an enemy country, is a heroine, saving her mother-in-law’s family?
Jesus goes in with his word/sword and pierces deep. “Following the commandments is a good start but it is not a place to stop. If you have been given the law and commandments and know how to work them, it is time to go to the next level.”
This rich person is not ready – or willing – to level up. They go away sadly because there is only one more thing to add to their cache and it costs too much.
The disciples are astounded that Jesus would basically turn away this potential disciple who could probably have bankrolled the whole operation. Why would Jesus turn away such wealth? Is he making an example of this person? Or does Jesus, with that laser focus, see through to the person’s heart? Can Jesus see that this person is not ready to take it to the next level? Not willing to have a “living and active” faith, rooted in the Word of God, whether that is the bible or Word as Jesus.
We who have money, who live our lives by the commandments, we might wonder with the disciples, if there is any hope for us. Because let’s be real, it is pretty scary taking it to the next level – especially if that means giving up all the security that money buys. Should we just sadly walk away now, like the rich person in the story?
But wait! Does the sword that pierces get stuck in the wallet or does it go further, touching the heart? Does it get stuck in guilt and shame? Or does it prod you to a living and active faith?
The last part of the Hebrews passage has a word of hope. For we do not have a high priest (Jesus) who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor and find help in time of need.
The sword does cut deep and there is mercy and grace, especially when we are truly seeking, truly in a time of need. Does “need” mean only material things – or could it possibly mean when we are spiritually struggling, with how to let go of our wallets or our pride or overcommitments. Is there mercy and grace for people with money who want to level up?
Jesus isn’t angry with the rich person. In Mark’s telling of this story, Jesus looks at the person with fondness and love as he invites them to level up. The word/sword isn’t drawn in order to wound. It is held with love and hope that the person will be part of the project, to become who they truly are, in the world. For a lot of people with money that means letting go of it. But not for everyone. In Luke, Jesus has benefactors, some rich women who travel with him, even as they make his travels possible. (see Luke 8 – He took his twelve disciples with him, 2 along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; 3 Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples.)
Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible – but with God all things are possible.”
God’s word is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. We are invited to this sword play, to live out and act out our faith. Let’s help each other do it.