“The Jesus Who Divides”
This is the first of a two-part sermon
(Part 2 will be shared on August 25, 2019)
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Luke 12: 49-56
August 18, 2019
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” — Luke 12:51i
Things you don’t talk about on a first date: Money, Sex, Politics, and Religion.1 That leaves the weather which I suppose is a safe enough topic. The object, of course, is to avoid discord…And then there’s Jesus! Money, sex, politics and religion were about all He talked about. Though we may not like to admit it, our text puts these words on the lips of Jesus: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
Is it not true that just about everywhere Jesus went, He caused division — even among His followers? Some examples might help convince you:
- The Man born blind.
- The healing of the Demoniac
- Calling Simon “Satan”
- The question about paying taxes
And in our own day, Christians find themselves divided when it comes to the will of God for our time and place — gun control, abortion, the ethics of going to war, Christian Republicans and Christian Democrats. Division is rampant. What Jesus stated long ago is still true today — Jesus brings division.
Given these differences among us we are left with at least three central questions. First, how do we move forward in life when the pathway to Christian virtue has so many forks in its proverbial road? Second, how do we live with the path we have chosen? And third, how do we relate as Christians to those who have taken a different fork than the fork we’ve chosen?
Before taking up these questions, I want to make an a priori assertion: The division Jesus brings works to promote the good. I take that as a given. I don’t have to prove it. I assume it. You can see it differently if you like, but if one professes Jesus to be Lord and savior, it is hard to fathom how the division Jesus brings could possibly be bad. So my purpose this morning is not to do away with the division Jesus brings but to find an authentic way to live in the midst of its inevitable tension. With that said, let us return to the questions posed by the division Jesus brings.
First, how do we move forward in life when the pathway to Christian virtue has so many forks in its proverbial road? There are two answers to this question. The first leads to religious authoritarianism. Somebody, other than my conscience, tells me which way is God’s way. Some Christian denominations come closer to this description than others, but all authoritarian solutions, have either a figure who professes to know the truth for your life or a governing body that makes the decisions. This is not the pathway this church has chosen to follow. And that can lead to problems. I don’t know how many active members belong to this church, but I’m pretty sure there aint nobody but Jesus going to tell any of them what they have to do. This can make progress regarding action on a given issue either difficult or impossible. I can stand here today and tell you that I am in favor of gun control. I can even ask you to sign a petition that agrees with me, but I cannot say that this church, as a whole, has taken a position on this burning question. In short, I can speak for myself. I cannot speak for the body. If you would like to know what we base our rejection of authoritarianism on, speak with me after church. If there are enough of you, we can meet downstairs and have a half-hour discussion. But let it be enough to say that as part of the Free Church movement within Protestant Christianity, we have rejected centralized authority.
Well, if we don’t accept authoritarianism, then how do we decide which road to take? The answer is rather sloppy. “Love God and do as you please.” I know, that sounds rather flippant. I take refuge I the fact that it was Augustine who said it. I’m merely quoting it. But it’s true. The love of God must guide us in all decisions if they are to have any nobility. Add to this that human existence is structured in such a way that no matter how noble my action may appear in my eyes it may look evil in another’s.
What I am about to say may sound a little bit like a tangent, but I promise it will make sense in the end. I have always had a problem with folks who say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” What they mean is that they find God outside of church — fishing, playing golf, dinner with friends. Why? Why do I have a problem with folks claiming to be spiritual but not religious? It is a forfeiture of their sacred duty. It may be the case that each of us is finally responsible for our actions, but those actions need to be informed by the Christian witness of others. I am not challenged to seek God’s will on a given problem by spending time in some leisurely activity. No, I am challenged when I encounter other Christians who either affirm or contest my vision.
Here’s an example. I was a young senior minister of a church during the time of Apartheid in South Africa. At that time many people and organizations of conscious were divesting of any financial holdings that did business in South Africa. It was hoped that by hurting the pocketbooks of those in power it might lead to a change in their racist policies. So I stood up at one of the business meetings of the church and moved that the church divest of its stock in Mobil, Dupont and Tenneco. There was discussion of the motion and when it came time for the vote, it was defeated. Mind you, the University of Pennsylvania had already divested of its holdings. I was crushed. Here I was the pastor of a church that, in my mind, could not see the moral question of the moment. But my friends, they had every right to vote their conscious.
As you can see, this approach of “loving God and doing as one pleases,” can make for messy and confusing outcomes, but in the end it is the only way to ensure the freedom to follow one’s conscience.
So I implore you to take seriously what has been laid before us. We are to be about the task of knowing and loving God, of seeing in Jesus the divine presence. This cannot happen in isolation. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so it talks a community of faith to unfold God’s will. Oh, it will not be perfect and I am very sure it wont be easy, but we are called to “love God and do as we please” and the truth of the matter is that you cannot know anyone if you are not in a relationship with the one you seek to know. It is here, in this place that we attempt to imperfectly put flesh on the bones of faith.
This week I began this sermon by accepting the fact that Jesus causes division and that this division leads to confusion concerning the pathway we are to follow. That left us with three central questions. This Sunday we turned our attention to the first question — namely, how do we move forward in life when the pathway to Christian virtue has so many forks in its proverbial road? Next Sunday, we will seek to answer the remaining two questions of how one live with the path one has chosen? And the third and final question: how do we relate as Christians to those who have taken a different fork than our own? Let us pray…
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?