Prince of Peace?
Read Luke 12:49-56
“Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.” (Lk. 12:51)
Today’s gospel does not portray the gentle, long-suffering, peaceful, approachable Jesus whom many of us have traditionally come to expect. It sounds more like a harsh, despairing outburst from someone nearing the end of his tether. It paints such a dark picture, yet history has proved it true in so many ways. Why does a message of a loving God and the ‘peace that passes all understanding’ result in violent division? Because one cannot follow the One God and continue to follow the many other gods in our life that would take us in a direction opposite to the will of God: money, success, financial security, political security, social standing, fashion, religion, et al.
Too often peace is thought of in terms of harmony, a quality that is most certainly not indicated in today’s gospel reading. West Australian theologian Bill Loader says of the commonly expressed Christian goal of peace and harmony:
“‘Harmony’ is one of those soft words that people sometimes use to plea for peace. The peace that results is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts that are bound to emerge eventually from under their marshmallow captivity. Orderliness and harmony were great Stoic themes. At worst it meant everyone in their place, an unchanged and unchanging status quo. For many people Christian peace is still seen as that kind of harmony, if not achievable outwardly, then at least achievable inwardly, and so the gospel then takes up its stall beside all the others offering serenity of life and ‘feel good’ spiritualities” (WLoader.Loader web site, 8/2010).
If there is a place for ‘harmony’ in the teaching of Jesus, it is about unity with God and what God is doing in the world and a sense of solidarity with those travelling that path, a path that is often neither harmonious nor peaceful Matthew’s version of this early story spells it out less tactfully: Jesus has come not to bring peace but a sword (Luke has: ‘division’).
‘Peace at all costs’ has no place in this gospel. That kind of harmony gilds oppression with respectability and rewards wrong. Instead we face a full scale conflict, which Luke’s Jesus says takes us right into the family. The family is being dethroned here from its absolute claims. In his passion for love, for change, for justice, for renewal, Jesus is confronting the gods of family and warning that this is very dangerous territory.
It was not that Jesus sought to subvert families as such. The heart of human formation, in the beginning, is the family. It’s where we begin to learn and where we are first ‘injured’. The freedom the gospel offers us is to step out of that family and place the heart of our formation in the hands of God. As Christians we understand the path to doing this is through the pioneering path of Jesus, but we are not to stop there. The family is only the first of power structures from which we are to be free in Christ.
We gather in church to follow Jesus, seeking peace, justice, and the kingdom. If we really take this seriously, what does this do but immediately challenge all of the power structures to which we formally have given allegiance? It confronts us with the question: How much do we wish for real peace?
To follow Jesus, we may need to endure great and painful division, and we will then understand why Matthew used the image of the sword to describe it.
Jesus is not anti-family, but anti-power structure. He espoused a vision of God and God’s agenda for change, which often, and inevitably, stands in direct conflict with the claims of the world’s power structures. It may be that family is not the locus of power that we immediately confront. Other social structures may be the first to notice our change of allegiance. but be assured, they will notice us, and we will have little choice but to engage them if we are to remain faithful to the ethos of Jesus; things like wealth, possessions, land, culture, religion as well as family.
The world we live in, like the biblical world of the prophets and apostles, can be an angry and violent one. Moreover, our world at the moment seems to be one that is rocked with religious violence. People bomb and kill other people all in the name of God. And while much of the present religious violence that catches the media’s attention are acts of Muslim terrorists, we know that Christianity also has a tradition of violence against others (infidels, heretics) all in the name of God.
How ironic that one of the power structures that rebels against the intrusion of Jesus’ way is organised religion, even the Christian church that has, at least in name, taken on Jesus as its Lord. This should come as no surprise, for it was organised religion, i.e., the church, that wanted to shut Jesus up in his time, and it still does.
The passage ends by talking about the weather. In its present context, this exhortation focuses on looking for signs of the danger of conflict. The challenge to read the signs of the times is a way of saying, recognise what is really going on and likely to happen and then do something. It is very much in the prophetic mould.
Today it means helping people probe beneath the surface of events, to recognise the gods and hidden agendas that drive the world in which we live. The same caution, which Jesus applied to families, applies to all other systems where we each will be called upon to choose, not only between competing politicians and their policies at election time, but between following Christ or the power structures of this world.
Often the distinctions are subtle, but sometimes they are stark. For example, there is no way under heaven that a true follower of Jesus could do anything with asylum seekers except welcome them and provide hospitality. No politician, including our church-going prime minister, can justly claim to be a follower of Jesus and then imprison refugees and their children. A ‘Christian’ who ‘stops the boats’ is an oxymoron.
A passage like today’s provides an opportunity for reflection on the centres of powerful influence in our lives and communities. What are these gods? We need to name them. We each need to name them. For some, those gods will still be in families. Liberation will come as they learn to say “no” to family authorities, whether in real life outside or in the real life of the mind. Grace invites us to stand on our own two feet, to say “No,” in order to grow up, to be born again.
For others, the gods are in their workplace, pulling their strings, or across the counters of commerce or in the obsessions of advertising. Gods are always bigger than individual people. This is about more than addressing individual loyalties. Ultimately it is about the vision of justice and peace for all.
I will let Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. conclude with words that are timeless, and are no less important today than they were in 1967 when he spoke them:
“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe people are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and, out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born…It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries…
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain…”
“…We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilisations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’ There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect….
“We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace…and justice throughout the developing world; a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the children of God, and our brothers (and sisters) wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American (Australian) life militate against their arrival as full human beings, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated: “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide.” (Australian Hymn Book No. 499) He was too optimistic, though; the time of choice comes much more frequently than most can even imagine. Choose well.