Year C, Pentecost 13
When I read this Gospel passage, the following questions struck me, “Why didn’t I take my vacation this week? How come Mark got to preach on treasure and heart and I got stuck with angry Jesus? What’s so wrong with preaching on a Psalm once in a while?” The truth is, I actually love the idea of preaching these kinds of texts. I love reading commentaries for hours on possible explanations. But when my research is over and my fingers hover over the key board and the cursor blinks mockingly at me—I go back to those earlier questions. Why am I not on vacation? Part of my current problem is that I have been preaching a lot about the Body of Christ and the need to look past the things that divide us. You know what is really hard for a preacher—when Jesus actually contradicts you. It does not look good. I would say my number one rule in preaching is: “Don’t contradict Jesus.” Thus, after months of preaching about breaking through the walls that divide us, we have this passage.
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!” It gets worse from there. After that he goes into unnecessary detail about how families will be divided…because of him.
Jesus is our Lord and Savior. He came to free us from our sins. He came to show us how to love. He came to forgive us. He never said he would be nice about it. We have this gauzy water color version of Jesus in our heads. It’s the same one we saw in our children’s Bibles. Yes, Jesus is a compassionate and forgiving. He also said some really difficult things. He was trying to change the world and he did not have much time to do it. At times, he was very harsh with people.
Just a few chapters before this one, we heard that Jesus, “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This was a point of transition. It tells us that he was preparing for his death. While he was all powerful and divine, he had taken on human form. As a human, he knew that he would suffer great physical and emotional pain. When he said, “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism (which in this context meant death) and what stress I am under until it is completed!” A lot of people hear this and think that Jesus is excited about the judgment that will befall humanity. It does say that he brought fire…but the fire that he brings is the same fires that burns him. It is his own death and he is closer to it every day. Of course he wishes it was already kindled. Of course he’s a little stressed about it. Imagine living for years knowing that you were going to have a gruesome death. Imagine what it would feel like every day as that moment got closer and closer.
That makes pretty good sense, but what about this whole bringing division instead of peace? We call him the Prince of Peace. The Prince of Peace should not be talking like this. While there is no easy answer for this, I believe there is an explanation. Notice that Jesus does not say, I am bringing division and I could not be more pleased about. He does not say that he wants the world divided. He just knows it will be. When Jesus was born into this world, it was already horribly broken. People thought the Messiah would be a quick fix. He would come and say some nice things, do a couple of miracles and all of sudden all would be well. Jesus knew that it would be much harder than that. God tried the easy way —he have us paradise in the Garden of Eden. It did not last long.
While Jesus accomplished a great deal in the three years he was in public ministry, it didn’t make much of a difference. People were still insistent on overthrowing the Romans. For many people in Israel, peace was a world where Israel was the most powerful nation. In their eyes, peace was not about justice, it was about who had the power. That is similar to how we operate today. There would be peace if the United States was in charge. I find myself longing for the days when we were the only superpower. That is the kind of peace that I believe Jesus wasn’t bringing. He wanted peace that was built on justice and mercy, not power.
There is a blessing we use at the end of the service. “The peace of God which passes all understanding will guard you hearts and minds in Christ.” That is the peace that Jesus wanted—that he still wants, but it was beyond their understanding then and it continues to be misunderstood by us today. That is why we still say that blessing at the end of the service. In our best moments, we yearn to understand that peace. Jesus also knew the only way to teach people about this peace that passes all understanding was to humble himself in front of those who had the supposed power, humble himself to the point of death. In order for that lesson of real peace to sink in, his body was broken. Jesus had to break so people would finally understand what it was to be whole, to be holy. We had to witness him break himself for us.
Yet even after that ultimate sacrifice, Jesus knew that we would be even more divided than before. When the Gospel of Luke was written (about 40 years after his death) the Jews who chose to follow Jesus were ostracized. They could no longer worship in their synagogues. Much like Jesus predicted, families were torn apart. This is not a pretty picture, and it is not meant to be.
I started by saying that by speaking about the importance of unity and the Body of Christ, I had contradicted these words of Jesus. I was being a little overly dramatic. Jesus did not like division any more than any of us. But he knew that when you follow him with authenticity and passion, you are going to tick some people off. Being a Christian is not about pleasing people. It’s not about going with the current. It’s going against it. Being a Christian isn’t easy. It’s not just about showing up to church once awhile (although that is a really good start). It’s about making Jesus your number one priority. Every decision is made in the context of what it is to be a follower of Christ. I can guarantee you that if you take that road, it is not easy. I fail in some way almost every day and that is when I have the courage to try. The worst for me is when I do not even have the courage to try. Failing is so much better than capitulation. At least we try.
In the very beginning of the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph brought their infant son to the temple to be presented. A holy man named Simeon was there and he immediately blessed them and said, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed… —and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Talk about a mixed blessing! From the very beginning, Jesus’ own parents knew that their son would bring conflict to the world and even pain to his mother. But they also knew that the pain would be temporary and that in the end there would be salvation for all.
After we adopted Joshua, every parent told us how wonderful and hard it is to be a parent. No one said, “It’s really not worth all the pain and agony.” We should treat our God with the same love we have for our children, our parents, our partners, our best friends… We should make him just as much as a priority. God already gave us everything. He asks the same of us, everything.