Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

[Listen to the sermon here.]

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” Almost every Sunday of the year, we sing these words at the beginning of the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist. It’s the song of the angels.

You’ll recall that, on the night when Jesus was born, the angels appear in glorious splendor to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. The angels are bursting with joy. And so they sing the opening words of the Gloria to share the good news. This is the song that prepares the world to receive God’s Word incarnate in Jesus. So it’s fitting that we prepare ourselves to receive God’s Word in scripture and in sacrament by singing this angels’ song of joy. Singing the Gloria reminds us of the beauty and majesty of God. And it reaffirms our faith in Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace in a violent world.

It’s precisely because we begin worship with this joyful song that hearing Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading is like slamming into a brick wall. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks. “No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51) Conflict, division, and broken relationships – these are the sorts of things Jesus warns his disciples to expect. How in the world are we to reconcile the angels’ triumphant proclamation of peace to God’s people on earth with Jesus’ dire words?

It helps to remember where we are in the story. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s headed directly for the truth of his vocation. It’s a truth most fully revealed when Jesus is rejected and nailed to a cross. As he journeys, Jesus’ message becomes more urgent and his words and deeds evoke more hostility and conflict. It’s a tragic irony. The more clearly Jesus conveys who he is and what he’s all about, the more he becomes an icon of division. And the more enemies he makes.

By this point in the story, Jesus’ mere presence creates a crisis of having to choose to be either for him or against him. And in the end, almost everybody chooses to oppose and reject Jesus. Jesus knows this is happening. And so he warn his disciples, saying in effect:

“If you take what I’m doing and teaching seriously enough to live it, you will experience what I’m experiencing. You will lose friendships. Your family will think you’ve lost your mind. The world in its addiction to power and money will turn against you. And so you need to prepare yourselves now because the time of trial will come. On that day, will you put me first, or will you put commitments to family, friends, and personal security first?”

To the early Christians, Jesus’ warning was not merely speculative. It was a daily reality. In the early Church, for instance, persons who wanted to be baptized often had to commit to three years of intensive instruction and moral examination. In the process, they had to repudiate the taken-for-granted values and separate themselves from the practices of the surrounding pagan culture.

In some cases, that meant forsaking jobs and financial security. You couldn’t, for example, become a Christian if you worked at the theatres where gladiators fought to the death. And if you were a soldier in the Roman army, you couldn’t become a Christian unless you were willing to disobey orders to carry out executions and unless you refused to take a military oath to the pagan state. For all of the early Christians, following Jesus as Lord meant refusing to ever say “Caesar is Lord” even if it meant death.

Becoming a Christian often meant breaking ties with family and friends. If you were a Gentile – particularly if you were a member of respectable Roman society – dedicating your life to this Jewish peasant who was executed by the state as a common criminal was an embarrassment and a dishonor to your family. If you were Jewish, by the end of the 1st century becoming a Christian meant getting disowned by your family and kicked out of the synagogue. And, of course, there are the countless martyrs of the Church – men, women, and even children who were willing to suffer torture and death rather than break their commitment to Christ.

Not many Christians in modern Western society pay a price for following Jesus. But Jesus’ warning that putting him in first place can create conflict and division still comes true.

Take, for example, a woman who, while she was in college, committed her life to Christ and responded to a call to join a Christian community dedicated to a life of poverty and service to the poor. Exasperated, this young woman’s parents said: “We didn’t raise our daughter to be a fanatic!”

Then there’s the 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian from Keene, New Hampshire named Jonathan Daniels. In response to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to come to Selma, Alabama, Jonathan decided to go South, leaving behind the safety of the seminary and putting his faith into action on the front lines of the Civil Rights struggle. A few months later on August 20, 1965, while trying to enter a store, Jonathan and his friends were confronted by an angry white man with a shotgun who told them to leave or be shot. After a brief confrontation, he aimed the gun at a young African American girl. Jonathan pushed her out of the way, taking the point-blank blast of the shotgun, giving his life so that another would live.[1]

Sometimes following Jesus takes us to places and asks us to give things we would never have imagined.

It’s important to note that Jesus is not telling us to look for ways to create conflict and division. And he’s definitely not saying that families and friends are bad, or that we should actively seek out danger and death. But the point remains: there are times when loyalty to Jesus Christ and working for the peace and justice of God’s kingdom alienates and offends other people.

And so Jesus is right when he says that he didn’t come to bring peace. At least not the kind of peace that acts like nothing really matters, or that tries to please everybody all the time, or that says all values are relative and that it’s okay to do what you like as long as nobody gets hurt. Jesus is not advocating a “live and let live” peace.

The peace Jesus offers is neither the absence of conflict nor the abandonment of truth and virtue but the pursuit of wholeness. It’s the kind of wholeness that comes when we commit ourselves to a cause that unifies all of our values, goals, and actions towards a single purpose. And for we who follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, that purpose is nothing less than God’s kingdom come, and God’s will done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Our end, our purpose, our fulfillment lies in “the life of the world to come,” a life in which heaven and earth are united as God’s new creation in which all things “shall be filled with the knowledge and the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”[2]

Sometimes our loyalty to this purpose will elicit the world’s approval. At other times, loyalty to Jesus Christ and to the kingdom for which he died will hit too close to home and too close for comfort for those who give their ultimate allegiance to worldly kingdoms doomed to pass away. That may provoke anxiety, anger, and opposition. But regardless of how others respond, we have the reassurance of sharing, not in the false peace of the world, but in the peace of someone who has lived the worst that the world can dish out. The peace of someone from God. The peace of someone who is God. This is the peace of the risen Lord Jesus.

Jesus’ peace doesn’t minimize or abolish conflict and suffering. On the contrary, it often brings wholeness, new life and hope through conflict and suffering. Truly, it is a peace that passes understanding. And it’s a promise that despite all appearances to the contrary, our loyalty to Jesus Christ is not in vain.

By emptying himself of all claims to power and privilege, bearing the shame of the cross, dying and rising again, Jesus has overcome this world and bridged the chasm separating us from God. And so the risen Jesus is our peace. His kingdom is our true home. It’s a peaceable kingdom that knows no disease or death, that needs no violent defense, and that unites friends, strangers, and enemies in a single embrace. We fervently pray for and commit ourselves to assist the coming of this peaceable kingdom every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. And we joyfully anticipate its arrival with the immortal words of the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.”

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperOne, 2006).


Anonymous said...

Good work Bryan

Apis Melliflora said...

Fine sermon. What has troubled me in the passage is the part about family, especially as a mother of young children. But you put it in its proper historical context.

Anonymous said...

Bryan, the reminder of the early church's approach to the catechumenate and the fact that certain professions were incompatible with Christian faith is profoundly challenging for those of us in post-Christian societies. We really have to realise that Christendom is gone - and that the approaches to evangelism and formation seen in the early church are incredibly relevant.