Trinity 12 - Not Peace, but Division

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Martin Carr on 18 August 2013

I came to bring fire on the earth and how I wish it were already kindled.

The amateur theologian Richard Dawkins, in his magnum opus The God Delusion, excoriates religion for its violent history. From the bloody battles of the Hebrew Scriptures through to contemporary Islamic extremism, Dawkins sees a woeful catalogue of human hatred incited by the tenets of religious ideology. It is a recurring charge in atheist polemic. This week, as violence and death have stalked the streets of Egypt, have Dawkins and his supporters been vindicated? In our Gospel this morning, Jesus promises a kindled fire, not peace but division, and families torn apart. Is violence then an inevitable consequence of faith in Jesus Christ?

To answer that question we need to look closely at our gospel passage. Firstly, its context; this extract comes from a serious of warnings Jesus is giving concerning the end times. The early Christians believed that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus had inaugurated a final period of human history, at the conclusion of which Christ would return and usher in God’s kingdom of justice. But in the meantime, this final epoch of human history would be one of trial and hardship. Preparedness was essential for the coming tribulation: riches should not be hoarded but generously shared; worries about what to wear or eat were irrelevant; possessions should be sold and the money distributed; lamps should be lit ready for the master’s return at an unexpected hour. It is in this context of the imminent return of Jesus that today’s gospel should be understood.

So what of the elements making up the passage itself? ‘I came to bring fire on the earth and how I wish it were already kindled.’ Fire is a symbol of purification – ‘for he is like a refiner’s fire’ says the prophet Malachi. ‘Is not my word like fire, says the Lord’, we read in today’s first reading from Jeremiah. John the Baptist says of the baptism of Jesus, ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ So the fire of which Jesus speaks in this passage is the purifying fire of God’s word and baptism, and indeed Jesus now shifts his focus to baptism directly in verse 50. ‘I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!’ Jesus is again looking forward to the time of completion, and the baptism he refers to here is undoubtedly his own death and resurrection. The theme of baptism into Jesus’ death was a significant feature of Paul’s theology, which Luke may have been familiar with. There are also echoes of Mark’s earlier gospel, chapter 10, verse 38, when Jesus asks the disciples, ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’

The next verse, 51, brings in the theme of division. ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’ Luke is here using a tradition he shares with Matthew, who incorporates a very similar passage into his missionary discourse in chapter 10 of his gospel, where in verse 34 Jesus states, ‘I did not come to bring peace but a sword’. The sword is a more vividly violent image than Luke’s choice of the word ‘division’, but both lead into the next theme, in verses 52 and 53, of familial discord. These verses might make difficult reading for those who would stress family values in their preaching, but they are actually drawn directly from the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah, who, again talking about the coming judgement, warns ‘the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household.’

In Luke’s reworking of this theme he uses the idea of a household of 5 divided 3 against 2, and then amplifies this through the various conflicts between individuals in the family. Though it is not explicit, these conflicts no doubt arise because loyalty to Jesus and his gospel necessarily come ahead of family ties. We know this to be true in our own lives, that our decision to follow Christ can put us at odds with family, friends and colleagues who may not share our commitments.

The final theme, slightly detached from the others, and addressed to the crowd rather than the disciples alone, has come into our language through the King James Bible as ‘signs of the times’. The phrase itself in fact appears in Matthew chapter 16, verse 2, where the sign in question is the old English proverb, ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’. But here Luke refers to a similarly well-known phenomenon among Palestinian farmers, that the west wind brought rain and the south wind heat. Jesus’s hearers can interpret the sky, but are unable to interpret world affairs as pointing towards the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom on earth.

So much for the passage. Returning to my initial question, is it reasonable to suggest that violence is a consequence of religious faith? I think the first answer to that question is that the overwhelming witness of the Scriptures, and the teaching of Jesus, point towards peace. It is not without significance that Jesus, in Matthew, commands his disciples to turn the other cheek, put away the sword, and dies on the cross rather than in armed conflict. The early Christians were pacifists, not soldiers. But the gospel has an important message, that faith in Jesus Christ is not without consequences. Peace is not an absence of conflict, but a confidence that whatever trials and persecutions are associated with the decision to choose Christ against money, possessions, power and the like, are to be endured with patience, and God’s kingdom is not far off. Though we are called to lives of non-violence, there will be suffering associated with discipleship, most clearly shown in the figure of Christ on the cross. When we choose Christ we do not choose an easy path, but one which will involve conflict with others and the refining of our own characters in the process.

Violence is anathema to the Christian gospel. But to choose to follow Christ is not without risk. In submitting to his own death Jesus broke the cycle of conflict at the heart of human sinfulness to lead us on a way of fullness of life based in forgiveness rather than retribution. As we look to the cross in this Eucharist, and pray for Christ’s presence in the Sacrament of Healing, let us ask God for true peace in our world, praying of course for an end to conflict in Egypt, Syria, and wherever lives are marred by violence, but also praying that the fire kindled in us would lead to the healing of broken relationships and a true thirst for justice in our world. It may be very costly, but it may also be our vocation if we truly seek to follow the one who is the Prince of Peace. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice