Jesus is the Prince of God’s Peace
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by the Rev. Tom Pumphrey, August 18, 2019
Twelfth Sunday in Pentecost (Year C, Proper 15):
Luke 12:49-53 (Isaiah 5:1-7, Hebrews 11:29-12:2)
Luke 12:49-56 “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! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be 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 immediately say, `It is going to rain’; 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?”
This is a tough Gospel reading that we heard this morning. Jesus says he brings division. Years ago, I was working on a sermon on this passage, and I talked with my son Alex about it. He was around 14 at the time. He said to me “well, dad, you could preach on Jesus as the Great Mathematician.” Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes, and now he brings division… Well, that’s one way of looking at this passage, but there is probably more to it.
This morning’s readings are not exactly the friendly back-to school messages a preacher might prefer at this time of year. But these are the passages assigned in our lectionary (our calendar of readings). Rather than dismiss these passages of scripture because we are uncomfortable with them, we should wrestle with them, and try to hear God’s voice speaking to us through them. So let’s try.
The readings this morning carry strong warnings and a call to faithful action. In Isaiah, Israel had become lax in their faith, forgetting their covenant relationship with God. The writer of Hebrews calls us to strengthen our faith and persevere in the face of a hostile world. Then we hear Jesus tell us of division in the face of injustice.
Jesus’ words are shocking to us, aren’t they? How could Jesus bring division, especially in families? It is important to notice why we are shocked. It’s not so much because division is unpopular, it’s because of how Jesus and others who revealed God’s grace spoke of unity and forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus reinforces the bonds of marriage and family. Paul writes that someone with a non-Christian spouse should stay married—who knows, perhaps God will share his grace through you. What does it mean for Jesus to be the Prince of Peace if his peace can bring division?
We make a grave mistake if we lift a passage of scripture out of the Bible and isolate it from the rest of scripture that also reveals the mind of God. It that full context, we are right to question what is Jesus doing? What does he mean in this passage? Something more complicated must be at work.
Sometimes there are clues for our understanding in the context, both Jesus’ social context and the context of this passage in the Gospel account. Just before Jesus shared these words, he told the parable of the wicked steward. A master left town, entrusting his steward to manage his servants wisely. But when the master did not return right away, the steward abused the servants, beat them, drank from the master’s wine stores and wasted himself in drunkenness. Jesus speaks with a passion about the horror of such abuse by one who was trusted with the task of stewardship—the abuse of one who knew better.
Then Jesus launches into his passionate call for justice. ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! …What stress I am under until it is completed!’ Jesus cannot bear such abuse—Jesus cannot bear such injustice. Jesus echoes the words of Old Testament prophets who complained about those who preached a false “peace” that preserved systems of injustice, where the poor were used by the rich rulers. Jesus is not the prince of getting along. Jesus is the prince of God’s peace.
In Jesus’ day, the western world lived in a time of great peace and unity. This was called the Pax Romana—The Peace of Rome. But the Pax Romana was achieved by the bloodshed and slaughter of the Roman Army. Defeated nations were destroyed or enslaved. Fully one third of the residents of the Roman Empire were slaves that served the Pax Romana. Is this the kind of Peace that Jesus wants to bring?
In our own families, we sometimes find that in following God and speaking the truth in love, even our families can respond with division—just as Jesus described. Families of alcoholics and addicts know about the intense challenge of what is called “Intervention.” In an Intervention, the whole family gathers to confront the addict with both a message of love, and with the truth about how addiction has been a destructive force in the family. Not all addicts respond favorably. Sometimes the road to recovery and wholeness for a family stirs up a response of division. But this division is the crucible of creative conflict where God’s love and justice can bring about a new and better unity.
Of course, hardship can be used as an excuse for division. But that is not Jesus’ angle here. There is a difference between the division of giving up, and the division of creative conflict. Think about married couples in crisis. Some merely walk away, cursing each other. Some stay and let bitterness fester into malice. But think of the courage it takes to come together to put on the table the issues that are important—the things that are truly important to work out. That will feel like division as each engages the other, but that kind of speaking the truth in love is full of possibility for a healthy reconciliation. That is God’s kind of peace.
There was plenty of division in the Pax Romana. Slaves were divided from free persons. Foreigners were divided from citizens. Family loyalty was sacred, and loyalty to a god was under the family’s control. Luke’s Gospel account was preached to those who had been cast off from their families for becoming Christians. They risked division from close families and extended families for finding a new identity in Jesus Christ. They were cast out of their pagan families or sometimes their Jewish families, where heritage and family connection was everything. But in Christ, they were a new creation—connected to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, brought to a new unity in Christ that overcame the divisions of slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female.
The repeated message of Jesus Christ, and the repeated message of the whole New Testament is a message of mercy and repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation. This passage on division is a helpful corrective to us when we make an idol out of unity rather than pursuing the kind of unity rooted in God’s justice, God’s rule. God does not want the false “peace” of the Pax Romana. But neither does God want division rooted in our self-righteousness. Jesus is the prince of God’s peace.
When we have prayed and studied scripture, listening closely to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and felt clearly called by God to speak the truth in love in our families, in our close relationships, or at work or in our neighborhoods, we risk the kind of division Jesus describes. But when we truly speak God’s word, and God’s truth, we bring the opportunity for greater health and wholeness in our families and in our relationships, in our workplaces and our neighborhoods.
God indeed wants to divide us—to divide us from our sins—to divide us from hatred and malice, from self serving and selfishness, from our blindness to the needs and suffering of others. God wants to divide us from our sins so that we might be united in God’s justice and God’s truth. The good news is that for the Great Mathematician, God’s division brings multiplication! When people divide over God’s justice, God can bring them together in just and whole relationships. This nation suffered greatly in the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement. Families confronting addiction and abuse suffer the experience of division, but God’s healing can overcome that division. Nations and societies and families are made whole, not in some false and unjust unity, but in God’s wholeness.
Jesus is not the prince of a Roman-Army-styled peace. Jesus is the prince of God’s peace. Where God’s justice and peace reigns, there God multiplies loaves and fishes and grace and mercy and joy for all his children.