8/14/16 – BRINGING DIVISION by Lynn Naeckel +

PROPER 15, YEAR C

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Luke 12:49-56

“Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

So often we pass over the Old Testament lessons, but I’d like to pay attention to Jeremiah. The language is poetic and dramatic. What does it mean?

For the Jews the image of fire suggested judgement. To me fire also suggests intense heat and refinement or purification – fire that consumes all that is extraneous and reduces what it burns to its essential elements.

Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

The image of a hammer, swung so hard it can break a rock is heavy, threatening. If we assume these images are about God’s judgment upon us, perhaps we dismiss them as typical Old Testament world-view, which we can ignore because Jesus brought a new message of love.

Don’t I wish! While judgment may be implied, it’s God’s word that brings fire and the hammer. What God tells us, what God teaches us, how God tells us to live and the lessons God provides are somehow like the fire and the hammer – dangerous and divisive because they demand change.

I’m asking you to pay attention to Jeremiah and consider what his words might mean because Jesus echos them. Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth”.

Then he wishes it were already kindled. I take this to suggest that his death and what follows will kindle the fire.

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

These statements do not come from a namby pamby sweetness and light Jesus. These are tough words of warning to the disciples of what is to come. And let’s face it, consider what had already happened.

Can you honestly imagine that Peter’s wife was thrilled when he left home to follow Jesus? How do you think the father of James and John liked being left with the boat, the nets, and all the hard labor of fishing? Remember the time when members of Jesus’s family show up where he’s preaching and try to get him to come home? They think he’s lost his mind! And Jesus rejects even their relationship to him.

Think back for a moment on the early days of Christianity. What happened as the story of Jesus and his resurrection spread around the Roman world? By the time Luke was writing the Temple had been destroyed. Judaism was in shock. The center of their religion had ceased to exist. All that was left were the Synagogues. In those early days, the followers of Jesus, the followers of The Way, were often still worshiping in the Synagogues, but there was conflict between them and the Jews who did not follow Jesus.

Eventually the two groups shunned one another. Those who believed turned their backs on their unbelieving families, often even leaving them to live in Christian communities. Sometimes they had to run for their lives; they had to hold services in secret; some had to face the lions.

To be a Christian in the first 300 years after Jesus died meant being a subversive. Many gave up lives of wealth and privilege, taking Jesus at his word, recognizing that their possessions stood in the way of their relationship to God, and making their relationship to God the primary one in their lives.

Think of it this way. The teaching of Jesus brought a new paradigm into the Roman world. He taught peace, non-violence, equality for women and minorities. He ate with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collecters. He dealt with everyone as a child of God. He spoke truth to power, particularly to the power of Rome, but also to the power of the temple and the Hebrew elite.

If you consider the implications of this, you can see that such teaching is going to bring division. When that teaching began to spread and attract more followers the divisions increased. It’s much like what happened in our church when the whole issue of slavery came to a head. Or when we tackled the issue of women clergy. Those divisions are still with us in many ways.

When Constantine, the emperor of Rome, became a Christian, Christianity eventually became the state religion. Christianity became the religion of the rich and the powerful. In today’s language we might say that the radical new religious movement started by a Jew in Palestine was co-opted by the establishment.

When that happened, many of Jesus’ teachings became glossed over or interpreted in some new way. Certainly no one took seriously his teachings about giving away everything, least of all the Church itself.

In all my 70 years as an Episcopalian I never heard anyone take these words of Jesus seriously in a sermon until about 25 years ago, when I heard Steve Charleston preach in Minneapolis.

Steve claimed that Jesus meant what he said – that Jesus was serious – that he meant his words to be heard and believed. In different ways, the lessons of the last few weeks have given us examples of today’s Gospel: loyalty to Jesus and to his teachings should take precedence over the dearest loyalties we have developed in our lives –it takes precedence over our attachments to things like belongings and over our attachments to people we love or admire. To follow Jesus sometimes means standing alone. Sometimes it means standing against those we love and care for. Sometimes it even means standing against the Church.

Sometime during the coming week, take a few minutes to ask yourself: When has being a Christian caused division rather than peace in my life? When have I taken a stand because of my belief in the teachings of Jesus? When has being a Christian been harmful to me, or inconvenient, or even dangerous?

If you can’t find any examples, then ponder again the lessons we read today. Do not confuse being comfortable with the ultimate peace Jesus promises elsewhere in the Gospel. That ultimate peace is about a God who goes with us, so that we need not be afraid to face any difficulties.

Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? Jesus said, “I came to bring fire tothe earth. Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division”

If we take the Gospel seriously and act upon it, we will surely suffer division in our life here on earth. Expect it. Welcome it. Endure it. Because God will be with us. Amen

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