With today’s passage from Luke’s telling of the Gospel it feels rather like we’ve all gotten lost and wandered into Advent in midsummer, doesn’t it? Fire, swords, and houses divided, oh my! This is no mistake. Last week we heard a passage about two thieves and the importance of being ready to either defend one’s home from an intruder or welcome the master in on their return. Jesus is doing some exasperated teaching about what it means to be a disciple and just how different God’s kingdom is from the human empires and ideas surrounding him. There is a distinct clash between the realities and values of God’s kingdom and the expectations of humanity, both those who desire God’s kingdom and those who would rather not think about it.
One of the first expectations to be dismissed is the idea, held by many, that the appearance of the Messiah would be a series of brilliant military victories, a unifying king on the throne of Israel, and the beginning of a placid golden age. Instead, Jesus describes this moment as one full of division in society, right down to family members taking opposing sides. Already, the disciples know that this uncomfortable statement is true. Many of them have left families and livelihoods and all they knew behind to follow Jesus.
Jesus’s arrival creates division because it calls for a loyalty of the highest order. Jesus is very clear about this in his conversations with disciples, in his teaching to crowds, and in his arguments with detractors: If one is going to claim life with God, it must be one’s highest allegiance. No king, no empire, no country, no guild, no country club, no family ties, no other relationship of any kind can be prioritized over our relationship with God. For Christians, this is evidenced and made explicit in baptism. There can be no allegiance more important than that of ours to God in baptism, in Christ.
This teaching was deeply upsetting to the Romans who relied so greatly on imperial nationalism with the (mostly) biological family as the key unit. The pater familias was the little emperor of the house with almost total control over the lives of his family members and slaves. This hierarchy was repeated on level after level through Roman society. Christians were forever upsetting this by viewing their baptismal relationship as more important than their families or ethnicities or nationalities. Being baptized is being adopted into the Body of Christ, into the family of God and the truth of this needs to be not just understood and spoken, but lived out.
The intense commitment to the truths of God’s kingdom is another repeated theme in Jesus’s teaching and ministry. Remember, in Matthew 10.1-12, when Jesus sends the disciples out to speak to the world about the nearness of the kingdom of God, the truth is more important than social graces. The disciples are instructed to go into communities, speak the truth of the Gospel and, if people don’t welcome them, to shake off the dust of that place and move to the next household or community. But also to remind the people on their way out that the kingdom of God is indeed coming near and their desire to hear about it does not change that truth. Jesus gives these instructions immediately following an extended discussion about the fates of faithful and unfaithful slaves. These truths are critical and Jesus knows that they will cause dissent, argument, and division.
How, then, is this the work of one who comes to bring peace?
I think most of us Westerners imagine peace as a version of calmness and tranquility. A quiet, sun-dappled floral meadow with butterflies floating about, situated on the edge of a pleasant wood, warm but not unpleasantly hot, and probably with a soundtrack from the English pastoral school of music composition; a symphony by Vaughan Williams, perhaps. If we think of peace in relationships between people, rather than as an atmosphere we inhabit, we probably think of an absence of open hostility. The fighting children sent to opposite corners of the house, all of their anger and umbrage intact and unresolved, makes peace in the home, right? This is perhaps one popular version of peace, but it is not the peace of God that Christ speaks about and that we share with one another in our liturgies.
God’s peace is a costly one. It demands a true end to conflict and a reconciliation of the people involved, rather than a ceasefire with all of the hostile feelings alive and well. God’s peace creates division among people. In a world where sin exists and infects our hearts, perfect reconciliation between all things is not possible all at once. Some will choose to remain in conflict because they believe the cost of reconciliation is too high. The cost might be giving up material things that we have come to enjoy and appreciate. How much less would we live with if it meant reconciling our relationship with the earth? The cost might be admitting that we were wrong. Having to say to our siblings in Christ “I did a selfish thing and, in doing so, I realize that I hurt you; I am sorry.” How much of our own ego would we set aside to reconcile our relationships with one another?
This work is difficult and oftentimes painful. Like physiotherapy or re-breaking a bone so that it might be set to heal properly. Jesus speaks of fire deliberately. Fire is a sign of judgement, but also a symbol of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit. Like refining gold or the work of natural, healthy forest fires, the fire of God burns away that which is a hindrance or unneeded or keeping us from growing well and leaves behind what is healthy and holy with space for new growth to spring up. Leaving behind that which is not godly in our own lives is the other side of the coin to witnessing to the truth of God’s kingdom and working to reconcile our relationships. And we know it will not be easy. 1 Peter 4.12 says, clear as day, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you.”
God’s peace and the perfect reconciliation that accompanies it will come to all of creation. It is coming nearer and nearer with every passing moment—remember the message the pairs of disciples are given in Matthew—and we are called to watch for it and align ourselves to it. Jesus’s exasperated cry of “Do you not see this day?” is a call to be searching for the work God is already doing and to reconcile ourselves to it. If we can look at the sky and think to predict the weather, which is mercurial and difficult to track at the best of times, then surely we can see the working of God who is actively trying to be known to us.
God’s peace and reconciliation will come and they will come at a cost. Our allegiance to God’s chosen family must be absolute and entire, and this will cause divisions in some of our relationships. Like the disciples, we must be willing to speak the truth and, if it is not received, move on. This is not, however, licence for Christians to sow dissent and ostracize and other those who do not or cannot hear at first. Jesus tells the disciples to move on from where they are not wanted, but he does not say that they ought to pass judgement on those who refuse or cannot hear the truth. Jesus does not say “And when the daughter of the family who refused you chases you down the road, begging to know more about God’s kingdom which she could not ask in front of her parents, you should refuse and condemn her.” Absolutely not. The one who comes seeking God is to be welcomed with joy and celebration, like a long-absent sibling finally returned home. The one who hears the Gospel and is willing to do the work and pay the cost of God’s reconciliation, to seek life in God through Christ, is a reminder that each of us who is baptized has promised to do all in our power to uphold one another in our lives in Christ.
Aligning ourselves with God is a difficult proposition because it calls us to leave so much of ourselves behind. We give up our entire lives in baptism to take on new lives in Christ, so that we can be reconciled to God and be reflections of Christ’s goodness in the world. This pilgrimage to the kingdom of God is one we are all on together, though each traveling at their own speed and sometimes by a different fork path. We all have different pieces of ourselves that need to be reconciled, that need to meet the fire of the Holy Spirit and be renewed, like the face of the earth itself.
It is hard and costly work, but we do all of this with one another, our chosen siblings in Christ. Reflections of the God of boundless grace, mercy, and love, who made each of us as we are; who calls each of us to true peace and reconciliation; who stands at the gates of the kingdom with gates that never shut, beckoning all people in to live there for ever.
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