Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.”
It’s a hard passage to hear – especially if we think about the promises and the hope that we proclaim during the Christmas season. We sing about the Prince of Peace. We live in the hope that divisions can be overcome. Yet, here, Jesus speaks not of peace – but of creating division.
Sometimes the church has a message that is little more than pablum – easy words that speak of Jesus, mild and meek. There is little in the message of the church that grabs people, that speaks to the world in which they live. Church becomes the feel good escape – an hour of hearing a happy message that if we just live right everything will be OK. We sing glad songs. We tell ourselves and each other that God is on our side and that we are, ultimately, winners.
There is another approach to Christianity that seems to take this morning’s passage very, very seriously. That approach embraces the angry Jesus, the righteous judge. Christianity seeks to define itself over against the world --- naming sin and sinners alike. We see this approach in every branch of Christianity. I remember reading session meeting minutes from about 1900. The session noted those who were misbehaving – a man who was seen in a local bar and a woman who had the audacity to break the sabbath by hanging her wash on the line. Session decided who was eligible to partake of the Lord’s Supper and who was ineligible. It acted as the righteous judge.
Our battles today are different. But many experience the church as a place of judgment. Some of the battles are very, very public. They are part of the political discourse of the day. They influence public policy. We hear people proclaim that they know what God’s will is, so they may tell others how it is they should act or be treated by the larger society. Think of the public battles that cite Christianity as their driving force. We’re still fighting about marriage. And the new battleground seems to be about bathrooms for transgender people.
The church seems, at times, to relish its role as judge and enforcer. It has taken to heart these words from Jesus, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.”
How many have or know the wounds inflicted by the church? There was the woman who struggled with her divorce – and could picture the angry God who was judging her – and finding her a failure. Today’s headlines and church fights remind us that many in Christianity have declared judgement on gays and lesbians, and now, on transgendered people. The church is drawing the lines and declaring who can be in and who is out. And households are divided.
Norma shared a post on Facebook this week, an article from a Texas newspaper about a mother’s experience with her child. Kimberly Shappley said, “From my earliest memories of my child, my child’s been very feminine. It’s just always been that way. I don’t know how else to put it. I’m a strong, spirit-filled, Bible-believing, born-again Christian. I’m a Republican. This was just not going to happen. At home I had three other boys. I had a very masculine home. Nothing feminine in the home, and Kai started telling us at age 3, “I’m a girl.”
Shappley spoke of her own discomfort with that declaration. “I held this religious mindset that this was something that I could change if I prayed enough and fasted enough.” The church had consistently told her that this child was unacceptable in the sight of God.
Is it the church’s God given responsibility to be the voice of judgment in our world? Is it to seek purity by creating division, by keeping people out who see things differently? How do we make sense of Jesus’ words? Is there a way of seeing them as a call in a world, in a society, that relishes setting one group against another? At first hearing, I find these words of Jesus difficult – scary, in fact. It doesn’t take long to see the damage done by those who feel that they are enforcing God’s righteousness on others. It’s tempting to ignore them.
There is always context to consider. As we hear these words we need to look beyond them and see how it is that Jesus brought division, how Jesus kindled a fire. One of the foundational tenets of the Reformed tradition is that scripture interprets scripture. We don’t, we shouldn’t, we can’t lift snippets or stories in the Bible out of the Bible and expect them to stand alone. We need to let the whole of the Biblical witness be a part of our attempt to interpret passages. So, when we hear these words from Jesus, we need to look beyond them. We look at how he lived. We look at how God’s people lived into God’s presence.
Now, if we look at Jesus' life it is true that he brought division. But not in the way we might think. His ministry was really one of striving to bridge divisions. He reached out to those whom the community of faith had routinely ignored and sidelined. He invited them into his circle. The whole community of faith was invited to join him in that circle of inclusion – but they chose to be divided from his presence, from his inclusivity, from his message of grace. The division he brought was not of his own making, but a sign of a continued brokenness.
If we look at Jesus’ life, it is true that he brought fire. But we have to think of the image of fire, of the way it is understood Biblically. We frequently portray fire as destructive. Yet, the Bible speaks of its ability to purify. “For he is like a refiner’s fire,” is a well known Biblical phrase quoted in Handel’s Messiah. We might remember the tongues as of fire that descended on the believers at Pentecost, giving them the courage to proclaim a message to a wider community. That courage and that message were not always welcomed. But, it was a fire that spread and started a transformation in various communities. Jesus’ fire was not a fire to destroy, but a fire to inflame a passionate desire to be connected with God’s realm.
As Sheppley struggled with her faith and the reality of who her child is she was finally able to declare, “I am a Bible-believing Christian. I love the Lord. But God makes no mistakes, and my child is fearfully and wonderfully made, just as the Scripture tells us.”
She went on to speak of the consequences of this affirmation of her child. “We’ve lost a lot of very important people out of our lives and there are some thoroughly burned bridges. My sister has disowned me. I watch cousins and aunts post horrible things about transgender people, trying to rally the troops against the militant gay agenda, that Satan was using these little kids. I will say we’ve lost the majority of our family. I feel like sometimes we’re on a little island, but through this transition, my kid, within a few short weeks, we weren’t having lying anymore. We weren’t having bed-wetting any- more. We have had no nightmares in the past year. No stealing at all. That all was just erased within a few weeks of this. I have a happy, healthy, outgoing, loving, beautiful, sweet little girl who loves Jesus and loves her brothers.”
When I look at Jesus’ ministry, he never condemned the vulnerable, the isolated, the feared, the different. He challenged people of faith to look beyond their legalism and see a broader world. His approach led to Paul’s declaration that there was no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Those were the primary divisions of Paul’s day. We need to acknowledge the divisions in our world – and God’s call to look beyond them.
The passage in Hebrews this morning has that powerful declaration that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses.” If we look back at the history of the church, what stands out? For what is the church powerfully and thankfully remembered? Is it for power plays that seek to protect its status? No. Is it for judgment leveled against those who are different? No. Is it for its participation in and tacit support of institutions and structures that have imprisoned and condemned people? No.
The powerful witness of the church is when it has chosen to follow Jesus’ example – to work against injustice, to liberate those who are imprisoned, to speak and work on behalf of those the world – even the church—has declared to be of little or no value. The church is thankfully remembered for ministries of compassion – hospitals and clinics that serve the sick, schools and universities that educate, programs that feed and lift people out of despair. That is the legacy of the cloud of witnesses – the testimony which informs how it is we are to be God’s people in this world.
Frank Rogers, Jr.’s chapter on Discernment in the book Practicing Our Faith has some well tested guidelines for sensing God’s will.
• There is fidelity to Scripture and tradition. (Again, that fidelity is to the broad picture!)
• Actions bring about the fruits of the Sprit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
• There is inner authority and peace.
• There is communal harmony – meaning that people are reconciled to one another. He notes that sometimes the Spirit’s work is, initially divisive, because it is working against injustice.
• Decisions and actions and approaches work toward the enhancement rather than the extinction of life.
“My child is fearfully and wonderfully made,” Sheppley declared. That declaration, that Godly declaration has caused division. It was not her intent. It was a consequence of her willingness to proclaim a life-giving, grace filled, redemptive truth to folks who could and would not accept it.
The sweet Jesus, meek and mild, does this world no good. Neither does the angry, destructive Jesus. The passionate Jesus, who saw the vulnerable, the weak, the forgotten, the disparaged, the hated and the feared, and offered them God’s loving acceptance and challenged his community to do the same, is the One we are to follow.