“Peace & Division” Colchester Federated Church, August 14, 2022, (Luke 12:49-56) Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

A few years ago, I had a week of training in Conflict Mediation with the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.  One of the first things we learned is that hearing the word “conflict” can make some people get immediately nervous.  Though we learned that conflict is not good or bad.  Conflict is normal, it is constructive (conflict can lead to positive change), and people can develop skills and strategies for facing conflict. 

Now there are some people who are conflict-averse—avoiding disagreements at all costs.  On the other hand, there are those who love to argue.  There’s an actual word for someone who loves to argue—eristic.  This is a common quality for debaters because it describes someone who loves to win an argument and values winning that argument over arriving at the truth.  Eristic comes from the Greek word eris which means “strife” or “discord.”[1]

Now we can debate back and forth about Jesus’ personality.  I don’t know that it’s fair to say that Jesus was eristic, but it is fair to say that Jesus didn’t shy away from conflict.  After all Jesus wasn’t crucified because he was the nicest guy you ever met in your life and he never rocked the boat.  Far from it.  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 did not want to hear, especially since Jesus himself came from such humble roots.

Jesus was clear about who he was and what he was about.  Just listen to how he shared his message in 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.”[2]

After a fun, busy week of Vacation Bible School (Food Truck Party!), what a downer text to consider.  On a week when we have celebrated coming together as a congregation to offer a wonderful program for our community—we’re here in church contemplating division.  Here’s Jesus talking about bringing fire to the earth and family members in conflict with one another.  Yikes.  So what do we do with this text?

We can remember 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.)  The Travel Narrative is full of instructions—some are tender (the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son) while others are a bit harsh (the Rich Fool and the Widow and the Unjust Judge.)  The journey material 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!”[3]  Because following Jesus 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 consider the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith we recall the 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.  Because discipleship demands a transformation of one’s life. 

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.  Discipleship can lead to family conflicts.  We can remember that some of 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 our loved ones are practicing Christians, perhaps there are 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?  This is a conundrum that disciples of Jesus Christ have had since the beginning.  These conflicts can be extremely painful experiences—to have members of one’s own family not understand or even belittle a loved one for being a person of faith. 

Even though it may seem harsh, 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.  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 Jesus 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 and even conflicts 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] Eristic Definition. https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/eristic#
[2] Luke 12: 49-53, CEB.
[3] Luke 12:51, NRSV.
[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.

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout