Year C, Pentecost 10
Last week we sang “Let there be peace on earth.” It’s a beautiful song and always makes me tear up a little. Given the recent back to back mass shootings, it seemed particularly appropriate. Peace– that is what we are about in the Christian faith— right—promoting peace and love? Then we have the reading today. Jesus asked, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” We all think we know the right answer. It’s so obvious. We call him the Prince of Peace, at least we call him that near Christmas. Of course he has come to bring peace. Then he answered his own question, “No, I tell you, but rather division.” We probably should have seen it coming given the beginning of our reading for today when he said, “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled.” It sounded rather ominous. But other than that weird comment, this whole idea of Jesus bringing division and conflict is coming out of left field.
Well not quite. Let’s go a little further back in the Gospel of Luke to the moment when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple when he was 8 days old. They encountered two people, two prophets. The 1st prophet was named Simeon. We refer to his prophesy as the Song of Simeon. We often hear it sung around Christmas. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” You probably recognize it. It’s beautiful. But unfortunately Simeon didn’t stop there. He looked at Mary 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.”
Now, the words still sound pretty, because they are in the Bible and those writers had a way with words. But if you think about it, anyone who is destined to cause the falling and rising of many is going to have a difficult life. He will be surrounded by conflict. Simeon specifically said that he would be opposed. Typically where we find opposition, we find division.
Therefore, this information that Jesus is providing should not come as a shock. We had known this might happen since he was 8 days old. But there have also been a lot of references to peace. When the angels announced the birth of Jesus they sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” It seems like there are a lot of conflicting messages. The angels say that he will bring peace. The prophets say opposition.
Which is it? In some ways, it depends on whether we are talking long term or short term. When the world ends and Jesus comes to raise the living and the dead, there will be peace. That is what we hope and pray for. But right now, peace is elusive at best. If we really thought that Jesus’ goal was to bring peace when he came the first time, we would have to conclude that he failed miserably. Does the world seem peaceful to anyone? And if you look at the particular region that Jesus went to, that region has always been plagued by violence.
I don’t believe that Jesus failed. I believe that we have failed Jesus. Jesus told people they could have peace, but everything would have to change. We would have to raise up the lowly and bring down the proud. We would have to stop pursuing money and status and instead share with all. We would have to heal the sick and bind the broken hearted. It should not surprise us that his message was not well received by those in power. He was opposed, just as the prophet foretold.
Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I came to bring violence.” Jesus and his disciples never used violence. He condemned violence at every opportunity. But he definitely brought division. He divided the faith of his family. He divided the faith that everyone thought he came to redeem. In doing so, he divided families. Just look at the disciples; they all left their families. He asked people to make a choice between following him and following the status quo. Whenever we shift from the status quo, there will be more division.
There is nothing I can say to make these words of Jesus seem ok. We hear these words and recoil. But consider the people that Luke was writing to. They were new Christians, many of whom had been ostracized from their families and communities. They were living in fear. No one had to tell them that their world was divided. Yet what they had, was a faith that gave them the strength to withstand the division and conflict as it was necessary for lasting peace.
When we hear Jesus talk about fire, we all think of judgment and the fires of hell. We don’t like that, especially in the Episcopal Church where we are about love. However, fire has more meanings than damnation. It also represents purification, refinement, and God’s presence. Now frankly, purification and refinement don’t sound very tempting, but fire representing God’s presence is a bit more palatable. In the story of the exodus, God led the people through the sea with a cloud. When the Egyptians entered the sea in pursuit, the cloud turned into a flame and the entire Egyptian army was wiped out. One commentator wrote that in the Exodus story, fire represents the power of God to effect change in the face of formidable resistance. The change was the people leaving their home and launching into the unknown wilderness. The resistance was the Egyptian army.
Jesus came to bring peace, but the peace that he brought was so revolutionary, so otherworldly, it felt like judgment and conflict. And you know, change can feel like judgment at times. Often when we change things from the way that we have always been doing it, we wonder, well what was wrong with the way we did it before? And you know what, Jesus was asking people to change. Jesus is still asking us to change. One of my favorite quotes, that I probably break out about once a year is, “Jesus loves us just the way we are, but Jesus loves us too much to let us stay that way.” I wonder if change and even judgment would be less offensive if we understood that it was in the context of God’s love for us as his children and God’s desire for peace for all the children of the world. God’s not just asking us to change to improve ourselves, but to change for the good of the world.
The song that we all love so much, “Let there be peace on earth.” Let’s not forget that 2ndline. “And let it begin with me.” It doesn’t mean that we stop arguing. It doesn’t mean that we smile more often. It means that we do the work that needs to be done to achieve peace. That might be protest. That might be letter writing. It might be working with the underprivileged in our community. It might also mean being intentional about interacting with the people who you disagree with. Because while Jesus brought division, he never kept himself divided from people, even the people he knew would kill him. The more we interact with people who are different from us, the closer we can come to bringing more peace into this world. It is very doubtful that we will see peace in our lifetimes, but we can each bring change. We can start by changing ourselves.