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Sun, Aug 18, 2019

Disturber of the Peace

Duration:16 mins 28 secs

Sermon on Luke 12:49-56 (Luke 2:25-35)

 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“Disturber of the Peace”

            “I have come not to bring peace, but division.”

             This is just what we wanted to hear today, right? In our current national moment, when political divisions seem sharper than ever; when the culture wars are at their most acrimonious in recent memory; when we see progressives vs. moderates vs. conservatives in almost everything, not just politics; when stress and tension and painful division are just the daily news -- the lectionary hands us these unsettling words of Jesus.

            It is a shock to read what Jesus said to his followers: “[Households] will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law…”, and so forth. Your enemies will be in your own household. Jesus is saying that the gospel he brings is something that cuts into a family like a sword, slashing through the close-knit fabric of the family unit, laying bare their differences and sowing discord. What he means is that some family members will hear the gospel and respond, while others will cover their ears in protest or turn away indifferently. The gospel, Jesus says, this message that we call good news, is a home-wrecker. Like charity, the fire Jesus came to kindle begins at home.

            The division Jesus will cause is announced early in Luke’s Gospel. The angels have barely finished singing about peace on earth at the birth of Jesus when old Simeon takes the eight-day-old baby in his arms and declares that he will be a “sign of contradiction.” John the Baptist announced him as someone who would come with a “winnowing fork” in his hand (3:17). By the time Jesus pronounces the words we heard today, he has told a would-be follower that there is no time for him to go back and bury his dead father before joining Jesus and his disciples on the road: “Let the dead bury their own dead…as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God,” Jesus says to the man (9:60). That is harsh. Then he wouldn’t let another man say goodbye to his family before joining up with him (9:61-62). Another time his mother and brothers were waiting patiently outside the place where he was speaking, wanting to get some time with him themselves. Someone reminded him that they were waiting to see him, and what did he say? “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (8:19-21) Just being blood-related does not cut any ice with Jesus. If you’re not related to God as heavenly Parent, you’re not related to Jesus. This also seems harsh.

            I don’t think Jesus was trying to be disagreeable. He just wanted people to understand what following him might cost them. It’s kind of ironic, really – some of the most vocal “family values” advocates today blame the breakdown of the family on things like abandoning prayer in schools or not having the Ten Commandments posted in public places – but Jesus says that faithfulness to him is a force that may tear families apart.

            By the time Luke started pulling together these sayings of Jesus in his Gospel, lots of people in the early church could speak from first-hand experience

about what following Jesus had done to their family life. Some had been thrown out of their homes or disinherited by their parents for speaking openly about their faith in a crucified savior. Luke, by the way, is not complaining about this state of affairs – he’s just saying, this is reality so don’t be surprised if it happens to you. And he offers Jesus’s words of hope to a community of people who had had to choose between their family and their faith. He reminds them that God is faithful, and whatever trials they may be going through, God cares for them as a parent.

            The gospel may have sounded like bad news for traditional families, but for the first people who heard it, it opened the door to a new kind of family. The early Christian community, in fact, redefined the family. The church was a family you joined not by birth but by baptism. The head of the household was not the patriarch or matriarch, but Christ himself. For some people – those who had run away or had been booted out of their family homes – the church was a literal alternative to traditional families; for others, it was a completely different kind of family life. The church was a community in which people who were not related by blood addressed each other as “brother” and “sister” because they had God as their father. They referred to themselves as “children” of God, because that’s what they became when they were baptized. They fit Jesus’s definition of family.

            So was Jesus really anti-family in the traditional sense? Was he a home-wrecker? In some ways it can’t be denied that he was – I think of poor old Zebedee left alone to manage the family fishing business while his sons James and John went off with Jesus. But we also know Jesus spoke positively of marriage and negatively of adultery and casual divorce. He spoke approvingly of the commandment to honor your father and mother. There’s no evidence that he was encouraging anarchy in family relationships. But he did want people to understand that a choice to follow him would entail some other choices, not all of which would be appreciated by the family. He did want people to understand that family is not the highest value, faithfulness to God is. And he did want people to know that the kind of life he was offering is worth fighting for, even if it means antagonizing those who are nearest and dearest.

            John’s Gospel says that Jesus is “the crisis of the world” (12:31). “Crisis” here doesn’t mean emergency; it’s something more like “moment of truth,” when a decision must be made. A decision for Jesus can radically change the values, priorities and goals that a person has lived by up until that moment of Christ-crisis.    

            Some families today still find the sword of the gospel cutting through their family life. In communities or countries where Christianity is a minority religion, families can be torn apart when one member decides to be baptized. The gospel can cut in more subtle ways, too, even in Christian families, when someone decides to take it really seriously. What about the daughter you’ve educated so carefully – and expensively – who decides that God is calling her to serve as a medical missionary in the Syrian refugee camps? What about the son who gives up a lucrative law practice to live with an intentional community among the poor? What about the husband who knows about his company’s unethical business practices and decides to blow the whistle? He’ll lose his job, and then where will the family be?  For that matter, what about the newly-ordained Presbyterian elder or deacon whose evenings and weekends suddenly get consumed by service to the church? The family who’s used to having mom or dad available for everything may find that the gospel of Jesus Christ is interfering with their life together.    

            Yet for all these demands, Jesus Christ is also the One who gives life. The early Christians discovered that he was worth risking even the hurt and anger of their families, and prayed that these same families might eventually be led into the new kind of life they had discovered. 

            Jesus Christ does not promise that following him will lead to an easier life or a more peaceful life or a life that is pleasing to our closest relatives. He does offer the chance for a life that is pleasing to God. And he does promise that those who choose this life will never be left alone.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

August 18, 2019


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