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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 08/18/2013

This is one of those gospel texts that no one likes, or at least I don’t think anyone likes it.  We’ve all got our favorite image of Jesus whether it’s the Good Shepherd, maybe the Bread of Life, the Light of the World; Prince of Peace, that’s a good one, that’s right up there.  None of those images, however, fit the Jesus who shows up today because today you get Jesus as an arsonist, a home wrecker and a name caller.  “I come to bring fire to the earth; I’ve come not to bring peace but division, son against father, daughter against mother you bunch of hypocrites!” 

This isn’t sweet Jesus meek and mild, not our Jesus of choice who heals people and tells stories and stops for supper and has words of compassion when people mess up.  Today it seems like Jesus should be the first reading as this kind of stuff sounds more like what we’ve heard from the prophets, Amos and Hosea and Isaiah over the past weeks.  We’ve gotten used to it from them but it’s not what we want from Jesus.  It seems out of place although it might not seem quite so out of place if this reading came at a different time of year, maybe towards the end of Lent, drawing near to Holy Week when the tone of things is a bit more strained than it is in the middle of August. 

The timing issue is a clue though, a clue in making sense of this text.  In the lectionary this reading does always comes about now, late summer.  In the sequence of Luke’s gospel though, it would fit better in Lent as a couple of chapters earlier Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” which means the march toward the trial and crucifixion of Holy Week has started, Jesus is headed in that direction.  That still doesn’t make this the kind of thing we want to hear from him, but knowing the context perhaps makes it a bit more comprehensible; Jesus has reason to be a little edgy at this point in his journey.

Whatever the context though, the verses about divided families are tough to hear.  It’s not that we don’t know that such divisions are pretty common and that there are a multitude of things that can cause them; but for Jesus to announce that he will be the cause of division, well, that just kind of rubs the wrong way.  Whatever our image of Jesus is, that’s not what we expect.

In looking for help with understanding all this I came across something written by our old friend Audrey West.  She says that this text is probably best understood as being descriptive rather than prescriptive.  That is, it’s not Jesus intent, it’s not his purpose to set children against their parents or parents against their children or anyone against anyone as far as that goes.  The truth of it is though, intended or not, following the way of Jesus can and does create division so what Jesus says describes what can happen.

Think about the story of the Prodigal Son which in the gospel of Luke appears a couple of chapters after this although in this case, in the lectionary we did hear it back during Lent.  In the story that Jesus told, the Christ like forgiveness of the father for his wayward and wasteful son creates division in the family.  The older brother doesn’t like it; he doesn’t like how his younger brother is welcomed home; it’s not fair.  So, there is an unresolved division at the end of the story between the older son and his father, between the older son and his brother.  “I have not come to bring peace, but rather division;” in story form, there it is. 

What it all comes down to is the fact that the way of Jesus is not the way of the world and that can cause problems.  We try to harmonize the two ways and sometimes it works, or at least we convince ourselves that it does, but in the reality of life in this world as it is, it’s pretty difficult to always live as Jesus would have us live, so what happens is we make compromises.  We make compromises that help to keep things smooth in our own minds but they also help to keep things smooth between us and others; we find ways to avoid the divisions.    

To really follow Jesus though, to really take his teaching seriously without making compromises will more than likely upset someone.  For example, we want to think that we embrace Jesus’ radical grace and forgiveness, but it can bother us if it’s too radical as the Prodigal Son story shows.  There’s a reason that most of us can sympathize with and identify with the older brother in the story.

Jesus’ welcome of those who were thought to be outside the boundaries of welcome and forgiveness was one source of division; he upset a lot of people.  It’s a little bit ironic because as he removed boundaries that created divisions in society, new divisions were created; that’s one way that “I come not to bring peace but division” happens.

More common though in the history of Christianity has been the tendency to create divisions by building barriers, by the church deciding who’s in and who’s out.  It’s biblical; that kind of stuff is in there. Paul especially comes to mind with his lists; fornication, impurity, licentiousness, drunkenness, carousing and so forth.  None of that represents good Christian behavior and Paul isn’t shy about pointing it out.  As a result, despite its proclamation of grace, the church has often been zealous in enforcing the law, zealous in its condemnation of those who fit into Paul’s categories of sinfulness as well as many others. 

In fact, many would probably say that identifying sin is exactly what the church should do, that it’s one of the important roles of the church.  After all, it can’t be anything goes can it?  The church and being a Christian has to stand for something!  And so, division is created as this person or that person, this group or that group, this family or that family is made to feel like they’re not welcome, they’re not good enough whatever the reason might be.  Their sin is worse than yours or mine, another way that “I come not to bring peace but division” happens. 

Following Jesus can and does create division.  His words do describe what happens.  In Lutheran terms, the question can then be asked, “Is the division caused by proclamation of the law or is it caused by proclamation of the gospel?”  As I’ve tried to indicate, it’s not to say that one is right and one is wrong; both law and gospel are biblical and Martin Luther was quite insistent on the need for both to be preached.  We need words of radical grace but it’s also important for sin to be identified so it is another of those tensions that we live in the middle of; it is something to think about.

Another thing to think about is that when there is division, we all want to think that we’re on Jesus’ side of it, that we know where he’d come down.  That’s a hint though that a text like this has to be approached with great humility.  “You hypocrites!” convicts all of us especially when we become absolutely certain that we are on the right side of things.  Division can be caused by proclamation of law or proclamation of gospel but the possibility of getting it wrong and being on the wrong side of the divide has to be considered.  Despite good intentions, mistakes will be made.  The question then becomes, “If you’re going to err, are you going to err on the side of the law or on the side of gospel grace?”

Again, there’s tension and with the tension some lean more toward law, some more toward grace and that goes for individuals as well as churches and larger church bodies.  I thought about that this week as delegates gathered in Pittsburgh for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly.  The ELCA is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year.  During those 25 years division has occurred.  People have left their ELCA church, churches have left the ELCA feeling that as a church body the ELCA has been on the wrong side of the various divisions.

The ELCA has also been accused of not having an identity, for not standing for anything.  There was a time I might have echoed that, feeling like we were trying too hard to be all things to all people in order to avoid the division Jesus said would happen.  Reflecting on things now though, after 25 years, I think the ELCA has become a church that has decided that if it’s going to err, it’s going to err on the side of grace.  The decisions that have been made on contentious issues have been pretty consistent in that direction and as a result, division has occurred.  That doesn’t mean the decisions of the ELCA have always been right, but that is our identity and it’s one that I think is gospel centered, grace centered, and that’s where I want to be because I have to think that’s the side of the divide where Jesus wants us to be.

I might be wrong, the ELCA might be wrong; the possibility of error is there. But right or wrong, whatever side of the divide we’re on, we still depend on God’s grace.  Obedience to the law, as desirable as that is, won’t save us.  We depend on God’s grace.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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