|Yeah, this is not the Jesus we hear about in Sunday School|
Grace, peace and mercy are yours, from the Triune God. Amen
Wow. The Jesus we hear about in today’s Gospel is most definitely NOT the gentle Jesus we see depicted holding lambs and greeting children in frames on Sunday School classroom walls. This is Jesus on a mission, with a singleness of purpose, who has “set his face towards Jerusalem.” In the first part of today’s Gospel we hear Jesus describing this mission to his disciples. There is a decided tone of exasperation,
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
And it gets even more unnerving,
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
He goes on to describe how households and families will be divided. So if we take this text at face value, we hear about a Jesus who appears to be downright stressed out, ready to light a massive fire to consume the earth, has no desire whatsoever to bring peace, but instead has made it his personal mission to divide families…and this is not really a Jesus that I have a desire to know or spend much time with. And it seems to be in direct opposition to the Jesus that we hear about elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel.
We hear readings in Advent from the first chapter of Luke when the birth of Jesus is foretold by Zechariah when he says that Jesus will “guide our feet in the way of peace.” On Christmas, we hear the story of how the angels heralded the birth of Jesus saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace among those whom he favors.” Throughout the rest of the year, we hear stories of Jesus healing the sick, casting out demons, and keeping company with sinners. Along the way he scolds his disciples or would-be followers for having slightly skewed priorities, like Martha cleaning the kitchen instead of listening to Jesus like her sister Mary, or when the disciples argue about petty things among themselves such as who is the greatest. But overall, the Jesus in Luke’s Gospel up to this point appears to be a pretty nice guy. So what in the WORLD is going ON in today’s Gospel?!
Do we really even know Jesus? His birth was supposed to bring peace to all the earth. Jesus was supposed to bring people together. It does not sit so well when we hear him saying that he came to divide father against son and mother against daughter. This claim causes a sort of existential dread when we re-live all the times we were cut off from our loved ones. When we entered into a relationship with someone that our families did not like. When the cherished son came out as gay to conservative parents. When the daughter who always seemed to have it together succumbs to the ravages of alcoholism. When we need to sever ties with our families of origin because of abuse. These divisions hurt. We do not like this idea of Jesus bringing division because we are importing our own sense of who is in and who is out and we have all been on the painful side of human divisions before. Whether rich or poor, old or young, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, and so on.
We react to texts like these because we know what it feels like to have others claim God for their own purposes, such as Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, or Pat Robertson explaining natural disasters as God seeking revenge. Or those who say the election of a certain politician was “God’s will.” If our human brokenness causes so much division already, why would we want to have a God who causes an even deeper rift?
But what if Jesus is not actually making divisions between people and in families at all?
The household that Jesus describes in today’s Gospel is not what we imagine. When we hear the word “household” we think about parents and children neatly ensconced in a four-bedroom house on a quiet tree-lined street. But in first century Jerusalem, a household was the primary form of social organization and served as a microcosm for all of the social order. It provided space for raising children, but also provided for maintaining a certain system of power and privilege that ensured that some people would always remain on the margins, such as the slaves who served that household.
When Jesus asserts that he comes to bring division, he is boldly stating that he has not come to validate human structures of who is in and who is out, who has power and who is powerless, but rather, to initiate God’s radical will. The harsh sayings in this text remind us that Jesus has not come to validate the divisions we have set up. Jesus has not come to perpetuate the status quo! This is not business as usual. The Jesus that we hear about in today’s Gospel, as he is making his way ever closer to Jerusalem and to the cross, only has an agenda of compassion, mercy, and justice. When Jesus appears exasperated and angry in today’s text, he is naming the tension between the vision that God wants to see for all of creation and what is actually happening now in the old creation.
And this baptism that Jesus refers to is not one with water in the Jordan River. No, this baptism refers to his own death! Baptism is not merely a cozy ceremony in which we welcome children or adults into a congregation, it represents the dying, the drowning, of the old self and through this dying, explains how we share in the resurrection of Christ and become a new creation. Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet who is pointing with his own outstretched arms on a cross to a new future. We get nervous about things that sound judgmental because we are afraid that we will be judged to be on the wrong side. But what is actually revealed here is God’s own passion for justice for all people. This is not an angry God who delights in dividing families; this is a passionate God who wants the whole world to be redeemed through radical love.
The last portion of today’s Gospel has Jesus admonishing the crowds, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” He is chastising them for their inability to see the divine activity happening in their midst. The people miss his message all the way up until his death on a cross. We need to see God in Christ as seen on the cross because we cannot always see him walking beside us.
Jesus came to testify to the in-breaking of God to do a new thing in all the earth. Over and over in Luke’s Gospel we hear about the reversals of social order. Jesus is disruptive. The Kingdom of God is disruptive. This is not going to feel like good news if we feel safe and secure in our present location. But for those imprisoned by circumstance, this disruption comes as the best news possible. Jesus makes it clear that he is unabashedly for the weak, lowly, broken, poor, and sick. And furthermore, this is all of us in one way or another. But human systems of power do not favor those on the margins. We do not value our elders in the way they deserve. We dismiss the ideas and energy of our young people. We let skin color or ethnicity or disability get in the way of real relationships. We let money make our decisions for us and put it between ourselves and our neighbors in need.
Jesus came into the world to disrupt all of this.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is upending the social structure that humanity clings to in order to put its trust in something…in anything…and instead have us turn towards a loving God. Jesus has not come to validate the divisions we make for ourselves, rather, he has come to destroy them and show the deep and abiding love of a God who wants to redeem the whole world. The division is between old and new creation. The old creation where we are sinful, broken, oppressed and oppressing and the new creation where we are redeemed, freed and loved. God is jolting all of us out of the places where we have gotten too comfortable. God is pulling us through the waters of baptism and into new life.
But for all of this talk of division and destruction of the old and the rising of the new, we are still both sinner and saint in the same broken body. The Kingdom of God is now and not yet. Jesus came to divide us from our old selves and the old creation, and while we arise as a new creation each day in the image of the risen Christ, we live in the tension of both/and, now and not yet. And we eagerly anticipate God’s future in which this division will be no more. Amen.