How many of us, when we’re travelling and making small talk with strangers, or visiting with family out of state, or connecting with friends we grew up with and haven’t seen for several decades, how many of us avoid mentioning certain topics? With whom do we talk about politics, or the news of the day in casual conversation. Even a discussion about the weather can lead to heated conflict. We live in a divided nation, a divided state, a divided community.
Many of us have experienced such division within our own families. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, for example, there are advice columns and essays about how to talk to your relatives who have different political views.
The same thing is true of church. We don’t often explore too deeply where we stand on the issues of the day unless we’re fairly confident we know the views of the people with whom we are talking. Otherwise, things could get uncomfortable very fast.
At the same time, commentators and scholars of our culture and religion are pointing out that we are sorting ourselves out into distinct groups that often have very little in common with each other, or have very little to do with each. Such divisions are racial; they are ethnic; they are geographic; they are urban/rural; and they are religious. The New York Times published an online quiz last week in which participants, by answering a very few questions, were given a score as to the likelihood of being Democrat or Republican. By the way, I scored +57 Republican; because I’m a white male over 40, Christian, I’m much more likely to be Republican than Democrat.
So we’ve sorted ourselves out along racial, political, cultural, and socioeconomic lines. Our divisions are deep; our conflicts intense. And we’ve also in many ways sorted ourselves out religiously. So evangelicals are on one side of the political spectrum, members of mainline denominations tend to be on the other side of the spectrum. When we come to church, we want to lay aside those divisions. As with old friends or relatives, we may keep our views on the issues of the day rather close to the vest until we figure out where our neighbors in the pew or the folks we’re chatting with at coffee hour stand on those issues.
And when it comes to Jesus, we tend to do very much the same thing. We have an image of Jesus as friend, as the one who came to preach a gospel of peace and love, who sought to bring people together across ethnic and religious difference, and wanted to welcome everyone at the table.
And then we hear today’s gospel reading which comes as a shock:
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 that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Making sense of this text means remembering its context. And when we speak of context in the gospel, we always are speaking of two contexts, where it comes in the story, and how the gospel writer is using it as he writes more than a generation later. First, to its setting in the gospel. We are in the section of Luke where he is telling the story of Jesus’ long journey to Jerusalem. As Jesus draws closer to Jerusalem, the reality of what will happen when he gets there grows more and more important. We see that here, where Jesus talks about his coming baptism—referring to now to his crucifixion, and the anxiety, the stress (the only time this word appears in the gospel) that is growing as he draws nearer to Jerusalem. There will be conflict in Jerusalem, and it will be deadly.
Decades later, as Luke writes, he is aware of the conflict that has arisen because of the spread of the gospel. Families have been torn apart as people hear of the good news of Jesus Christ, join this new community, and are forced to leave their families of origin for the new household being created under the headship of Christ. In those contexts, Jesus’ words make sense. They affirm what those early Christians were already experiencing and in so doing confirm that they are on the right track.
Still, does knowing that context help us make sense of Jesus’ words, either for the first century people who heard it, or for us in the twenty-first century? Let me tease out a bit of that imagery in order to help us.
First of all, fire. We all know the destructive properties of fire. We have seen either up close or via news reports, how quickly fire spreads and how completely uncontrolled and devastating it can be. We were horrified last year by the speed and destruction of the Palisades fire in California, that swept away an entire community. In scripture, fire often represents such destruction.
But fire means other things in scripture as well. Think of the flames of Pentecost, coming down on the disciples, filling them with the holy spirit. Think of John the Baptist who said of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Fire also purifies and refines. Fire, when tamed or controlled, unleashes vast amounts of energy. Or again to put it in theological or biblical terms, quoting today’s reading from Jeremiah: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
But that same fire brings division. In Acts, after receiving the Holy Spirit, the disciples preached the good news, taking it throughout the world. They did mighty acts, healing people and showing God’s power. Even as they did that, however, they also aroused opposition, leading to imprisonment, exile, and martyrdom. Even as the good news was changing lives, and building the beloved community, it was also bringing division and conflict.
Most of us are conflict averse. We want to get along and one of the reasons we have sorted ourselves out into separate groups is because we don’t want to have uncomfortable conversations. That’s true in the church as well. We are particularly uncomfortable when conflict arises in the body of Christ. It does more than create tension; it turns people off. So we avoid it, but at what cost?
We have seen conflict at Grace over the years, some of it was intense and painful. We have seen conflict in the wider church—over the full inclusion of LGBTQ people, the ordination of women, and other matters. It’s quite likely we will see conflict again, especially as we begin to address some of the significant issues that face us as a congregation and as a wider community.
The Word of God is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces. Jesus came not to bring peace but division. Sometimes, scripture, the gospel will challenge us deeply, attack our most deeply held values, whatever those values may be; political, our family relationships. The Good News, if preached honestly and faithfully, should make us squirm, even, sometimes it will make us angry. The Gospel, the Good News, scripture, brings division not peace.
We can’t avoid conflict. We shouldn’t try. We should expect that when it comes to matters of existential importance, the things that matter the most to us, and shouldn’t our faith in Jesus Christ be one of those things? We should expect that we will disagree with others deeply, passionately.
That conflict may even bring division. It may cause heartbreak and worse yet, may fracture some of our deepest relationships—even with our family members. Still, if we are followers of Jesus Christ, if we are his disciples, we are forging new, deep, and meaningful relationships, with Jesus first and foremost, but also with other members of the body of Christ, relationships that will nurture and nourish us, relationships that will help us flourish. May the fire of Christ fill us and inspire us to deepen our relationship with him and with the body that is united to him. May it sustain us and give us hope.