Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria BC
Text: Luke 12:49-56
It is one of those weeks when curates and associates across the country have a few words to say to their rectors who have taken today off and left us to preach on this particularly challenging set of readings.
Take our gospel reading this morning, for instance, what do we do when Jesus seems to contradict himself? Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
Was Jesus just having a bad day on the way to Jerusalem? How else can we reconcile what we read in today’s gospel with what we read in the rest of Luke’s gospel and in other places in the Holy Scriptures?
For example, there is Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, where the shepherds are told that Jesus’ birth is to bring peace on earth…
Or there is that passage familiar to many, interpreted by the New Testament writers to be about Jesus, where the prophet Isaiah says that the divine child to be born will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…
And what about in the gospel of John where Jesus is reported to say Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Why on earth would Jesus say that he has not come to bring peace to the earth but division when – everything – else – we know – and – read about Jesus — is that he comes to bring peace?
In our sermon circle gathering this week, I posed the question, “Is peace the opposite of division?” That is, are peace and division opposed to each other? Can there be peace where there is division or can division exist amidst peace?
I’m not sure that we ever came to a final decision at sermon circle. Certainly, Jesus’ words seem to suggest that peace and division are opposites, but I am not convinced.
Why would Jesus say that he has not come to bring peace after all of the peace that is proclaimed by and about him throughout the Scriptures?
Let us consider peace.
We might think of peace as being merely the absence of war or conflict.
And that may be so. But I suspect there is more to it than that.
By way of example, let us turn our minds back in time to a small, out of the way, unimportant village in a small, out of the way province, in a big big empire.
There, the countryside is simmering with tension that threatens to boil over any day. It did a few months ago, when reports suggest that hundreds, if not thousands of people who had rebelled against the empire were brutally killed by crucifixion, their crosses lining the roads out of Sepphoris, not far chronologically or geographically from when and where Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Yet this time period, the one into which Jesus was born, is one that is often called peaceful because it existed under the Peace of Rome.
The shadow of Rome might be more accurate. Because while there is no longer any open war in the streets or countryside, it is an occupied territory and the citizens who are being occupied are not entirely happy with the situation. And so while on the surface there seems to be peace, Jesus and his disciples know full well that it is not peaceful.
So it makes sense that Jesus would not want to bring that peace, when the rulers of the land say that they have already brought peace. Because the Peace of Rome was a peace sustained through bloodshed and show of power. If Jesus had said that he was also bringing that peace, I can imagine folks around him saying, “more of the “peace” that mighty leaders bring? More deaths? More oppression? No thanks Jesus, take your “peace” elsewhere…”
We have peace in Canada, in Victoria, don’t we?
There is no war, no tyrannical leaders who we avoid speaking out against for fear of imprisonment. No major threats to our lives.
Sure, we might not speak up in a meeting when we think we will be the lone dissenting voice on a major commitment of the group, but it is better to keep the peace and have a false sense of unity, right?
Or we might avoid talking about certain issues with family members or friends… we might feel that remaining on “peaceful” terms with everyone is more important than calling out our brother-in-law or neighbour on their racist or sexist comments.
And of course we will never change anything in church, because we can’t if we want peaceful worship – someone might not like the change and therefore keeping the peace means no changes – right?
But in all seriousness – when did “peace” come to mean that we all have to always agree about everything? Or all be / think / act / and worship in exactly the same way for all time? Do we really think that “keeping the peace” means giving in or, the opposite of that, that “making peace” means forcing our will on everyone else so that we can all be in agreement? When did peace come to mean no divisions? Because despite all of our attempts for peace as the end of all divisions, divisions remain.
It is somewhat reassuring to hear Jesus say that there were divisions then too. Even with Jesus present day-in-day-out, the disciples still experienced division. Just a few chapters earlier in Luke, the disciples were arguing over who amongst themselves was greater! So, division exited between the disciples. But even while they were arguing over who was the greatest, they were discovering the difference that Jesus’ peace can bring.
And even though they were at odds with the rulers of the empire – and even their own families at times – they were at peace with following Jesus. Enough peace so that they would follow Jesus into persecution and death.
Jesus is letting those gathered around him know that following him and his way will not be easy. The gospel will not always bring harmony. Families may be torn apart. Communities may disagree.
But is the gospel about all of humanity agreeing on everything all of the time? Is the end result that we desire to have everyone holding hands around a campfire and singing kumbaya?
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I do not give to you as the world gives. Peace I leave with you; MY peace I give to you…
Jesus did not bring peace as Rome brought peace – the false peace of military might – but brought the peace that passes all understanding to keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. Not that divisions might be created, but that by naming that division and discord exist, we might enter into the roots of it and discover what it really is so that we might work for Jesus’ peace rather than the world’s peace.
I wonder if that is the grace in this difficult passage: Jesus’ permission for peace and division to not necessarily be at odds with each other. That it is okay for us to disagree – that it is about how we disagree rather than that we disagree. Do we seek God’s will as the outcome, not our own interests or the interest of “keeping the peace”? Do we, in the words of our baptismal covenant, have as our priority seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves and respecting the dignity of every human being?
Because in doing so, we have the opportunity to bring peace. Not the false peace that means suppression of all around us or the promotion of ourselves. And not the peace of military might. But the peace that is, in the words of the Iona liturgy: not an easy peace, not an insignificant peace, not a half-hearted peace, but the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ that is with us now…