The Rev. Richard Elliott
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
August 14, 2016
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
“The Jesus of Fire and Division”
Because I’m one of Jesus’ followers, like you, I’m going to give Him some advice! Why can’t you stay on message Jesus? This is not the message people want to hear! You are not going to win many, if any, converts with this kind of message! Are you losing your mind? Who are you? Are you both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? As you often said, your Father sent you to bring people together, not to tear people apart! Your Father sent you to bring unity, not division; peace, not war! What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you stick with the script Jesus? You are sounding more and more like a politician!
Furthermore, Jesus, because I’m a Pastor, I have to explain your message to these good folks at First Lutheran this morning. What am I supposed to say?
There are few other speeches of Jesus in the New Testament that catch us more off-guard than this one. How can we call this the Gospel, the Good News, of the Lord? How can we possibly praise Jesus for this message? How can we call such a message of fire and division “Good News”? Anyone who has experienced the agony of family division and disrupted relationships can hardly call this Good News. We already live in a splintered world, especially today! Why do we need this? These words demand explanation.
Because these words are so different from everything else we read regarding God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, we must be very careful how we interpret and understand them. We have to look at the context. We must ask what was happening in Jesus’ life at this particular time. Also, how is this message connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection? We must not use these words, like some Christian Fundamentalists misuse them, to judge others, or to justify their personal prejudices. Then when division occurs, they can say that Jesus said there would be days like this. We must not use these words, like some Christian Fundamentalists misuse them, to advocate and promote war. Jesus Christ never advocated war as the way to deal with human conflict. It is not God’s way of dealing with human conflict in Jesus Christ. God in Christ brings Peace. Of course, war is often the consequence, because sinful human beings reject God’s gift of peace in Jesus Christ.
When Jesus spoke these disturbing words, He was facing His own suffering and death. His crucifixion will be brutal, and Jesus knows this, and the anticipation of it brings fear and trembling. When Jesus spoke these words, He was under great stress. He knows that His own nonviolent efforts to announce and proclaim the kingly rule of God will soon result in extreme violence against Him, with great suffering and death upon a cross.
What we must grasp here is that Jesus is speaking about the consequences of His ministry, rather than His intent. God in Christ is not motivated to create division, but, as a consequence of His reconciling efforts and peace giving activity, hostility and division becomes one of the inevitable consequences. There are those in every age who will always reject Jesus. This results in broken relationships, alienation and division. This results in an “us” versus “them”, or a “me” versus “them” mentality, rather than a “we” mentality. Jesus is a threat to the status quo, to those in power!
Jesus is pointing out what is happening as a consequence of His ministry. He is bringing division! He is deeply disturbed by these consequences. He says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” But, and this is critically important, it is precisely this division, this alienation, which is conquered and put to death on the cross. In short, Jesus bringing the opposite of what He intended to bring was necessary so that He could bring what He intended to bring. You got that? Jesus death and resurrection is necessary to bring about what God’s will, God’s intention, for the human family, which is to heal divisions, to bring people together. The death and resurrection of Jesus, which is a consequence of His ministry, is what brings peace, reconciliation, restored relationship and community. That is the Good News behind this Bad News. That’s what enables each of us to carry forward Jesus’ ministry in our world. If, when Jesus Himself walked the earth, everyone had accepted Jesus’ message of peace and unity, He would NOT have been crucified! There goes Easter! There goes Lent and the Lord’s Supper! There goes Christianity! The baby is thrown out with the bathwater.
In every culture, family relationships are very important. But Jesus says, in our Gospel this morning, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three” (v. 52). Families will be divided because of Jesus.
This is a disturbing word! In Israel’s life, family relationships were especially important. A person’s place in the family conferred both personal identity, and a place in the community. People know who you are, because they know your father and mother. Without public welfare programs in Israel in Jesus day, in order to provide a safety net, the family provided the only support system. There was no safety net outside of the family. There was no TACO program in the Synagogues. To divide a family was to leave its members on shaky ground socially and economically. When one was estranged from their family, they were without support. In fact, they were shunned and ignored. Jesus is hacking at the very roots of Israel’s social structure.
Rather than being sensitive to the needs of other people, as a consequence of God’s transforming Grace and Love in Jesus Christ, some Christians believe it is their Christian duty to force their religious views on others, including members of their own family. When division and alienation result, which is inevitable, they may even beat their chests, like the Pharisees, thanking God that they are not like other people. They have the truth. They have certainty. These misguided Christians, misinterpret and misuse our Gospel Lesson in order to promote, in the name of Jesus, their own self interests. They are exclusive and judgmental, rather than inclusive and welcoming. Do you know any people who are like this? I sure do.
There is evidence of splintered families all around us and among us. A cartoon strip showed a young woman talking to a minister. She said, “John and I are having a terrible time, and we need your advice. We are trying to decide how to divide the furniture, who gets what of the money we’ve saved, and who gets custody of the children.”
“Oh,” the minister asked, “are you contemplating divorce?”
“Oh, no,” she replied. “We are trying to work out our prenuptial agreement.”
Jesus came to transform a sinful world, a divided world, but transformation does not come easily. Evil cannot stand goodness. Have you ever thought about that? In its very nature, evil is not only uncomfortable in the presence of goodness, but becomes enraged. In C.S. Lewis’ delightful book, Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, a senior devil instructing a junior devil, Wormwood, on how to win a soul for hell, becomes furious whenever Wormwood blunders and allows any goodness!
Christ warned that this would be so. Wherever holiness appears, that which is unholy seeks escape, or digs in to resist. The forces of hell cannot tolerate the forces of heaven. There can be no peace between righteousness and unrighteousness. There is no peace between Nero and Paul, between Hitler and Bonhoeffer.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus experiences conflict that will culminate on the cross. The early church will also experience conflict without and within. Tradition and church history tell us that all of Christ’s disciples, save one, died a violent death for their faith. Only John escaped martyrdom. Andrew died on a cross. Bartholomew was flayed alive. James (son of Zebedee) was beheaded. Simon was crucified. James (son of Alphaeus) was beaten to death. Thomas was run through with a lance. Mathias was stoned and beheaded. Matthew was slain by the sword. Peter was crucified head downward. Thaddeus was shot to death with arrows. Philip was hanged. You and I are here today, at First Lutheran Church, because these disciples put Jesus first in their lives. We are here because they were committed, because they cared, because they loved. And, without us making the same commitment, future generations may not be here!
As we continue to accompany Jesus in His journey toward Jerusalem, where His commitment to fulfill His Father’s purpose resulted in His brutal death on a cross, we discover again how costly it is to really follow Jesus. None of this– “Give your life to the Lord Jesus, and all of your problems will be solved.”None of this – doing church work, while totally neglecting the work of the church. None of this – don’t rock the boat business, or don’t offend anyone.To follow Jesus into the ambiguities of human relationships, to follow Jesusinto the world of political action, to respond to Jesus as He encounters us in human need, to follow Jesus into the future which entails an effort to change the status quo, costs something! And very few Christians are willing to pay that cost. What Christians often want is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the Lutheran theologian imprisoned for his opposition to Hitler, who was killed just a few days before the end of the war. He says:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
I direct these words to myself as much as anyone else.
This Gospel Lesson for today is probably the most demanding of any passage in the entire Bible! In contrast, the emphasis in some churches is on how easy it is to be a Christian. We have forgotten that Christianity is a tough religion. Throughout Scripture, the message is clearly stated that ultimate commitment to anyone or anything less than God is idolatry. God said to ancient Israel, and He says to us, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have not other gods before me.” God so loved the world that He sent His own Son to once again make this message crystal clear. Ultimate commitment to anyone, or anything, less than Jesus Christ is idolatry. In short, we are being asked to get our priorities straight.
The primary work of God in Christ is to restore relationships, to bring about reconciliation, to make community possible. As Saint Paul states it, “God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) We are the instruments of God’s reconciling work today.
“This morning Jesus delivers harsh words about the purifying and potentially divisive effects of obedience to God’s call. The way of the cross often leads followers to encounter hostility and rejection, even from those they love. Faithfulness to Christ and to the community of the baptized is likely to be countercultural, unpopular, even divisive. Next to the dove of peace is the sword of the word.”