A sermon, based on Luke 12.49-56, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2019
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Jesus inaugurated his ministry, proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”(1) A troubling message for the Roman Empire that claimed Caesar was god. A troubling message for the religious hierarchy whose vocation it was to speak for God. A message that provoked division. Thus, Jesus warned that following him would stretch, strain, shatter allegiances even among those nearest and dearest; one’s family.
So, it was. So, it is. Jesus, of whom we sing at Christmas, “hail, the Son of Righteousness, hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace,”(2) has disturbed the world’s peace ever since he was born!
Now, there is a prevalent idea that in the beginning of Christianity everyone was of one mind and divisions happened over time. Not so!
The New Testament epistles are replete with instructions, admonitions about disagreements within the various churches.(3) Division!
And scripture reveals that the church in Jerusalem, the first Christian community, argued with Christianity’s chief apostle, Paul, about whether Gentiles must convert to Judaism, then Christianity.(4) Division!
And the fourth century councils(5) that produced the Nicene Creed were called together in response to controversy about various beliefs about the nature of God. Division!
And in the 11th century, Western and Eastern churches centered in Rome and Constantinople, respectively, split over theological differences. Division!
And through the 16th and 17th centuries of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and England, we have come to this present day with myriad Christian denominations worldwide and among them, many views of what it means to be Christian!(6)
Division is the norm of Christian life. But we need look for it not in the annals of Christian history, not in the world around us today, and not even as far or, rather, as close as our familial relationships. Let us look for division first and only within ourselves.
Jesus describes his ministry, saying, “I came to bring fire” – an ancient element and universal symbol of purification – “to the earth.” This brings to mind the words of a hymn:
When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace (says Jesus!) all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.(7)
Jesus, our Prince of Peace, desires to purify us that we may live at peace with God, to live within the will of God. Therefore, let us dare ask ourselves, where within us is the division between God’s will for us as revealed in Jesus and our self-will? Where is the line of separation between our obedience to Jesus’ call, “Follow me” and our disobedience in following “the devices and desires of our own hearts”?(8)
Never asking anything of you that I won’t do, I confess to you that whenever (not if) I choose, for example (for I have more than one division, more than one line of separation!), my preference, my prejudice in associating with people who think like I do, there is the boundary, the barricade separating me from doing God’s will of being unreservedly loving, unconditionally benevolent toward others. For when, again, not if, I choose my preference, my prejudice, almost inevitably, though, being polite, perhaps not saying it aloud, I, at the very least, in my mind, will diminish “those people” who think the way they do, that is, without depth or breadth, if not also dismiss them as unworthy of my engagement in conversation.
In knowing and naming this division within me, and, again, it is but one I have identified within me, I, thank the Lord, also have witnessed the ministry of Jesus! For when I choose my way, I have become aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit as fire burning the barrier that I have erected to the ground of my soul, so that I once again, freed of the shackles of my self-will, can love as Jesus loves.
What and where is the line for you?
(1) Mark 1.15
(2) From Hark! the herald angels sing (1739), verse 3; words by Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
(3) For example, see Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 1.10-15, 11.17-22, Galatians 5.20.
(4) See Galatians 2.1-14 and Acts 15.1-6f.
(5) First Council of Nicaea (325 CE) and the First Council of Constantinople (381 CE)
(6) According to statistics drawn from the World Christian Encyclopedia by Barrett, Kurian, Johnson (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2001), worldwide, there are over 30,000 Christian denominations in over two hundred countries; since 2001, the numbers are bound to be higher.
(7) How firm a foundation, verse 3 (my emendation); words by K. (attributed to George Keith or R. Keen, c. 1787)
(8) From the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 41
Illustration: 14th century fresco (“I came not to bring peace, but a sword”) in the katholikon (holy sepulcher) in the Sacred Monastery of the Ascension of Christ, Kosovo. Note: This illustration matches Matthew 10.34 (“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”), which is the Synoptic gospel parallel pericope or passage to Luke 12.49 (“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”)