"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sunday Sermon: Luke 12. Jesus comes to bring divisions.

Luke 12:49-56

[Jesus said to his disciples], "I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!  I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!  Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.  For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.  They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother in law."

He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.'  And so it happens.  And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,' and it happens.  You hypocrites!  You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

Not an easy Gospel passage today. When I started preparing for this morning, I realised I wasn't familiar with this part of Luke’s Gospel, indeed it sounded quite alien – not the Jesus we’re used to at all. Its uncomfortable reading isn’t it? We may be better acquainted with Matthew’s version which somehow doesn’t sound quite so confrontational, Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Luke, on the other hand, concludes by roundly condemning his audience as hypocrites.

On reflection, perhaps they sound equally bleak.

I don’t know why I was discomforted: I’ve never bought into the Gentle Jesus, Meek and mild image, in fact in my classroom I’ve a picture of Jesus based on a Che Guevara poster which bears the legend “Jesus? Meek? Mild? AS IF!” The rather fey Jesus with small children and fluffy animals so beloved of Bible illustrators couldn’t be further from the truth because we do come across Jesus in anger and violence as he drives the money lenders out of the temple. We rationalise that, rightly, by talk of righteous anger and how offended Jesus was at the sacrilege and blasphemy associated with the way the temple courts were being used in the run-up to the Passover

When we read or hear the Gospel stories we generally assume that we are the audience for what Jesus is saying and that is often the case, but it may be a very individual and personal thing that speaks to your heart – but not to yours on this occasion but the next time we read Jesus’ words it could well be the other way round: the message may relate very much to our personal circumstances; to our political, cultural or social circumstances; it may apply to us today, but wouldn’t have twenty years ago and perhaps won’t in twenty years’ time. Having said that, there are messages which are for all of us and this is surely one.

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

Luke has Jesus talking generally to the crowds but in and amongst that he talks in asides to his inner group of 12. It really is two conversations juxtaposed with the disciples being treated to a more intimate commentary on the side. In these disciples, Jesus saw the potential of great commitment. Now, in terms of an implied audience, I consider myself a disciple and I think it’s fair to think that what Jesus said to those first disciples he is still saying to me – and to you - his later-day disciples. Isn’t it a little bit scary to think that in us Jesus sees the potential of great commitment too?

But he tells us he comes to bring division.

And this does speak to me: in my view Jesus is a divisive figure – it’s not for nothing that people warn you not to talk about religion (and politics), particularly at family events. Try talking to your Jewish and Muslim friends about Jesus and see how long it takes to reach at least a theological parting of the ways: friendships have been lost over this. Even within Christianity we can find ourselves in sharp disagreement about Jesus; about what his teaching means; about what we believe he would say about the issues of the day and almost always with the assumption that our view is the one that Jesus would espouse. Often without even realising it we like to own Jesus and deploy him as sponsor of our own theology/morality/ethics. I was once told by an American Christian that the reason I didn’t agree with him over some point of Jesus’ teaching was because of my “sin darkened mind.” Oh, that sin darkened mind of mine. Caught out again.

So, uncomfortable as this passage is, let’s not fool ourselves that what Jesus is saying isn’t based in fact and experience.

I come to cast fire on the earth Jesus tells his disciples. That’s very Old Testament isn’t it? When we hear talk of fire in an Old Testament sense, what images or themes spring into our minds? What is Jesus talking about here? To me, Jesus seems to be talking about judgement – but not in the sense that we usually think of it. I don’t think this is about lakes of fire and all the O.T. imagery we associate with that use of language.  Surely Jesus is being far more sophisticated here: think about that for a moment – it’s personal, it’s individual, but what are the certainties we hide behind that perhaps we shouldn’t? What are those things we delude ourselves with? That pride, those exaggerations we hide behind rather than the honest and painful self-awareness? Jesus' presence is an explosive presence: it lights the blue touch paper which blows away our self-delusions, and what we see as the certainties of life. Surely Jesus is talking about casting the fire of destruction over all the misplaced aspirations and expectations we have, stripping away all that we’ve come to rely on; those things which we allow to insulate us from God’s message of His Kingdom. Mary already anticipated this upheaval in Chapter 1 of this Gospel, when she says, He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the humble and meek; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. 

Gentle Jesus meek and mild? As if!

But another aspect of fire, is that it brings light into darkness.  Elementary though that image may be, it is a very significant one theologically. It is the light of God that is shone into the dark places of this world and into the dark places of our hearts, highlighting those things we would prefer to keep hidden, even from ourselves. We can choose not to; we can prefer the darkness to the light or compromise with a sort of spiritual twilight; a form of lip service discipleship – and I include myself in that.

And light is about revelation – God’s revelation of Jesus. I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. But that imagery of light is not fully complete without the imagery of fire: that's the contrast the burning away of our false hopes and certainties also illuminates Jesus the Christ. John the Baptist used this image at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry when at Jesus' baptism he said, I baptize you with water, but . . . he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Just as the children of Israel were led out of Egypt by a pillar of fire by night, so Jesus comes to lead us out of captivity into freedom from the slavery of our own self-centredness, our own self-defeating behaviours and our separation from God which religious writers down the ages have called sin.  That is a powerful image too.

These disciples Jesus is addressing here were to embrace that burning purity and give their total commitment to Jesus Christ and to the Kingdom of God. Not as superheroes but as broken, inadequate humans with all the foibles, weaknesses and frailties that go with the human condition. That’s the first part. The second part is that they were willing to be transformed by that commitment. So, what does that mean? I’m sure we all identify with the first part. How are you doing with the second? What does it mean to be totally committed to Jesus, to be radically committed to the Kingdom of God in this day and age, given that it will bring division?

And that’s the question we need to ask ourselves otherwise why are we here? This passage has to have the power to challenge us and to change or it will remain a slightly awkward piece of religious literature, nothing more.

One of the great temptations for many Christians is to prefer a sugar coated Christianity – Christianity-Lite if you like, to accept the gift of salvation certainly, while eliminating the implications of this great call to discipleship. Our greatest temptation is that the cares and routines of this life can become more important than the call of Jesus. And so the business of family, friends, jobs, homes and hobbies – our own personal familiar routines - get in the way of our discipleship and therefore of Jesus’ mission.

Is this what Jesus means when Luke has him condemn his audience as hypocrites?

Our challenge as disciples is to join Jesus in his mission to bring the Kingdom of God closer. Nothing more, nothing less. What did the reading from Hebrews encourage us to do? Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We follow Jesus not just as Saviour but as Role Model. We do it because he did it. That’s the challenge but I’m not coming with answers. If only!  I have to face that same challenge and there’s a little passage from Philippians that exhorts us, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. I have to do it and you have to do it and there aren’t any answers because each of us is different. The prophet Micah put it very succinctly, And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. If we want generic guidelines to begin to work out our own salvation, we could do a lot worse than to listen to Micah, And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. If we are acting justly and loving mercy it will inform our politics, our attitudes, our motivations.

Jesus bringing divisions? You bet! And we need to be in the vanguard following our role model. What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say? What would Jesus think? How would Jesus respond? It’s not trite at all: it’s the challenge.

Where do you stand on the issue of the international aid budget? On poverty? On human sexuality? On race, immigration and asylum seekers? On crime and punishment and so on? Why do you think the way you do on those topics? Has that view been shaped by Jesus’ values?

In Matthews Gospel Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the goats and he concludes: What you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me… and whatever you did not do for the least of these you did not do for me.

Oh yes. That is about division.


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