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Luke 12:49-56

August 14, 2022

Today’s sermon is going to start with a simple Bible quiz.

I’m calling the quiz “one of these things is not like the others.” You might be familiar with the concept: I’m going to read a few verses from the Gospel of Luke, and you’re going to tell me which one is the outlier: a, b, c, or d. Call out when I’ve read the outlier.

  1. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
  2. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s great pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
  3. “Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom belongs.”
  4. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Many of you know that I am a big fan of Godly Play, which is a Sunday School program based on storytelling and open-ended questions. One of the questions that I love is “I wonder what part of the story we could leave out, and still have all the story we need.” When I looked at today’s gospel, I wished that we could leave this part of the story out. But then, I wondered, would we still have all the story we need?

One of the things that I appreciate about being Christian, and in particular being Anglican, is that we choose to keep the bits that we don’t necessarily like or agree with. I can be dismayed by some bits, but the effort to understand them keeps me growing and stops me from thinking that I’ve got everything all figured out.

This passage is a contrast from all of Luke’s beautiful songs and love-filled stories of healing. The way I read it, it seems like Jesus is very angry. “For pity’s sake,” he seems to be saying, “what does it take to get your attention!” “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” Jesus knows that he is heading for crucifixion, this dreadful baptism by fire, and it’s not hard to imagine the agony of anticipation. Things are urgent. Pay attention!

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Of course we think that Jesus has come to bring peace: that’s what the angels announced at his birth, that’s what all the healing stories point to, and that’s what he’s preaching when he talks about the kingdom where everyone looks after each other the way the Prophets and the Law tells you to.

So what of this division? One thing that strikes me is that the division that Jesus describes looks pretty familiar, particularly the bit about mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. We joke about mothers-in-law, but there is a degree of truth behind the jokes, and in some traditional cultures where multi-generations live together, the mother-in-law can make her daughter-in-law’s life a complete misery. This division, at any rate, is not something in the future but is very much in the present.

So perhaps the division that Jesus is talking about is on a different level from everyday conflict, however painful that may be. Earlier in Luke Jesus says something utterly shocking. A great crowd has gathered and people from town after town have come to him. He is teaching though parables. Then his mother and brothers come to him but cannot reach him because of the crowds. When he is told this, he replies, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Lk 8:21)

Perhaps the division that Jesus talks about in this morning’s passage comes because some have chosen to follow Jesus, and their primary allegiance is no longer with their birth family but is with their chosen family. One of the commentaries that I read put it this way:

The kingdom of God is a radical commonwealth in which everyone is included on an equal footing. This means that those people who want to tend to the wellbeing of the family first and foremost will be in conflict with other family members “who have a vision of a wider “family” infused by the compassionate fire of Jesus’s own radical love.” [1]

Jesus’s insistence on expanding the definition of family is challenging. Frankly, it’s hard enough to keep the peace within our own extended families. Imagine trying to get along with and support all God’s children.

But as my commentary says, “To demand peace (and prosperity) at the expense of those on the margins is to cry, “‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.”

It’s like the protest chant: “no justice, no peace.” No justice, no peace. This can be seen as a threat or a simple statement of fact. If we only look after our own, it is not real peace.

But let’s circle back to the baptism of fire. “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!”  It’s easy, because of the urgency and dismay in these verses, to lose sight of the fact that baptism leads to new life. And that Jesus’s crucifixion leads to new life for all of creation. This is not a fire of destruction but rather a fire that purifies.

This passage seems to be telling us that the way of Jesus is a hard way, but it is also a way that leads to new life. And maybe division is inevitable, but maybe, just maybe, Jesus’s way of love points us to a way through it.

The Iona Community puts it this way:

“Not an easy peace, not an insignificant peace, not a halfhearted peace, but the peace of God in Jesus Christ…”

Questions for Reflection

I wonder if you have experienced your Christian practice causing a challenge or tension within your family?

I wonder if you have tried to “keep the peace” at the expense of working towards new life in Jesus?

If wonder if you have experienced Christian community as an alternative to extended family? How is it similar and how is it different?

[1] Jeremiah 8:11. David J. Schlafer, Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 3, p. 363