Peace or a sword?

C Ordinary 20

Jeremiah 23: 23-29; Hebrews 11: 29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

I know that some of you are into the online world while some of you are not. Like many things in modern life it can be a mixed blessing, but not one that can be avoided if we wish to continue to participate in mainstream culture and society and not find ourselves sidelined. The internet has many uses and social networking which means using websites like Facebook and Twitter – and other less well known ones, is a case in point. On the one hand they provide a means of keeping in contact with friends and relatives who live far away. Being able to keep abreast of what is going on in their lives makes it easier to feel closer to them and maintain regular communication. On the other hand it means learning a whole new language!

Social networking also provides a space where people can express views and opinions and take part in discussions on things that interest or concern them, and it allows us to publish information in a way that is easily and quickly accessible to anyone with a mobile phone, tablet or computer. For example, if we are away for any length of time I always use the internet to check out the place we are going – see what churches and local amenities exist so that we are prepared when we get there. I booked most of our recent holiday on the internet – ferry crossing, hotels, travel insurance, route planning.

The downside is that people can easily get carried away and forget that their comments once out there cannot be withdrawn and may be seen by many. And the fact that some sites allow anonymous participation means that some people can feel too uninhibited in expressing abusive or extreme views and opinions. Some online debates can become quite heated at times but they can also be a way of sharing the gospel message and modelling kingdom values.

Some time ago now I got involved in a discussion with an atheist who was writing about his view that Christianity is destructive to humankind and quoting Bible passages which he said proved that Jesus was not who he claimed to be but a troublemaker who’s true purpose was to cause war and destruction. The passage that we just heard from Luke was one of those that he used to support his argument, and when read out of context it doesn’t sound good does it?

“I have come to set fire to the earth”; “Do you suppose I came to establish peace on earth? No, indeed I have come to bring dissension. From now on, a family of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother” and so on. It doesn’t sound good for someone claiming to bring a message of love and reconciliation does it? and the fact that Christians often do act in violent and destructive ways lends further credence to his ideas and there were many who agreed with him.

That is why I got involved in the discussion, because such views of Christianity are, in my opinion, the ones which are destructive and often stem from ignorance of what Christianity is really about and a lack of understanding of how the Bible should be read. It is also a reason why it is important to learn how to read the Bible properly and it shows the danger of taking individual passages from the Bible without considering the historical and cultural context and without considering how it contributes to the overall narrative of the Bible.

As far as this passage from Luke’s gospel is concerned, in order to understand what is going on and why Jesus is speaking in these terms we need to begin by understanding what has gone before in the gospel of Luke which is essentially this:

Jesus, after being baptised by John, travels around the Galilee region – healing, challenging assumptions and behaviour, teaching through parables and performing miracles – telling people about the kingdom of God and spreading a message that he later sums up as being rooted in loving God with all your heart soul and mind and loving your neighbour as yourself.

In chapter 9 he begins to prepare the disciples to be sent out in his name and continue the work under his authority. They move out from the Galilee region to take their message further afield. Its a sort of training exercise for the disciples. He tells them to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick, and he tells them to take nothing for the journey but to rely on the hospitality of those they visit. They are being taught to rely on God to provide for their every need. But Jesus also warns them that they will not be warmly welcomed everywhere they go and that where they are not welcomed they should symbolically brush the dust of that place from their feet as a warning of God’s judgement and move on.

On their return Jesus tries to take them quietly to Bethsaid for some kind of  debriefing but they have been so successful in spreading the word that crowds are now following them wherever they go so it doesn’t quite work out as planned. Then comes the moment when their travel turns in the direction of Jerusalem and they start the long journey which will ultimately lead to the cross. Before that though at the beginning of chapter 10 Jesus now appoints and teaches a further 72 people to go ahead of him proclaiming the word of the kingdom and he gives them similar instructions to those given earlier to the 12 disciples.

It is clear through Jesus’ teaching, the example he sets and his challenges to the authorities that Jesus has come to bring change. He has come to challenge those who disregard God’s will and purposes and he has come to save those who are willing to hear his message and respond to it. He has come to lead people to fulness of life here and in the hereafter instead of sleepwalking into a death which is the consequence of sin.

The reference in the passage to “setting fire to the earth” (12:49) is about this – it is not a reference to the destructive force of fire that will about bring destruction to the earth, but about the cleansing and purifying aspect of fire that is a metaphor for how Jesus will change people into the holy people God wants them to be. Jesus wants people to live in a world typified by justice, mercy, love and harmony and this can only be achieved through changing people by challenging attitudes and assumptions.

But the imperative for change inevitably will bring division. No one knows more than a Methodist minister how difficult it can be to bring about change. It is always something that is embraced by some but resisted by many. There are always those who are prepared to hear and give something new a try, and those who shut their ears and minds as soon as any form of change is broached.

Jesus says to those he has chosen and is sending out in his name “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” Jesus prepared those he sent out to face such rejection – through peaceful means – by walking away once they had delivered their message, when it was clear that it was unwelcome; by warning them to be on their guard against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (12:1); by telling them not to fear those who kill the body – (because they can do nothing more to them after that), but to fear God instead who will choose their path beyond death. He encourages them by reminding them that they are more valuable to God than five sparrows and that those who acknowledge Jesus before others will be rewarded in heaven.

He also gave them advice for how to react when brought before the authorities: “Do not worry about how you will conduct your defence or what you will say. When the time comes the Holy Spirit will instruct you what to say” he says.

So Jesus is fully aware that his message will not be calmly accepted by everyone, that some of those he has come to challenge will put up opposition, that even a message of love, peace and justice will not be accepted kindly by those with a vested interest in the status quo such as: those who risk losing their corrupt power base; those who would rather build up and keep wealth for themselves than use it to help others, even by those who are just not prepared to make the changes of lifestyle that following Jesus will require.

Jesus knows that his message will result in conflict and even persecution for those who carry it. Hence his warning that his message will not bring peace but will cause dissension and conflict, even within families, because that is what always happens when you try to change things or people. Conflict was inevitable. But Jesus did not avoid or turn away from it – instead he recognised this inevitability and he prepared his disciples for it and guided them in a way of dealing with it peacefully and without resorting to violence.

Perhaps this is a lesson we should remember when people suggest that Christians should always be peacemakers. Sometimes true peace requires being prepared to engage in a certain amount of conflict in order to challenge injustice or to stand up for the values of the kingdom. The important thing is that we engage in that conflict by clearly and unequivocally stating our message and then allow people to accept it or reject it as they choose but having been clearly made aware of the consequences. Allowing people to reject the message you bring is an act of grace and is the way of Christ.

Jesus called the people hypocrites because they had heard the message and they knew what God required of them but they preferred to turn a blind eye to God’s will. I wonder what he would say to us if he were here now? Would he call us hypocrites, for failing to act or speak up in the face of injustice in our society or for our failure to tell people about him, or to identify ourselves as Christians because we are afraid of rejection or conflict?

Or would he see our courage in the face of adversity and say “Well done good and faithful servant?” Its not too late if we, on examination, happen to find ourselves in the former group. We can take courage from the example of Christ and the early disciples and call upon the Holy Spirit to give us courage and resilience as we accept the challenge of being a true and faithful disciple of Christ. Amen.

Published by andrewpbiggs

Methodist minister currently serving the Gloucestershire Circuit. Married to Julie. Enjoy reading and playing the guitar badly.

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