"We have a voice in the world as we are the hands and feet of Christ. A new day in the church? Let’s do it."
Bishop Daniel G. P. Gutiérrez XVI
The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania
Proper 15 / Year C
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
18 August 2019
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks; and then answers, “No, I tell you, but rather division!”
The true cost of following Jesus comes into sharp focus as Jesus, the Prince of Peace, warns, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father… mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her
I have no doubt that more than a few followers, having heard this teaching, turned on their heels and left. Families torn apart for the sake of peace? Can this actually be the Gospel, the Good News of Christ?
This is one of Jesus’ hardest teachings. But it is true, as hard lessons often are.
Jesus himself had experienced this division personally as his own earthly family was torn by his ministry. Though Jesus’ mother Mary would be with him at the cross, none of his siblings are present, and the Gospels tell us that there was a time when his family had held an intervention, trying to convince him to abandon his ministry and return home to rest and regain his senses, as they wondered if Jesus had gone crazy with all this wandering and religious teaching and preaching. From his own experience, Jesus is well aware that this is just the beginning of the many ways that the path he offers will separate many of his followers from family and friends. Even as the newly-emerging Christian community comes into being, other communities will be ripped apart, some permanently.
Six chapters further into Luke’s Gospel, Peter will say, “Look, we all have left our homes and followed you.” And Jesus does not refute or downplay their sacrifice, but responds, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” Jesus promises much – in this world and the next - to those who will follow him. But he wants those who choose to follow him to understand not just the rewards of this new way of life, but also the cost they will pay. He is insistent that they understand that there is a price for true peace. And the price may indeed be high and costly.
The Hebrew word for peace, the word Jesus would have used, is “shalom.” This word means not just the absence of war, but much more. “Shalom” means wholeness, well-being, and health, as well as what we think of as a sense of peace – both internal and external. All of these many meanings are present in this one word: “shalom.” What Jesus offers his followers, this “shalom,” is a truer, deeper peace than we can ever comprehend. This is what is meant when we refer to “God’s peace which passes all our understanding.”
Jesus often sent those he healed on their way by saying, “Go in peace.” Jesus makes them whole, healthy, peaceful, gives them well-being, and then sends them away in that deeper peace, called “shalom.” Jesus, God’s own son, was a man of peace who brought shalom, God’s deep and lasting peace to broken hearts and lives. And yet, this Sunday he says that he came to bring division. What are we to make of this?
Jesus longs to bring full healing, a deeper health, and unifying wholeness to our world. But, he advises, the cost of that peace will be division. God’s greater peace can only come at the cost of lesser peace, which is the only peace that this world can offer. The greater, more expansive peace of God brings an end to the false peace we often settle for; and, as Jesus warns, this greater peace may, unfortunately, pit family members and friends against each other.
What does this lesser peace, that we all too often settle for, look like? It looks like a family distorting their lives to enable an abusive father’s alcoholic rages to inflict emotional and physical abuse while maintaining a false façade, never letting those around them know that life at home is anything but peaceful. Lesser peace is a child falling into a prescription drug addiction, moving on to heroin that consumes first the child and then the family, as the denial continues until it is far too late and the deadly addiction is unstoppable. Lesser peace is when the signs of an extra-marital affair are everywhere, but it is easier to pretend not to see them than to face the brokenness already present in the marriage. The examples go on and on and on. We see problems. But we say nothing. Instead, we smooth things over. All the while, convincing ourselves that our silence and lack of any meaningful change is somehow done in an effort to “keep the peace.”
These examples are just within the family, but the same problem is also writ large. Across much of the history of our nation, the lesser peace treated formerly enslaved persons and their descendants as less than fully human. The Civil Rights Movement divided families and friends precisely because the lesser peace that many wanted to maintain carried no real cost to those in power. It can be tempting to avert our eyes, to want to return to the simple life, the “good old days” with Andy and Opie Taylor, Barney and Aunt Bea in the fictional televised world of Mayberry . . . without recalling that in that very same time, not all shared the same real-life opportunities, the same education, the same freedoms, the same rights. And we still have a long way to go before all of God’s children experience in this world the wholeness and well-being that is the “shalom” found in the Kingdom of God.
Bemoaning the tragedies that occur in places like El Paso, Dayton, Parkland, Sandy Hook and Columbine – sending “thoughts and prayers” to a synagogue in Pittsburgh, or a black church in Charleston, or a Sikh Temple in Milwaukee – complaining about drive-by shootings and hostage situations such as occur in Philadelphia on a daily basis and plague not just our nation’s inner cities, but communities of every size . . . to complain and condemn, without actively addressing the issues of gun control that result in the rampant and destructive gun violence that now defines our nation, is settling for a lesser peace than what Christ wants for us. Passively watching the television images of the crisis currently happening on our southern border that separates families and cages individuals, without demanding that sensible and compassionate immigration policies be enacted for those who long for a better life among us is settling for a lesser peace than what Christ wants for us. Convincing ourselves that the emboldened proponents of white supremacy and racism and xenophobia are too small a contingent to be bothered with, and whose actions are merely unfortunate, but isolated incidents, is settling for a lesser peace than what Christ wants for us.
Jesus wants us not to settle for less. He longs for the day when no lesser peace that the world can offer will be substituted and take the place of true and full and lasting peace of God. Until the alcohol-fueled abuse stops and the drug use is addressed compassionately and firmly, how can there be peace in the family? Unless the affairs stop, how can there be peace in the marriage? Unless the issues that trouble our society and poison our nation are acknowledged and addressed, how can there be peace in our communities? But all too often we grab hold of a lesser peace as tightly as a security blanket. Rather than having the courage to speak the truth and act faithfully, we remain silent and inactive in a futile attempt to “keep the peace”, but ultimately stifling and preventing the possibility of real peace, the “shalom,” the true peace of God to replace that lesser peace.
Jesus continually sought out and reached out to the outcasts in his own society. Jesus upset the status quo and eventually was killed for rocking the societal boat a little too much. Jesus did bring God’s peace to the earth, a true and lasting peace, but the price was division. Throughout history, there are thousands of examples of people settling for a lesser peace when God was calling them to embrace something much more. The true peace of God brings an end to the false peace of the world and can easily pit even family members against each other.
Living into the new life in Jesus which is promised in baptism can and will change our behavior and our attitudes over time if we take it seriously. Living the promises we make within every baptism should deeply engage us and change our lives. Yet, this is in tension with a desire to avoid conflict and so to preserve a lesser peace. The cost of accepting these accommodations and compromises is that this prevents our breaking through to the deeper peace waiting for us. “Shalom,” God’s true and lasting peace, calls us to stand against injustice. Any time we preserve the peace at our own, or someone, or some group’s expense, we trade God’s everlasting shalom for a poor imitation.
Where have we become accommodated and accustomed to peace for ourselves at the price of peace for someone else? What would it look like to speak out against a lesser peace in your family, our community, and our world? When you do so, it may divide a household as Jesus warns: two against three, father against son, or mother against daughter. But if the Holy Spirit is speaking truth to your heart, God’s Spirit is inviting you to move from a lesser peace to true and lasting peace. God’s Spirit is calling you into the fullness and wholeness that is “Shalom.” The cost will be high, so high that most of us shrink back and become lesser men and women. We let coworkers steal from the company, friends cheat on their spouses, brothers fall deeper into drug use. We fail to stand with those being bullied in school or the work place, with neighbors being denied human rights. We do all of this in the hope of “keeping the peace” and instead fall short of the deep peace Jesus wants for us, our families, our friends, our community, our nation, our world.
The real question we should be asking ourselves is not why did Jesus teach that following him could be divisive, but why is our faith, and sadly our Church, so reluctant to disturb or make anyone uncomfortable? Why do we too often settle for a lesser peace when we are called to move into the everlasting peace of God?
In what ways are we, the professed followers of Jesus, holding back? How should we be bolder instead of remaining silent?
In the end, know this: the gift of speaking the truth in love and following in Jesus’ footsteps is not the division we fear, but the deep and eternal peace for which
we all long.