“Division” Colchester Federated Church, August 18, 2019, (Luke 12:49-56) Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Whether we consciously consider it or not, many Christians have specific images of Jesus in our minds.  This could be physical traits of what we believe Jesus looked like—knowing that he was a real human being who walked upon this earth.  Though also hopefully being aware that white Christians have a habit of making Jesus look far whiter than he probably would have been as a person of his historical time, place, and nationality. The huge stained glass images of blue-eyed, light-skinned, light haired Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and welcoming the little children that I grew up with as a child at my home church (a church established by German immigrants) is probably not how Jesus actually looked, knowing that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish man born in Bethlehem and growing up in Nazareth in the First Century.  Rather, those images are more reflective of the congregation that commissioned those stained glass pieces and that’s not uncommon to find in churches.  So whether we’ve thought about it before (or even considered the implications), we often have pictures of Jesus in our minds.

Though we also may have images of what Jesus’ mannerisms or personality were like, wondering how people who were his contemporaries experienced him (let alone how we may experience him if Jesus were physically present among us right now.)  We tend to like the images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd or Jesus telling Zacchaeus to come down from that tree because I’d like to come over to your house for dinner.  Jesus walking on water, healing the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, or feeding hungry people on a hillside—those images of Jesus bring us comfort.  But Jesus wasn’t crucified because he was the nicest guy you ever met in your life.  Jesus challenged powerful people.  He stood up for the lost and the lonely, for those on the margins.  Jesus often taught lessons about the Kingdom of God that other folks didn’t want to hear, especially since he himself came from such humble beginnings.  And it’s these perhaps more complicated images of Jesus that become clear to us today.

For here are the words of Jesus from the twelfth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke: “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze!  I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division.  From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three.  Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”[1]

After a fun (and full) week of Vacation Bible School, what a downer text to consider this morning.  Talking about bringing fire to the earth and coming to bring division and family members squaring off against each other.  Thanks for nothing, Lectionary.

So what do we do with this passage?  What do we do with Jesus’ words declaring that he came to bring division?

To help us on our way, we can recall that this passage is part of the Travel Narrative in Luke’s Gospel.  This section of the Gospel begins in Chapter 9 and ends in Chapter 19 when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem (on what we celebrate as Palm Sunday in our Christian tradition.)  The Travel Narrative is full of instructions for the disciples—some feel tender (the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son) while others feel a little harsh (the Rich Fool and the Widow and the Unjust Judge.)  Jesus’ words would have been directed to his disciples who he is instructing while he is still walking around beside them.  The journey material here stresses the cost of discipleship.

Jesus seems to be telling some of his most devoted followers that following him has already (and will have) real costs in the future.  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”[2]  Because following Jesus, truly following in his footsteps, means that one’s life inevitably changes.  This idea of the cost of discipleship is something that we emphasize in our own tradition.  If we would pull out the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith this morning we could read this line, “You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.”

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ isn’t always easy.  It’s more than just showing up to worship on Sunday mornings.  Christian discipleship entails some of what’s laid out in the UCC Statement of Faith—to be servants in the service of others, to proclaim the Gospel, to resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism, to eat at his table and be fed for the journey, and to truly join Jesus in both his passion and victory.  This isn’t going to look the same for all of us.  But the idea that discipleship can be costly goes back to the words of Jesus himself.  Discipleship demands a transformation of one’s very life.  Discipleship has consequences—joys and costs.

Costly discipleship also means that even one’s own family may not understand this whole following Jesus thing.  Jesus says that folks will be divided father against son/son against father, mother against daughter/daughter against mother and so on.  We can remember that Jesus’ disciples literally left everything behind in order to follow him.  Some of their families may have understood and supported that decision.  Others may not have been thrilled about family members leaving everything and everyone behind to follow this Jesus of Nazareth person.

Even today the reality is that our families may be practicing Christians alongside us or not.  Even if they’re practicing Christians, perhaps there are some denominational or theological differences.  How do we stay true to what we believe and how we practice our Christian faith within a family that may or may not support those beliefs and practices?  That’s a conundrum disciples of Jesus Christ have had since the beginning.  And this can be an extremely painful experience for people—to have members of one’s own family not understand or even belittle a loved one for being a person of faith.

Jesus is being extremely honest with his disciples when he lays out for them that he didn’t come to bring peace but division.  Following him did affect the families of those first disciples especially.  And another way that division happened (ironically) was because Jesus himself was a peacemaker and folks who wanted to overthrow the Romans at that time (through armed rebellion) didn’t really want to hear “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”[3]  Not a super popular thing to say.  Though at least Jesus tells his followers that he came to bring division—because of how he saw the world and the place of God’s children in the world, because of what he said and did.  Yes, not everyone was going to be on board.

And Jesus is issuing some challenges here.  The challenge is to be prepared and to be at work, to be responsible because the disciples are witnessing Jesus words and actions in relationship to those others deemed as outcasts (whether because of their social status or because they were viewed as “sinners.”)  Let’s not forget that Jesus gets into trouble for eating with tax collectors and sinners and he eats more meals with folks in Luke’s Gospel than in any of the other Gospels.  He gets into trouble for healing at times when others felt he shouldn’t have.  He gets into trouble for going into Jerusalem when the crowd was on his side and not taking advantage of what could have been that armed rebellion. “Blessed are the peacemakers” and those kinds of teachings led to division then and can still lead to division now.  Jesus didn’t mince his words here, and that image of him may even make us feel a little uncomfortable.

In reflecting on this passage, Patricia Lull of Luther Seminary relates that “Jesus’ single-minded determination is a passion we do recognize and often admire.  It is like that of the neighborhood activist who goes to work to clean up a block in her city after a child dies in a drive-by shooting.  It is similar to the passion of the senior citizen who single-handedly takes on the state legislature to make it easier for elders to purchase at a reasonable cost the prescription drugs they need.  It is akin to the zeal of the elementary school student who challenges the congregation to go ‘green’ and is relentless in her presentation to all who will listen.  Some things matter so much that only focused attention and strong speech can carry the prophet’s message.”[4]

In the end, this is exactly what we see with Jesus talking to his disciples on the journey to Jerusalem.  The lessons Jesus was teaching and the way that he embodied those lessons was so important that it required focused attention and strong speech.  Sometimes who he was and what he was about caused division, even within families.  That was the reality and the cost of discipleship.  Maybe following Jesus still comes with costs within our own families today.  Yes, discipleship has costs and can cause divisions.  But there is also the joy of discipleship—the joy in discovering a Christian faith that sustains us through it all, a faith that can even bring hope to the hopeless, a faith that can even change the world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 12: 49-53, Common English Bible.
[2] Luke 12:51, NRSV.
[3] Matthew 5:9.
[4] Patricia J. Lull, Pastoral Perspective of Luke 12:49-56 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, 362.