If you think about it, we talk a lot in the church about what a unifying figure Jesus is. We see him chiefly as someone whose love is a like wide circle, whose grace constantly extends to welcome more and more people. We admire how Jesus includes everyone, finding space in his community for the repulsive leper, the despised Samaritan, and even the uptight Pharisee—people we would probably exclude or despise, had we lived back then. Jesus even dies praying for forgiveness for the people who nail him to the cross. Jesus is all about unity, it seems, a unity grounded in the wonderful things Jesus brings to us—things like peace, and love, and joy.
In fact, during the Sundays of Advent many congregations often use an Advent wreath with four candles to symbolize some of the gifts that Jesus brings. As a child I learned that one candle, for example, was the “peace” candle, because the angels would sing at his birth of the wonderful peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind that would follow his reign on earth. The other candles were lit to represent joy, love, and hope, all fabulous and fantastic and friendly things we want from a unifying, all-embracing Jesus.
However, based on what Jesus himself says today in Luke’s gospel as he talks to his disciples about the expectations his kingdom has for the earth, we might need to re-think that Advent wreath this year. It sounds like we need to get rid of the peace candle and replace it with the division candle! “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks, clearly fired up at his disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division!” We may need to rename not just a candle, but maybe re-think the whole idea of candles, themselves, with their soft, glowing nature. Jesus says he comes to bring fire to earth! With that in mind, maybe the whole Advent wreath should just be torched as kindling on the altar!
The bottom line is that if we take Jesus at his words this morning, he doesn’t sound very unifying at all, and the fire of which he speaks isn’t very warm and fuzzy. This is not the side of Jesus we’re accustomed to, the one that normally gets lifted up. No, this is a side Jesus that lays waste to the airbrushed Jesus we often project for ourselves, the soft-edged Jesus that never really challenges us or asks any demands of us. By contrast, here we see a Jesus that might actually cause some real pain and division in our lives, a Jesus that might indeed bring about some hardship and conflict when we follow him.
In an interview this pastweek at the Edinburgh International Book festival, the retired Archbishop of the Church of England, Rowan Williams, said that American and British Christians who talk of being persecuted should “grow up” and not exaggerate what amounts to being “mildly uncomfortable.” Those words may offend us, but I think the fired up Jesus we see in this morning’s gospel would wholeheartedly agree with Archbishop Williams. Many Christians in Egypt, by contrast, can claim to know about persecution. Or Christians in Syria can, too, as well as some Muslims in Myanmar and in other places throughout the world.
|Coptic orthodox Christians in Egypt protesting discriminatory policies|
What followers of Jesus in places like that can tell us is that Jesus’ love places us on the edge of a kingdom that rubs rough against a broken creation. Church is not just a well-meaning social service organization that brings together people to perform service projects in the community, however effective those service projects may be. Neither is church a place where individuals “tank up” on inspiration for the week. Rather, church is a community where our relationships with other individuals take center stage, as broken and damaged as they may be. Jesus’ fellowship is a new family that can, in fact, cause us to fall out of favor occasionally with the rest of the world, even other family members, for the decisions we make and the stances we take. By the power of the cross, Jesus forms among us a new kind of family that rearranges us according to God’s love and forgiveness, not according to what gender or race or social status the world gives us.
For hundreds of years, women who entered convents, for example, to follow monastic orders and live in a religious community based on the teachings of Jesus were shunned and abandoned by their families as a result of their decision. For such a woman, following Jesus in this way brought disgrace to her family because, by taking a vow of chastity and poverty, she eliminated her family’s ability to use her through arranged marriage and child-bearing as a means of solidifying relationships with more powerful families. At a time when women were valued as little more than property or a tool for concentrating family wealth or maintaining blood lines, Jesus offered a new, life-giving alternative. But, in doing so, he set mother against daughter, and daughter against mother.
But there is danger in separating the personalities and purposes of Jesus, as if he is nice Jesus and then mean Jesus, unifying Jesus and dividing Jesus, soft-glow Advent candle Jesus and fired-up, frustrated Jesus. For the fired-up Jesus this morning is, indeed, the one over whose birth in Bethlehem the angels sang, “Peace on earth, good will toward humankind.” The difference is that we must form our notion of peace around him and his message and not some misbegotten form of peace that remains in our own hearts and makes us self-absorbed. The particular kind of peace that Jesus brings does involve division. It divides us from things that go against this kingdom—things like our sin, our attachment to racism, economic oppression, and environmental abuse, to name a few. Jesus comes to divide us from all that, to remove them from human community as well as from our own lives.
Can we stand for Jesus’ kingdom and at the same time be complacent about changing this world to look more like him? Can we pray “thy kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven” and at the same time stand in the way of justice in our own communities? Can we give thanks to God for the beauty and wonder of the gift of our lives, and not be concerned, in some way, about things like abortion, or the level of the prison population in our country? If this more complete picture of Jesus that we hear from in the gospel text causes us to take stock of our lives and scrutinize some of our choices, then it is doing what he’s supposed to. Jesus means to say he is not simply a dashboard decoration or a wall-hanging or pillow embroidery. The peculiar way Jesus unites people is divisive, in and of itself. But it is what saves us all.
To those who think Jesus comes simply to help us be spiritual and enlightened, Jesus says, “No!” To those who believe Jesus comes to help us achieve inner peace, Jesus says, “Nuh-uh!” To those of us who feel that Jesus’ message is simply about making life easier, making us feel happier, this Jesus says, “Nope! Think again!”
I recently returned from spending a week in Pittsburgh as a voting member of the Churchwide Assembly of our denomination the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Our denomination, like any church communion anywhere else, is very divided over many things. We heard heated debates this week on many of the topics with which we struggle—human sexuality, gun control, community violence…how properly to follow Roberts Rules of Order. We elected a woman bishop, a fact that many Christians around the world will have a hard time knowing what to do with. We passed a thorough social statement on criminal justice and what Christians can and should say about that issue in this country. And although there were decisions made that didn’t please everyone, although there are some who no doubt still feel the division there is some solace in the fact that we actually grappled prayerfully over these issues and others like them—that our faith is not just about lighting the subdued candle of an inner peace, but wondering how to burn towards the vision of a world where all relationships will be formed by the word of God and the love of Christ’s cross.
Because there will be a day, sisters and brothers, when we will realize that we have been fully cleansed in Jesus, when we realize we have been plunged into that grace, when we realize that we have, in fact, “laid aside every weight and sin that clings so closely,” and we will be fully united, totally one. There will be a place and time where nothing divisive—not even death—will lay claim to us. He will have divided us from it and from within us forever. We will stand and break bread with all those who have gone before us and who have felt the fire of his love, the tax collectors and the Pharisees of every time and every age. We will receive what Jesus has given, in full.
And for that promise, for that glorious promise, my sisters and brothers, we may follow him now.