August 15, 2010
William G. Carter
Jesus said, “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.”
Today’s Scripture text comes from the lectionary. I didn’t choose it. In fact, I have been trying to protect you from it for a very long time. That’s why I have never preached on it in twenty-five years. Come to think of it, I probably should have extended my summer vacation.
Our passage is a surly little set of verses. We don’t know what sets off Jesus, but something has done it. After shouting at his disciples for wanting to blast a Samaritan village with heavenly fire (9:55), now Jesus announces he has come to bring fire to the earth. After inviting the twelve disciples to chill out, to consider the lilies and enjoy the carefree birds, he immediately announces that he is stressed out to get baptized – even though he was baptized nine chapters before.
The heart of the text is a rant against families, from Jesus the Home-Wrecker: “Don’t think for a minute that I came to bring peace; I have come to bring division.”
I imagine the Middle American Christian Family, or MAC Family, arriving for church this morning. All of them emerge from the same car - - three children, a mom and a dad. And Jesus starts in: “I’m going to split you, three against two, and two against three.” Is he having a bad day?
Not long from now, I plan to visit my dad and see if I can help him catch on a few things around his house. So it is somewhat disturbing to come to church today and hear Jesus say, "I have come to set a man against his father."
In a time when parents take their children off to college, we know how fraught the moment is with emotional energy. Nevertheless it is ominous to hear the Lord say, “I have come to set a daughter against her mother, and he mother against her daughter.”
It sounds like Jesus is standing against the family. If you're like me, you don't want to hear that. We want the church to encourage family members to get along, to bring people closer together, especially if they live under the same roof, to be an advocate for unity, not division. Yet Jesus says the very purpose of his mission is not to stop family fights, but to start them.
I confess I've spent most of this week trying to find a way help us swallow these words, but I couldn't find a way to do it without causing indigestion.
I notice, for instance, that Jesus speaks only of son against father, daughter against mother, and perhaps most logically, daughter-in-law against mother in law. It's a short list. For instance, Jesus doesn't speak of husband against wife or neighbor against enemy. No, Jesus draws upon a list from the prophet Micah (7:5-7).
He points to a division between generations: children against parents, parents against children. One generation shall stand against another. Your enemies shall live in your own house.
The hard truth today is Jesus Christ our Lord is the cause of this great conflict.
Now I realize people of different generations often spend time beneath the same roof, even if they come and go at different hours. In many cases, we get along. We co-exist, we even like one another. So it is harsh to think Christ comes to divide, separate, and set people against one another.
If this is true, I'm going to have to throw away next year's Christmas cards. I got them on sale during the week before New Year's. They have a picture of blue angels singing about the coming of Jesus into our world. The messages are cheerful: "Joy to the world. Peace on earth." I may have to throw those cards away, because that is only one part of the Christmas story. There's another part, too -- after the baby Jesus was born, his mother took him to the temple. She wanted to present him before God, just as scripture told her to do. While she was there, an old man named Simeon shuffled up to her. He peeked into that blue blanket, and praised the Lord for what he saw. And he said, "This child is destined for the rising and falling of many . . . and Mary, because of this child, a sword will pierce your own soul too." (Luke 2:25-35) From our house to years, "Have a Divisive Christmas."
Jesus was born into this world; and his own family was not exempt from the sword. If anybody should have had a happy home life, it should have been Jesus. If anybody should have lived to a ripe old life with his parents, it should have been Jesus. But that's not how the story goes, and he knew it.
For he said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace; I have come to bring division."
The more these words sink in, the more I think to myself: how did he know? Our world has been visited by the Son of God, and his visit has created all kinds of problems. Just when we were touched by grace, sin grabbed hold and didn't let go. Just when we saw glimpses of unity, division disrupted our better intentions. Just when we thought we knew the way beyond hatred, a sword started swinging.
How did Jesus know? How did he know that, in the year 1850, forty-six members of the Presbyterian church in Owego, New York marched out the door to form their own church down the street? Apparently one Sunday morning, the Presbyterian minister dared to pray for slaves. A lot of church members got upset about that and they screamed at the minister. Then, in turn, those forty-six members got upset with the people who got upset with the minister. So in the name of Christ they left and began a Congregational church one block away.
How did Jesus know? How did he know that, just a week ago, a teenager would crawl through a church window in Carbondale, sneak into the sanctuary, and steal a chalice full of communion wafers? They were transubstantiated leftovers. The Catholic officials said that theft desecrated the whole church and they had to purify it. A neighboring Baptist said, “There go the Catholics; you would have thought Jesus could take care of himself.” Christian denominations are divided. They are divided because of Jesus.
He said it would be like this. How did Christ know that the people who follow him always seem to be at one another's throats? Get two or three Christians together, and you have four or five different opinions. Study a difficult topic in light of our faith, and tempers will flare and voices will raise. Work toward a consensus, plow some common ground, find a shared vocabulary, and someone will certainly wag a finger and say, "You're wrong."
This past week, I have met good Christian people who are offended when Muslims wish to build one more mosque in Manhattan. Other good Christian people are offended at those who are offended.
It comes with the territory. Sometimes it’s our own tendency to tear apart rather than stitch up together. We prefer to draw lines in the sand. Choose up sides. Affirm our own correctness. We want to pick up our own swords rather than carry the cross given to us.
In a sermon that a friend preached, he said a line I have never forgotten: "Some believe the heretic is the man who gets burned at the stake; more likely the heretic is the one off to the side who fans the fire."
So I'm starting to understand why Jesus had to say, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace; I have come to bring division." He comes, and the division begins within ourselves. It doesn’t start between us – the division starts within us. And we discover that we have to decide if Jesus Christ really is who we believe him to be.
• For he knew that the best way to create dissension, difficulty, and strife was to start loving everybody. Yet he kept loving.
• He understood that the quickest way to disturb a close group of friends was to invite an outsider to join them for supper. Yet he kept inviting.
• He realized that the fastest way to divide a house was to treat everybody fairly, to consider everybody equally,to forgive everybody without any desire to get even or to keep score. Yet that was the cross he chose to carry. And it's the cross he hands over to us.
Did you think any of this Christianity stuff is easy? Of course not. It’s true, and it gives us life, but it’s certainly not easy.
For Jesus taught them, saying, "Love your neighbor. Do not judge. Go an extra mile. Make peace with your accuser." And in response, a large crowd of thugs came out against him with clubs and swords. One of his own disciples pulled out a sword and came out swinging.
Jesus said, "Put your sword back; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." And somebody said, "But Jesus, you said it yourself: you came to bring a sword."
Well, he swings a different kind of sword than we might think. I remember a picture from the early church. It's a portrait of Jesus from the book of Revelation. The poet envisions Jesus with pure white hair as a sign of holiness. His eyes are like fire, as a symbol of fierce love. In his hand he holds seven stars, as a sign of power. And from his mouth (what else?) comes a sharp, two-edged sword. That is how Jesus divides – through the word that he continues to speak. When he speaks, the house is divided – and his word cuts through.
I can't speak for you, but I am not always sure I want that. If I take Jesus seriously, I will have to change who I am. I recognized my own unfinished business. I know all too well the unredeemed corners of my life. I have an elaborate defense system that protects me from every unwelcome intrusion. And I recognize that I don't God to get that close . . . even though the one thing I want more than anything else is for God to get that close.
"I have come to bring division," he says. Try as I might. I cannot defend myself against those words. I can only respond to them. And I know what that would mean.
o With a word of truth, the Lord divides my life into true and false.
o With a word of health, the Savior separates us from all that is sick and pathological.
o With a word that demands a life and death commitment, he trims away every lazy allegiance, every partial affirmation, every half-hearted hope. Thus he displays one more time that he is the Living Lord of our lives.
As one New Testament preacher puts it,
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)
The question is: do I really want to be exposed like that? Can I let the Risen Lord cut that close? Am I willing to let a living God make a difference in my life? Am I willing to love him more than anything or anybody? Am I willing to trust him enough that I would lose my life for his sake?
If our faith is real and alive, we know that these are the questions that we live with. Even when we think we answered them before, they return. Because he speaks a living word that divides us from all that is false, deadly, and destructive – a living word that brings us alive and steadily transforms us into a new creation.
All it takes is a simple "yes" . . . and a laying down of arms. Then the transformation can begin.
I can't tell you how it's going to go. I doubt that it's going to be easy. But I can tell you one thing for sure. When the Lord gets to work in our lives, when he demands our absolute commitment, when he calls for the fullness of our love, the place where he always begins is the place closest to home.
(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved