Luke 12:49-56 (online here)
Do you remember how much we used to suffer from but we might call tweet fatigue? Back when the Tweeter in Chief had a Twitter account, I suspect most of us used to dread turning on the news to learn what he had tweeted about that morning. Even some of his most ardent supporters admitted to dreading them and wished he would just stop. Talking heads on the news channels, at least the ones I watched, lamented almost daily about how these tweets seemed calculated to inflame division among us. Please give it a rest, said almost everybody.
Today we read what look like like a couple of inflammatory, divisive tweets from Jesus himself: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Thanks, Jesus! Maybe you should’ve run those by your staff before dumping them on the public at large. Can’t you stay on message? When you sent your followers out to preach, you told them to start their spiel with “Peace to this house“ (Luke 10:5). One of your followers later summed up your own preaching: “He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17). What happened to that message? We want to hear you talk about love, forgiveness, welcoming outsiders, and yes, peace—all that stuff we want to think of when we think of you.
Now make no mistake, Jesus is all about that stuff—love, forgiveness, welcoming outsiders, peace, all of it. But here he’s asking us to get real when we try to live all that peaceable-sounding stuff in a world that’s divided against itself all the way down, on the inside as well as the outside. When you try to bring peace to a conflicted situation, you’re bound to bring, not just peace, but more division.
After all, that’s exactly what happened with Jesus. Instead of welcoming his message with open arms, the Romans executed him—not peace but division. That’s what was on his mind when he made these inflammatory remarks. “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” Yes, he rose to embrace even his executioners, but he didn’t escape execution—his baptism, he called it. And knowing what was in store did not put him totally at peace. “What stress I am under,“ he said. And he meant it.
And that’s exactly what happened with Jesus’ followers too. Their message brought division within their family relationships, and eventually it brought division even within their new church family. They couldn’t agree on how to welcome non-Jewish outsiders. Some insisted that everybody had to keep all the commandments in Leviticus. St. Paul insisted that the only commandment in Leviticus that applied to everybody was “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:8-19; Galatians 5:14; Leviticus 19:18). Paul spent the rest of his life arguing with other Jesus followers about how to welcome everybody. Christ’s body was divided from almost the very beginning. It brought not peace but division.
So again, when you try to bring peace to a conflicted situation, you’re bound to bring, not just peace, but more division. Jesus knew that. Paul knew that.
So did Martin Luther King. For Americans he pioneered the practice of undoing oppression through nonviolent resistance. So of course he caught it from all sides. Many criticized him for being too divisive, too inflammatory, others for not being divisive enough. He insisted on a third way, a way beyond resigned despair and violent rebellion.
“I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’,” he said. “I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth … We must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help [us] to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
“I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’,” said King. Neither was Jesus: “What stress I am under!” What tension. Neither of them wanted division to be the last word. But both of them realized that the only way beyond our divisions was not around them but through them. Neither of them wanted their followers to resort to violence. But both of them urged their followers not to back away from the violent reactions their message was bound to provoke.
By the way, here is an uncomfortable comparison I discovered a few years ago. Do you know about the Enneagram personality test? Don’t worry if you don’t—I’ll keep it simple. There are nine personality types. My type is number nine, “the Peacemaker,” and the main thing to say about that type for the moment is that people like me are always tempted to avoid conflict practically at any cost. We want everybody to get along so much that we’ll refuse to notice when a situation gets conflicted. How Episcopalian! But there’s another type, type eight, “the Challenger”—“Self-Confident, Decisive, Willful, and Confrontational.” They almost live for conflict.
Books on the Enneagram like to give famous examples of these types. My Peacemaker type includes the Dalai Lama and Mr. Rogers and (for some reason I can’t fathom) Clint Eastwood! But the Challenger type includes bothMartin Luther King and our former, tweet-obsessed President! That’s right, both of them! I find one of them exceedingly thoughtful and the other just as exceedingly thoughtless (I’ll let you guess which is which). And yet they’re both the same type. With each personality type there are examples you will admire, and examples who will make you cringe.
When it comes to figuring out Jesus’ personality type, people disagree because, of course, we all tend to see the Jesus we want to see. I’m delighted to see that some people think he was a nine, just like me. But I suspect the people who think that about him are nines too! But nine or not, Jesus is a lot more comfortable than I am with making people uncomfortable. And I think we could agree that in today’s Gospel reading he’s clearly having an eight moment.
He’s not threatening “fire and fury” the way a certain former President had been known to do with his nuclear arsenal. He is warning us that “fire and fury” is what we can always expect to meet our attempts to live out his message: the radical embrace of God‘s love in a world that doesn’t want to hear about it.
A few years ago the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted as an entire denomination to become “a sanctuary church body,” promising to continue standing with refugees and immigrants from other countries to make sure they are being treated fairly in a legal system that almost everybody agrees needs reforming. We are, by the way, in full communion with this church. They were immediately denounced by Fox News and accused of disobeying the Bible and of calling for illegal actions. (They had actually been very clear that they were not calling on their congregations to break the law. But you wouldn’t have known that from hearing the reaction.)
So again, when you try to bring peace to a conflicted situation, when you try to live out the radical embrace of God’s love in a world that doesn’t want to hear about it, you’re bound to bring, not just peace, but more division. I don’t want to hear that, type nine that I am, but I can’t afford to shut my eyes to what seems to happen every time our faith community does actually try to live this out.
Are we ready to hear that? Some of us hear that more readily than others. And I have to admit that I am grateful for all the times certain people have dragged me almost kicking in screaming out of my comfort zone to take a stand and deal with the conflict that generates. That’s what Jesus is doing in today’s lesson, dragging us out of our comfort zones, calling us to live out the radical embrace of God’s love in a world that doesn’t want to hear about it. What stress we are under! Are we ready? May God give us courage.