Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 14, 2022
Luke 12:49-56 Commentary
It seems to me that this passage is hitting many of us hard this summer. Denominations of every size, evangelical or mainline, are at crossroads, as synodical and convention decisions will force many of their members to leave the only faith homes that they have ever known. Is this the work of Christ’s fire baptism kindled?
There are some who have taken Jesus’ words to be a call to action: we are to “fight for what’s right” not as meek (aka feeble) servants but as warriors who do not mince words or consider too many feelings. There have been many eras and expressions of faith wielding a sword in our history, and there are plenty of people ready to distinguish us from them.
But Jesus isn’t giving a blessing, he’s giving a description. Even more so, Jesus is sharing his own experience of being God to, with, and in a world full of bad and with people who seem to like the bad more than his good.
Jesus Christ starkly describes his purpose alongside its emotional toll upon him. Based on biblical imagery, the fire he has come to bring is the judgment of the Triune God on all things that do not belong. As Jesus looks around at the world he has made, it causes him great sadness and stress. He wishes that the final judgement ushered in at his Second Coming was already now. It seems that as God, Jesus yearns for the new heaven and earth more than we do.
Christ knows the plan, the long arc of Creation-fall-Redemption-Consummation/Renewal, and he knows the motivation behind every act of God: love. All of this is caught up in his reminder that he has been baptized, given a vocational calling of his own as the Incarnate God of love. By, in, and through him, all things were created, all of the world is reconciled, and the renewal of heaven and earth will become the only reality.
But then Jesus reveals even more about the loving heart of God. He confesses that what he sees happening in this world is a great stress to him; literally, he is distressed by these circumstances. It’s like a bad fever holding on and causing stress to the whole body’s system. What Christ sees in the world is of great concern to him, and therefore he will not simply wait for what is to come, he is beginning the work of purging fire already now by calling for repentance, proclaiming the kingdom of God, and yes, being the source of division even as the Prince of Peace.
This intimate picture into his psyche is both terrifying and beautiful. It causes me to awe and tremble that the Creator of the Universe can be distressed by what we have done to and in this world.
But it also gives me hope that when good faith attempts to keep the unity and peace of the church meet their ends, that maybe, just maybe, God is behind the division.
It is vital, however, that hope for freedom from the quagmire that is false peace only comes when the division is truly the result of God’s initiative, carried out in God’s way, to the honour of God’s purposes. When divisions are rife and continuously rising, wisdom and discernment—about where and why, who benefits and who suffers, and who models the character of God—becomes pivotal to know if it is the kind of separation that will lead to life.
As the Prince of Peace, Christ has no stake in the counterfeit. His incarnate life’s work was to model to the world how it truly should be and to conquer the powers that keep it from so being. At his return, Christ will bring an end to all divisions, but until then, he wields the sword that calls for our repentance: for demanding false peace, for believing “war” and its methods are justified by our own definitions of peace, for defining peace by our own design rather than God’s loving hope.
Until then, Christ stands with his people, and sometimes he draws the division lines. But often, those lines are not the boundaries we imagine.
Jesus drew a dividing line in the sand when the group of men brought a woman alone with charges of adultery. Jesus spoke a division when he said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan” at the suggestion that he choose a path of “victory” rather than suffering. Jesus described a division of righteousness when he told the story about an unclean outsider who risked his own life for a Jewish man who laid dying on the side of the road. Jesus caused division when he called persecuting Saul to become the Apostle Paul. God brings division to our very hearts, freeing us from slavery to sin, enabling new life in step with the Spirit.
It is worth asking what is the character of the type of division that God brings. Even in the Old Testament, the way that the people were set apart, divided, from the other nations was a symbolic representation of the character of the one true God: holy, righteously loving, and for the good of the world. In God’s division work, there is life and freedom. God’s division work transforms law into spirit. God’s division work is borne of love and always in the hope of what is to come. Why do we settle for and seek false peace?
Jesus describes the people as being better able to read the signs of the sky than the rifts in their communities caused by his purposes. The reason a south wind brings heat is because it came from the desert. And a cloud from the west originated on the Mediterranean Sea (where it collected moisture that would very likely cause precipitation). It’s like knowing how lake-effect snow works, or what the chinook wind will bring. So why can’t we be as attuned to the way of Christ?
The North American Christian Church is being rent at the seams. Earlier this year, David Brooks wrote a New York Times Op-Ed called “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism from Itself.” In it, Brooks talks about how his friend described the fractured, tenuous landscape of faith today: what was once “open fields” of conversation are now “minefields.” Division, by whose hand? Division, for whose sake? The reality of families being divided as one generation rejects another generation’s views, understanding of Scripture, and faith values cannot be denied. But Brooks reminds us of a gospel truth; from the broken can come liberation.
In the late-aughts, Phyllis Tickle wrote about The Great Emergence, noting the trend in Judeo-Christian structure and practice to have a huge “rummage sale” every 500 years or so in response to challenges and upheavals as it is transformed by the Spirit’s inspiration. Her work is both prophetic and deeply rooted in the past. I wonder, if Tickle was alive today, if she might feel compelled to write a new edition of The Great Emergence in order to explore more fully the sort of divisions and upheavals that have come to the forefront in just the last decade and the tenor and tone of these “conversations” have taken. The reckoning seems a more apt description than emergence these days.
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