Jeremiah 23: 23-29
Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? 24 Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. 25 I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ 26 How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back—those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? 27 They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. 28 Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. 29 Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient,[k] because she had received the spies in peace.
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,[l] they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,[a] and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of[b] the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Luke 12: 49-56
‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Last Sunday, over coffee after the service, someone asked me about today’s gospel reading – what is going on here? These sayings of Jesus seem at odds with the rest of his teaching. Didn’t he come as Zechariah prophecies, to “guide our feet in the way of peace?”
We could equally turn to that moment, early in his ministry, when he taught in the synagogue at Nazareth, and he read from the scroll:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
So how do we understand today’s gospel in the light of this? What does Jesus mean when he says he has come to bring not peace, but division?
The first thing I want to say is that I do not think he is seeking to divide people, to create conflict. Rather, such division is a consequence of his presence and his teaching, a consequence he regrets.
We see such consequences immediately after those words in the synagogue. You may remember that by the time he has finished teaching, his audience are enraged and they make to throw him off a nearby cliff, but he escapes.
So there is something about the presence of Christ that exposes the oppression, the hidden violence of societies. There are people who feel threatened by Jesus’ message, and whose defensiveness is shown in powerful aggression. These are the powers which persecuted the prophets through the ages, as we heard in our reading from Hebrews, and plotted and brought about Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Nazarenes became angry when Jesus gently challenged their sense of their own superiority. And this, it seems to me is the first way in which his message provokes attack: by exposing the in-group mentality, and its scapegoating of the outsider. And the second way is in his challenge to abuses of authority, as it seeks to control the people and to protect sharply unequal distribution of power and resources. Both instincts hide behind myths, stories of legitimacy, so that when they are exposed as arbitrary, naked use of power, there is an immediate and vicious backlash.
We see these forces at work in our own day just as he did in his. I don’t need to name those contemporary impulses to strengthen the in-group by blaming the outsider, or where people seek to tighten their grip on power and wealth by whipping up a smokescreen of popular emotion. These are powerful forces. If, like me, you have had the good fortune to lead a peaceful life, the sudden eruption of violent division can feel unexpected and shocking.
Recently, I read a new biography of Soren Kierkegaard, by Clare Carlisle. Kierkegaard lived in Denmark, from 1813-1855. He wrote about Christian faith, in a style that was deeply introspective, searching, restless. One of the key events that shaped his life was when as a young man he fell in love with Regine Olsen. They were engaged, but then a year later Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, feeling that he could not be a family man, that he was called to a life dedicated to faith and to his writing. He was publicly decried as a result, and at different times in his life he experienced, and imagined, the scorn of the community in which he lived. A sense of the difficult, narrow path of faith runs through all his work, that it is a lonely ordeal, against the grain of the world, that it demands the sacrifice of things we hold most dear.
Kierkegaard had a difficult relationship with his local Bishop, Jacob Mynster. He accused Mynster of peddling a cheap, easy sentimentality in the place of true Christian faith.
I tell you this to illustrate these two strands within Christian spirituality. On the one hand the simple good news of grace, of God’s unconditional love. What Richard Rohr calls ever deeper nets of acceptance. But then there is Kierkegaard’s stony path of costly discipleship, necessarily provoking opposition and railing against the idea that the Danish bourgeoisie could go to church on Sundays and receive their ritual comfort, but leave their life in the world beyond undisturbed.
I am aware that my own bias is more on Mynster’s side. I hold first to a faith that God loves us, there is really nothing more to be said. Each day we find ourselves, in different ways either hiding from his love, or attempting to earn it. And then each morning we learn again, that he just loves us.
But the other strand, telling of the struggle of faith, in the face of hostility and division, is also valid, as today’s gospel reminds us. It is true that we face darkness and division in the world. We should be wary, hopeful but not surprised.
Division is not just out there. Jesus emphasises its closeness, within families. Kierkegaard suggests that it comes closer still, that the division and hostility that we see in society, as a backlash against Jesus’ radical message, also has its counterpart in our own hearts. That, for all that nothing can separate us from God’s love, there is still a work to be done, in allowing that love to transform every part of us, like the yeast that works its way through the dough, a work which provokes resistance and protest within us.
Let us pray that in the fullness of God’s purposes, when justice and mercy flow through all the earth, all these divisions will melt away: in the world, in our families and in us.