The Kind of Division We Need
A sermon on Luke 12:49-56 &
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here.]
Last Sunday the concluding blessing in my sermon ended with one word repeated three times: Peace. Peace. Peace.
Perhaps I should have looked ahead with a little more attention to see what Jesus had to say to us this week. Because, of course, this week we get a rather contrary proclamation: "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51).
(Sigh) I don’t imagine that I am the only person in the room for whom division sounds like the very last thing we need. And I’m not just talking about DC, or cable news, or twitter battles, or any of the things that we can at least try hold at arms length if we need to… I’m talking about the divisions that hit close to home. Like divisions in our families, or in our church, or like the fact that here, in Mount Olive this week, three young people were arrested for graffiti-ing a local apartment complex with swastikas – a symbol of hatred and the violent division of races.
I read this week’s gospel text, and read the Mount Olive Community Forum, and I think “Jesus, what we need is peace, not more division!”
But one of the great gifts that God gives us in scripture is a Word that calls us deeper than our instinctive responses. A Word that challenges our certainty that we already know what we need. A Word that calls us to follow our Savior, rather than trying to dictate the terms of how we want God’s kingdom to come.
So, today, I want to invite us into that Word by really examining the two words in question: peace, and division.
According to Strong’s Concordance, there are six different primary ways that the word PEACE – eirene (εἰρήνη) in the Greek – is used in scripture. These meanings range from “a state of national tranquility” (as in, the absence of war), to “the blessed state of the devout and upright after death” (as in, rest in peace). In other words, peace can be about the external absence of conflict on a large scale, or the internal spiritual state of one’s soul, or many alternatives in between.
Moreover, in Luke’s historical context, the gospel writer would have understood that some of the various kinds of peace… can actually be in conflict with each other. You see, 1st Century Palestine was under Roman Occupation. This occupation brought with it the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace which ensured a state of national tranquility… but at a price. In exchange for freedom from war, people in the land experienced religious, social, and economic oppression. It was peace of a kind…but a peace that many felt was not worth the cost. And that feeling led to the uprising that brought a Roman crackdown and the final destruction of the Jerusalem Temple not long before Luke’s gospel was written.
Most commentators agree that this violence must have been on Luke’s mind when he recorded Jesus’ promise to Not bring peace, but rather division. Luke had seen first-hand how spiritual peace – which involves obedience to God’s law that won’t allow us to worship other authorities, or put other loyalties before God – he saw how that peace could come into conflict with political peace. He had also doubtless seen how those kinds of challenges, those kinds of competing calls for loyalty, could cause rifts even in family relationships. And that’s the context in Jesus’ repudiation of a mission of peace in today’s reading.
The peace referenced here is about “harmony between individuals,” between father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Jesus is essentially saying “my fundamental mission here is NOT about making sure everyone gets along.”
Which, I think, can be a little shocking to a suburban ethic of American Christianity. The call to “love your neighbor” can subtly call us into a certain kind of “Christian niceness.” It can morph into “why can’t we all just get along?” Or “we should avoid any topic, or any action that might cause friction… that might bring division.” Peace can come to mean conflict-avoidance. We can believe that the call to love each other means we never challenge each other.
But there is a danger in that kind of interpersonal “peace.” James Baldwin, I think, put his finger both on the honest potential for loving disagreement, and on the danger of idolizing peace, when he said: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
Peace and love can INCLUDE disagreement. In fact, sometimes they will REQUIRE it. Because peace that fails to challenge dehumanization or oppression isn’t love. It’s an idolization of tranquility.
And the truth expressed in today’s gospel is that Jesus didn’t come to keep us all comfortably at peace. Jesus came to change the world, and that kind of mission will divide people – between those who want the change, and those who want things to stay the same.
So, that brings us to the second pivotal word in today’s gospel: DIVISION. What does Jesus mean when he says he has come to bring division?
Well, the passage describes interpersonal division – divisions within families – but I think that must be a consequence, rather than a goal. The same Teacher who tells the story of the Good Samaritan, and tells us that our core religious obligation is to love even the neighbors we think of as enemies can’t delight in divisions that rip apart families! It just doesn’t make sense. The division between people must be a consequence of the deeper work, the mission that Jesus has really come to fulfill.
I believe that that deeper mission is about a more transformational division… a division that is hinted at in today’s reading from Hebrews. In this extended exhortation to faithfulness, in the heritage of “so great a cloud of witnesses,” the writer of Hebrews calls us also to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely…(to) run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1).
“The sin that clings so closely.” It’s a powerful metaphor. I get an image of the difficulty of pulling free from thick, muddy quicksand. It’s heavy, and we want it off, but it won’t release us easily. It will pull on us with its sticky weight. Anchoring us where we are. Weighing us down, and telling us it’s not worth the effort to move. That’s how sin works in our lives.
And – remember – sin is anything that turns us in on ourselves, away from God and away from our neighbor. It’s anything that tells us to fear, and to put ourselves first. It’s anything that calls us out of trust in God, and into self-protection or self-promotion. It’s anything that tells us what is good for us is more important than what is good for our neighbor.
It looks different in each of our lives, but in each of our lives it clings to us with a weight that holds us back… and Jesus wants to DIVIDE us from that burden; from our sin.
That mission of DIVISION is why we baptize people into the church. Because in the sacrament of baptism we are united with the baptism that Jesus references in today’s gospel – the baptism of his death and resurrection. In our baptismal liturgy we pray to God: “By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you.”
That proclamation isn’t just about eternity. It’s about dying to sin, actually being changed, and it’s about living now, in the way of Jesus. In other words, it’s about the division that Jesus came to bring to the earth – the freedom from the power of sin and death. The waters of baptism are about washing us clean from the sin that clings to closely. Even when that sin looks like an addiction to a comfortable peace, that doesn’t rock the boat, or challenge anyone to change.
So, of course the division Jesus comes to bring has the consequence of dividing people from each other too. There aren’t many faster ways to make people angry than to challenge their sin.
But here’s the thing: Jesus is the one who does that dividing – not us! This gospel reading is NOT an invitation to self-righteous judgement of the people who sin differently than us. (And – to be clear - we all sin. Just look at the list of the faithful from Hebrews 12: a prostitute, two doubters, an oath-breaker, a child-killer, a rapist & murderer, a negligent parent, and a bunch of guys who got angry and yelled a lot. And these are our examples of faithfulness.) None of us are going to be perfect.
But we can make sure we are at least looking in the right direction. Jesus reminds people that they can interpret the weather from the revelation of God’s creation. So why can’t they interpret the times from the revelation of God’s very self? We are called to look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” (Heb. 12:2) the one who goes before and show us the path… even when it’s a path of conflict.
Because “peace” is not the ultimate good – not even at a congregation named Abiding Peace – the transformation that comes from following Jesus is the ultimate good, the ultimate mission.
But while following the way of Jesus probably will cause some division in our lives – sometimes good divisions, like freeing us from clinging sins; and sometimes hard divisions, like disruptions of relationships – I believe that it will also bring a far more important kind of peace.
Of all 96 references to “peace” chronicled in Strong’s Concordance, almost half of them fall into one category: “the tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and content with its earthly lot, of whatever sort that is.”
That’s the peace that results from the division Jesus brings… the division we need Jesus to bring.
Thanks be to God.
 “Thanksgiving at the Font” in the liturgy of “Holy Baptism”, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006, p. 230.
 https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1515&t=KJVA sermon on Luke 12:49-56 & Hebrews 11:29-12:2