Luke 12: 49- 56 Hebrews 11.29 – 12.2
This week’s Gospel is one of those that I tend to categorise as “challenging” This means (for me anyway) it’s one of those passages that I find difficult. It’s one of those passages that make me wish someone else was on the rota to preach on! Yet I know that it’s also one of those passages that I need to preach on exactly because I find it hard to do so. I can hear God saying to me “look woman sometimes you need to face up to facts, I know you like preaching on all the soft fluffy love stuff but that’s not why I called you to be a priest. I didn’t call you so you could have an easy life, I called you because being a witness to the Gospel is not easy. It’s difficult. It’s tough. It’s challenging. And there’s no getting away from that – you can run but you can’t hide!” And I stand here chastened and unworthy because I know all of that to be true. I know that given the choice I’d rather be preaching on one of my favourite comforting passages not this rather angry one! But I also know that God will give me words – it’s down to me to use them wisely and appropriately.
From the outset Jesus’s words in this passage from Luke are hard to hear. He speaks of fire, of division, of hypocrites. He speaks of families set against each other. His words resonate with anger and frustration. This is not the Jesus of my childhood, the gentle Jesus meek and mild beloved of the Sunday school choruses of my youth. This is a Jesus who turns our preconceptions of the Prince of Peace upside down. This is a forthright, angry Jesus, a Jesus who is frustrated by the inability of those around him to understand the significance of his presence among them. A Jesus who is not afraid to shock his listening audience if it means that they may be better able to appreciate that He is the Messiah they have been waiting for, sent by God to restore them to an authentic relationship with Him. In a moment of vulnerability Jesus exposes his own distress at the thought of what lies ahead – the baptism to which he refers is of the crucifixion, the radical and excruciating act of dying on the Cross for the sake of a people who just don’t seem to be getting the message, who can work out the likelihood of the weather but can’t see what is happening in front of their very noses.
I wonder if there were days that Jesus may have longed to have continued with the relatively simple life of the itinerant preacher and miracle worker, travelling from place to place to teach those who would listen. But he knows that this is not his destiny, he knows that there is no rest from his mission until he reaches the culmination of the journey and completes the work for which God has sent him to earth. And then those words which sound like the antithesis of all that we believe Jesus to be – “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” Words to shock, words that feel confusing and frightening, words designed to jolt us out of our complacency, to cause us to search in our own hearts what Jesus is really asking of us. Surely he is not expecting us to turn against our own families? Surely he is not inciting us to disruptive action? If we reflect on the comparable passage in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s words are perhaps even more disturbing when he proclaims “I did not come to bring peace but a sword” How can the Prince of Peace incarnate use such violent speech? How does this equate with the commandment that we should love our neighbour as ourselves, with the message that we should turn the other cheek?
Jesus’s exasperation is compounded by his observation of the ability of those around him to predict the weather conditions from the signs they see in the sky. Yet they completely fail to interpret the prophetic events that they have witnessed through his ministry. Jesus is unable to contain the deep emotion that this spiritual blindness stirs in him and is harsh in his judgement – hypocrites he calls them. These are people who are not prepared to face up to the true nature of Jesus’s incarnation – to accept that he has come among them to provoke God’s people into action and to be prepared to face the consequences of this no matter what the personal cost. We know that Jesus came among us to restore peace between God and his people, to unite all of humanity in the common cause of creating a true and just society in which all are equal and able to benefit from creation’s rich resources. Yet as part of the work required to build God’s kingdom on earth there will inevitably be conflict – the conflict required in order that light is able to conquer darkness, the conflict that is inevitable between those who follow Christ and those who persist in following the devil.
When Jesus talks about the division in families caused by his presence, he isn’t talking about division of individual families, but of humanity as a whole. he is describing the impact of the Gospel when believers will be set against those who refuse to believe and the struggle that this will cause. We know that for some this division will be far more personal, that for some their acceptance of Christ as Lord and Saviour will cause their isolation from their families and communities. This was certainly evident among the early Christian church and sadly is still the case today – especially in those parts of the world where to be a Christian is not just seen as a rejection of the accepted norm of society but as a criminal act punishable in the most serious and irreversible way. Christians remain a persecuted minority in some places as much today as they did 2,000 years ago.
So how does this message of division relate to our lives, in a society where to be a Christian is not dangerous, where although we may feel we are often in the minority, we can hardly claim to be persecuted or discriminated against in any tangible way. In fact if anything others may claim to be persecuted by the Church as an institution – those who have suffered abuse at the hands of church leaders in whom they placed their trust. Those who are discriminated against simply because of their gender, their sexuality, their age, their disability, their ethnicity, the list is endless…..
Most of us are in the comfortable position of having options. We can choose to take the easy path, to continue to live in our cosy and comfortable Christian bubble, doing the nice stuff, not upsetting anyone, jogging along in a way that is not disruptive, does not draw attention to ourselves as God’s children. Or we can take a more radical path. We can raise our voices like Jesus did, both individually and corporately, when we witness the pain of others caused by the lack of justice and equity in our society. We can loudly proclaim the good news of Jesus and not be embarrassed by this, not make excuses for being his followers, be proud to be witnesses of the Gospel. This is not an easy path to walk. We have to be prepared for the consequences. We have to be prepared for ridicule by those around us, for the incredulous response of friends, family, colleagues who are perplexed by our belief in a man who lived 2000 years ago, who died a horrific death on a wooden cross and rose from the dead in order that our sins would be forgiven and that we might have everlasting life. Sounds crazy when put like that – but by being here today, by identifying as Christ’s disciples we are standing up for Jesus, we are taking up the fight against evil and darkness that he commissioned us to do, knowing that while this may cause division ultimately peace will reign, order will be restored.
If we look at the passage from Hebrews we are reminded of the differences between having faith in God and not – the waters of the Red Sea part for us rather than drown us, the walls of Jericho fall at our feet, we are saved just like Rahab because of our obedience. Paul describes the manifestation of faith by those who have gone before us, that cloud of witnesses that has grown throughout the centuries and continues to surround us and inspire us. We all travel the same path, we all run the same race – through the acceptance of God’s grace and strength we will have the perseverance to withstand the tough times and rejoice in the good times. In a few minutes we will stand together and declare the peace of God among us, we will offer each other a sign of that peace and that is a special moment in our worship. But let’s not forget that while we are indeed called to spread a message of peace and unity, we are also called to be courageous in the struggle that ensues, we are called to be strong in the face of opposition and to accept the challenges of daring to make visible the power of the Holy Spirit in our world regardless of the cost to ourselves. We are the body of Christ in the world today – we are each uniquely called to build God’s kingdom, to give glory to Him in all that we do in His name. There will be times when our call is easy but there will be times when it will be tough – but at all times God walks with us, we are abundantly blessed, we are loved and we are never alone. Amen.