(Some of) the Challenges of Christian Life (8/18)

August 19, 2013

Every year at Christmas, we hear the reading from Isaiah where the prophet tells us that the coming messiah will be the Prince of Peace. In the same readings for Christmas, in the Gospel of Luke, the angels proclaim “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace goodwill among the people.” So it is more than a little bit ironic that in the Gospel of Luke, we hear from Jesus own lips these words: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” This really is irony. Luke repeatedly describes the mission of Jesus as mercy and compassion and peace. But the scene we have in this morning’s Gospel is not the vision of the gentle Jesus that we are accustomed to. So what do we make of this?

First of all, when we hear things that are arresting and challenging, things that we don’t exactly expect to hear, we are supposed to pay close attention. It means that Jesus is drawing our attention to something important. Jesus is warning us that following him will lead to conflict. And Jesus drives this point home by describing division even among close family members.

We all can appreciate the emotional stakes at play when family members come into conflict, but in Jesus society, these relationships also dictated important social responsibilities. Sons and daughters were responsible for carrying on the father’s and mother’s family. And in-law relationships were how families became united with each other and stable communities were formed. In other words, the social bonds that Jesus uses for his example were some of the most important in his society. These are the bonds that are necessary for society to function. And Jesus is saying that following him will – for some of his disciples – bring conflict into the heart of these critical social bonds.

So is Jesus telling us to go out and feud with our parents and our in-laws? No, of course not. If we look at the first things Jesus says in this passage, we get a clue. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” This is a reference to Elijah calling down fire on the prophets of Baal. This is a statement about choosing which gods we follow. And he does want to instill a sense of urgency in us. He’s making the point that, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is God’s love for each of us, and the only thing we need to do is to turn ourselves completely to him through Jesus. All of the rest can fail us, but God will never fail us.

In Jesus’ day, the mutual responsibilities that came with those relationships were the kind of things that people accepted without thinking. They were basic building blocks of the society. The assumptions were baked in. Speaking as a prophet, Jesus draws those concepts into question. In our day, we very much love our parents and our families, but these kinds of family relationships are not usually the same kinds of drivers for our community. But we have other things that we use to fundamentally organize ourselves. Things and concepts that are baked into our society, Ideas that we accept with question, things that we never even think about.

For us to really hear what Jesus is saying, we need to try to uncover the unseen structures of our society. Here are two brief examples. There are basic assumptions that our society makes about consumerism and our relationships to material things. The idea that our role in society is to produce and consume goods usually goes unquestioned. But there are people who, for the sake of the gospel, reject material things. These people, by their lives, bring an implicit critique on society. They remind us that – yes – material things can be essentially good and they can be a gift from God. But in the end, they really don’t matter. Material things cannot be our god.

We are also told repeatedly that we live in a dangerous world, and we should take action to protect ourselves. This is prudent. But for many people, simple prudence turns into a life of fear. As Christians, we set our eyes on something greater than this life, and so we have absolutely no need to fear anything in this world. We don’t need to live in fear of other people. Security cannot be our god.

These are two simple characteristics of our society which don’t really resonate with the Gospel. There are many others we can and should explore. If we really begin to reconsider these ideas as Christians, and if we really begin to reorder our life around them, this choice will take us down a path which is different from the one that many walk.

But the division isn’t final either. When we choose the peace that Jesus is offering us, we will be inspired to close those divisions, to show others the peace that he has given us. We can share the peace that we receive when we follow Christ. The challenges in our lives are temporary; Jesus is giving us a way to tap into the eternal peace of God. This is a gift that is given to us, and a gift that we can help others receive.

Homily for Proper 15, Year C
Michael Tuck+

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