The Dividing Work of Peace
Good Shepherd – 8/18/13: 7:30a, 10a, 11:30a, 6p |:| Luke 12: 49-56
Our Gospel lesson for today is one to make any preacher cringe. It’s the type of lesson, at first read, to leave you looking to the other lectionary texts for a smoother piece of Scripture to preach on. The text sounds like it could come from the holiday horror stories families might experience at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
The words we hear from Jesus today are ones which left me questioning if he was the one to actually say them because they go against all the other teachings we know Jesus for, including teachings found a few short chapters away in Luke. For example the story of the Prodigal Son – certainly Jesus telling about a family reuniting under the grace of a father does not fit the language we hear in our text today.
This means either Jesus forgot he had told that story or there is more being said in this text then one receives at first read. Knowing that Jesus was not a flippant teacher it is most likely the latter so let us open our minds and hearts for what might lay at the root of this text.
As we examine the divided relationships mentioned here it is important to note these relationships are generational. Father-Son, Mother-Daughter, Mother-in-law-Daughter-in-law. In the time when the hearers of Jesus heard him speak these words they would have understood how radical they were.
You see, one’s entire identity was determined by their family. If a father was a carpenter then the son would follow in the same trade. There were not college aptitude tests to help a young person figure out what they were good at in life, you did what your parents did. We see this even in Jesus’ case when the crowds ask, “Is this not the son of Joseph of Nazareth?”
As a daughter your identity was determined by whom you could marry and what exchanges could be made between the two families – basically you were property. And it wasn’t just your occupation that was determined by your family, it was also your religion, your social standing, it was everything.
“Jesus’ emphatic words on division in 12:51-53 need to be understood in relationship to core social realities of the first-century world. In that world (whether in Jewish or Gentile realms), the household is the fundamental building block for society. Indeed, the household is regarded as a microcosm of social reality.” (Richard P. Carlson, Feasting on the Word 362)
For Jesus to say he was dividing families was to drastically challenge the status quo. He was saying that no longer would ties be determined by blood but by the waters of baptism.
The words we find in today’s text are not prescriptive but rather descriptive of the reality of Jesus’ life and how following him would cause great division. That is to say, Jesus was not instructing sons to go out and create division with their fathers. But he was describing what he knew would inevitably happen when some members of the family chose to follow the life Jesus was offering and others did not.
Jesus’ message of radical love and inclusion caused great fear for there were no longer narrow qualifications for who could be in and who could be out. Rather Jesus went from the margins of society welcoming all – from the outskirts to those in power – to live in such a way for all persons to have a place in his grace, mercy, compassion, love.
To be within such a broad framework of welcome flipped society on its head. Not everyone wanted to live into the transformative peace Christ was offering. With that the peace Christ was ushering in was in fact dividing families. It was, in fact, a divisive peace.
We even see it divides Jesus’ own family. In Luke 8:19 – 21 Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him and when someone in the crowd announces their arrival Jesus responds “my mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”
No longer would the status quo of familial structure determine whom one worshiped or what role in society they would have. Luke’s generational listings in our Gospel text today show that for the first time men and women will have to make a choice of whom the worship.
Will they keep the status quo and follow the societal underpinnings of the family trade, property, and religion or will they risk what they know to follow the transformative and divisive peace of Jesus Christ.
Choosing the way of Christ flips the power structure on its head and opens to the door for inclusivity. Whenever power and the status quo are challenged people’s fears get heightened. The clenches of maintaining one’s power and familial structure back then were key to societal survival.
Anyone who challenged that would risk the punishments of becoming an outcast, at best, and being killed, at worse. To make the choice to follow Christ was to risk the safety societal norms offered. People’s circumstances were kept by societal structures and Christ was calling people to ground their lives in faith to the one true God no matter what their circumstances were.
This text is challenging but in ways far different than when I first came to it for today’s sermon. Jesus’ words are equally challenging to our society today as they were to the original hearers of his words.
Where have we become comfortable in our faith? Where have we allowed our identity to be guided by society rather than our faith? Where have we drawn lines between race, gender, sexuality, or class? Where has sin kept us from loving each other and loving God?
Jesus’ words found in Luke’s Gospel challenge us to define our identity by the reality that we are God’s Beloved and not by what keeps us safe within our society. These are scary words, friends. Choosing between the ways of prosperity Gospel that tell us life will be easy and God wants us to have all we wish to have and the ways of the Gospel teaching of transformative love and divisive peace.
Christ’s words are calling us to embrace the reality of our identity as God’s beloved and be grounded in that truth no matter what circumstances life brings our way.
The good news is, we are not alone. As we learn from the Epistle lesson for today, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2)
When we choose the way of the Kingdom, standing with those society deems unworthy, it can be difficult to stay strong. In those times, remember those who have been dividers of peace and are within that great cloud of witnesses who surround us: Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Clearance Jordan – to name just a few in recent history.
Where is the choice to follow the ways of radical love causing division in your life? Where is your identity living more fully into your beloved-ness? Where are you risking societal safety and power for the sake of bringing about God’s kingdom?
These words are scary. They remind us that our Spiritual formation is never ending. We are forever being consumed by the fire of Christ to be refined from our sin and brought to a new place of living into God’s mercy and grace.
“Because God’s love is radical enough and dangerous to threaten our own safety and security, it forces us to confront who we are, the evil we have done, left undone, and done on our behalf. Not to make us feel guilty but to show us a way forward through our privilege and oppression of others and into right relationship with all of God’s beloved children, our neighbors. It asks us to see our worth not in our wealth or in what we acquire, but in what we give away and in how much we love. . . [you see,] the great consequence of our sin is forgiveness.” (David R. Henson, Patheos: Homily for Proper15C, Aug 2013)
Allowing God’s forgiveness to transform us is not easy. It brings us to a vulnerable place and brings a new knowledge of self. It is easier to live into the guilt our sin can provoke and never allow God’s forgiveness to move us to a deeper place of self.
Until we are ready to embrace God’s forgiveness, we are not allowing Christ’s peace to bring about division in our lives. To be in right relationship with others and God is frightening because it challenges our status quo and bucks societal safeguards.
To find our identity in other than in the simple fact that we are God’s beloved is to keep the divisive work of Christ from taking place. As strange as it sounds when division of society’s status quo take place it appears, from this text, the Gospel has begun to take hold among us.
Christ’s peace is a “peace with justice that we will celebrate here around this table. A peace that is not necessarily comfortable but one that is reconciling and inclusive… So much so that God will burn like fire in order to give us life. Here in this day though this same God is present in mercy offering us life under the symbol of Christ’s death.” (Erik Strand, Sermon on Luke 12: 49-56, Aug 2010)
Jesus caused great division in his time and shook society at its very foundation – the family. We are made one through the waters of baptism. We do not have to claim our beloved-ness in God, it simply is. Through God’s transformative love and divisive peace we are given so much more than society ever could offer us but it does not mean we will be comfortable or be given all we wish.
Tom Mullen, a Quaker writer, once said if you want conflict or division work for peace. God’s love is worth fighting for and jeopardizing our societal securities to allow the kingdom of God to break into the injustices in the world.
Where are we sparking division in society? How are we creating space for the liberating work of the Gospel to heal our broken relationship with others and God? Where are we risking our comfort so the poor and the oppressed can live justly? Where are we being challenged by those on the margins to be in relationship with them and live in newness of God’s divisive peace?
Christ’s words were challenging to the original hearers and they are challenging to us today. Thanks be to God we are given the chance to be made uncomfortable and be invited to join Christ in the divisive work of peace.
May our love be as radical and inclusive as Christ’s. May we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. May we allow God’s forgiveness to move us from where we are today to a liberated reality of who God has created us to be.
As individuals and as a church may we live out radical hospitality to the stranger. When society looks at us may they be made to feel welcome and may they be challenged to join us in this remarkable work of Kingdom.
Good Shepherd, you are God’s beloved children. Go in peace this week knowing God is transforming you through forgiveness to challenge the status quo, to bring about God’s love, and to rift societal boundaries through divine peace.