Reading 12:49-56 Click to read it.
Apparently Beethoven used to play a trick on his audiences. He would play one of his slow gentle pieces and watch as the audience became lulled into a gentle rhythm. Then as the final notes were being played he would crash his arm down on the keys and laugh as the people jumped in shock.
Reading this passage from Luke’s gospel you could be forgiven for having the same response as Beethoven’s audience. Shock!
Luke 12.49-56 is a difficult passage to take in. It isn’t clear if Jesus said all these things together at the same time in the same place (In Matthew’s Gospel you find them in Chapter’s 10 and 16). It is a passage that doesn’t really connect with what has gone before it or what follows, so it is hard to judge the context of Jesus’ words.
If Luke has brought these passages together then I would think that for him, it was clear that he wants these words of warning to be heard; a warning to the crowd of listeners and a warning to us; a warning of what is to come. And he wants us to be alert; to listen and, like Beethoven, he slams his arm down on the keys, shocking the listeners from their slumber.
Jesus the bringer of peace?
I think that people find it hard to believe that Jesus could have said the words in verse 51:
“Do you suppose that I have come to bring peace to the world? No, not peace, but division.”
Most people would like to think of a Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Most of us would point to Christmas and the angels singing
“Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth…” Luke:2:14.
Yes Jesus did come to bring peace. But that peace would come at a price. The clues to this are found throughout Luke’s gospel.
Even before Jesus’ birth we see some of the divisions that would take place. In Chapter 1 and Mary’s song, Mary praises God for the coming birth but her song contains these words,
“He has stretched out his mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands.” Luke 1:51-53
Luke reveals the way that Jesus would turn our world and its values upside down. Just as a fire completely changes the landscape as it roars through the land, so too does the fire of Jesus sweep though our lives – challenging, purifying; destroying evil wherever he finds it. This is a fire of judgement.
Division within the family.
People do have a problem with this. Didn’t Jesus call us to live peaceful lives?
Paul in his 1st letter to Timothy seems to support this. We are to pray for those who have authority and power:
“so that we can lead a quiet life in all godliness & dignity” 1 Timothy 2:2
and this, Paul tells us is:
“right and acceptable in the sight of God… who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:3-4
But, and there is a ‘but’, Jesus’ coming challenges all of us because he forces us to make a choice. And that choice is to put God and our loyalty to him, before everything else. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is told that his mother and brothers were waiting to speak to him. But Jesus responded by saying:
“Who is my mother, and my brothers?” He went on to say that “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, sister & mother.” Matthew 12:48-50
It is very easy to overlook the impact being a Christian and living a Christian life can have on the family. When a member of the family lives out their belief it can cause massive upheavals. Families can come under tremendous pressure when one member commits themselves to Jesus and the Church and suddenly church activities and Sunday worship begin to challenge the rest of the family’s priorities. If suddenly you start going to church and you’re the only one in your family who does so, it can cause a lot of stress.
I remember my dad’s words to me when I started going to church. “It’s all right to go to church son, but don’t let it take over your life.”
There is some truth in that. We can become committed to the church and not to God. We can put ‘church’ activities before our family’s needs in a mistaken belief that we are doing what God wants us to do. There is a danger that ‘church’ can take over our lives and we can leave both God as well as our family and friends behind because we haven’t got the right balance. Even within the Church we see division and conflict over our understanding of what being a follower of Christ really means. It is not easy to hold together Jesus’ command to follow him and also to love each other. Jesus compares following him to taking up a cross and for some people this is exactly how it feels!
Division within the World.
Why is religion so divisive? Because it matters deeply. Religion gives us a sense of identity. It sets boundaries for our lives; it informs the way we behave and view others; It creates solidarity and distinctiveness. But however necessary these things may be, they can also be a lethal.
We only have to look at the Middle East to see that. Throughout the world we see fighting between Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and all sorts of other beliefs and religions. We see it on our televisions and in our newspapers every day. Of course this conflict is not confined to the world out there. I recall the stories people here have told of what it was like living under the bridge in times gone by with Catholics and Protestants.
It seems to me that these conflicts occur when people only see religion as a system or a tribe, where faith is just a list of beliefs to sign up to, a way of showing who we are and what we stand for; a set of rules to live by. When this happens we start to measure other faiths against our rules and judge them by the things that divide and separate and instead of seeing each other as fellow human beings trying to seek out God, we only see threats to our way of life and so people of other faiths are to be feared and in some places, got rid of.
But Christianity is not a system, a lifestyle or a set of rules. Christianity is about following a person, that person of course being Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus can and does, challenge the world. Simply stating that you are a Christian causes others to justify themselves. The usual response is to say that well you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. You can see the uneasiness building in them.
Mention Jesus, going to church, being a Christian and it seems to challenge people to the core. Jesus knows this. You see everything that Jesus stands for; all that he works for; exists for, challenges everything that this world holds dear. Do I have to convince you?
I remember a Daily Telegraph interview with David Cameron about how hard he finds following some of the commands of Jesus. When asked how he would respond to Jesus’ command to ‘Sell all your possessions and give to the poor’, he answered:
“I’m a Christian and I’m an active member of the Church of England, and like all Christians I think I sometimes struggle with some of the sayings and some of the instructions.”
It’s not easy being a Christian and trying to live what we believe to be a Christian life. For example, we would say we follow the commands of Jesus, who told us to love our neighbours, do good to others, never abandon or ignore the poor or weak, to put them first.But we live in a society that says we are took look after our ourselves and our own; that ‘charity begins at home’. Thing is, I can’t find that saying anywhere in the bible!
That’s what being a Christian can and does involve. Jesus casts judgement on all that is wrong in our world, and following Jesus means that we too are to work to put things right, to bring God’s kingdom to earth. But that challenges so much that our society and if we’re honest, ourselves, holds dear.
Jesus did come to bring peace.
Jesus did come to bring reconciliation but he did so through the cross! The baptism he talks about is his death and resurrection. The fire that Jesus brings to the world is a refining fire.
Whenever there is a forest fire, you will always find when the fires have gone, new life sprouting up. Sometimes for new life to appear, the old has to be burned away.
The fire that Jesus brings is a refining fire. It’s a fire that destroys the evil that can be found in nations, communities and people.
This fire of judgement began on the cross. Jesus was willing to stand in our place. The judgement we deserve and the punishment we deserve, was given to him on the cross and we must never underestimate what that meant for him. It was on that cross that Jesus felt the greatest conflict. He felt separation from his father and we can never imagine what that must have felt like.
But that moment was like a fire sweeping through a forest, or the fire of a furnace that the blacksmith uses to remove the impurities so that the metal can be used made into something new and strong. This fire is something all people need to feel. Because in us all are things that need to be burned away, actions, thoughts, words that stop us from really knowing Christ’s love and instead pull us away from him.
When Jesus gets through to us; when God empowers us with his spirit; and when that same spirit conforms our wills to God’s will, it makes a difference in the world and beyond. This difference may be painful, it may cause division but take heart from the words of Jesus:
“I tell you that anyone who leaves brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and for the Gospel, will receive much more in this present age. He will receive a hundred times more houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and feels and persecutions as well; and in the age to come he will receive eternal life.” Matthew 12:46-50