Text: Luke 12:49-56
Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I’ve come to disrupt and confront. Religion is supposed to talk about peace, not about conflict. At least that is what most of us have been taught. Right? Ringing in our ears we hear:
Isaiah 9:6 “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Hebrews 12:14 “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
Colossians 3:15 “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”
Ephesians 2:13-18 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace
Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
That is until we encounter Luke 12:49-56. And it’s not just Luke recording these words. The gospel of Matthew records a similar statement. “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” So what is it, Jesus? Peace or sword? Peace or conflict? Peace or division? To smooth things over and make everything nice or to disrupt and confront?
In every family system each person has a role they play. There are caregivers and caretakers. There are introverts and extroverts. There are those who feel responsible for everything and those who live a bit more carefree. And in every family there are peacemakers and conflict creators. In my family of origin growing up I was the peacemaker and my sister was the conflict creator. There are many stories I could tell to illustrate this but I will tell just one. My father was terrified of snakes. When he was younger, his mother had been bitten by a Copperhead and nearly lost her foot as a result. As a teenager, all my sister wanted was to have a pet snake in her room. Regularly, she would bring home a black snake or green snake or corn snake and beg to keep it as a pet. And each time she would make this request, with snake in hand, a larger-than-life conflict would ensue that ultimately ended in screams and tears—dad screaming and Allyson in tears. But it wasn’t just snakes. Those teenage years for my sister were wrought with conflict after conflict with my parents. From the kind of music she wanted to play loudly in her room, to the clothes she wore, to the friends she choose, to her resistance of going to church, to waking up in the morning, to what time she had to be home at night—everything created conflict.
Given her role in the family system, I was well positioned to be the peacemaker in the family. As the youngest of two children, my adolescent years were spent trying to maneuver around conflict and create as little of it as I could. I had seen on my parents’ faces the toll of the conflict with my sister. I had listened to my father’s faint cries after the lights went out at bedtime, and I could feel his worry that she had not arrived home at the appointed time. I had witnessed the early morning fights between my sister and my mother, conflict after conflict. And I didn’t want any part it. So I became the peacemaker in the family, trying desperately to smooth over the conflict and make everything nice. And while playing peacemaker was mostly because I hated living in the tension that the conflict created, my religious education at that point was not insignificant. As a child and teenager who loved going to church, I had heard the messages of peace and unity and making nice. And so, it seemed to me that peace and unity and making nice were the high ground, while sword, division and conflict were the low road. So what are we to make of these words of Jesus as recorded by Luke. “…I have come not to bring peace on earth but rather division…”
Before we look at what this text is saying, it might be helpful to get out of the way what the passage is not saying. This passage is not a prooftext for going around creating division and conflict in the name of Jesus for one’s own purposes and beliefs. And it is not giving permission to hastily disengage with family members who think differently about religion, politics, or any other topic that can disrupt and bring about conflict. I say this because I know from my own family experience and listening to yours how divisive and conflict-riddled these political and religious times are. Our politics and faith convictions have families deeply divided. Some of us don’t visit our families because the conflict is too intense and emotional. And when we do, we choose not to talk about things that really matter to us because we can’t find the path of agreeing to disagree while staying in relationship. And while we might think this is new to the human condition, it’s not. And that is precisely why Jesus brings family into this conversation. His words are hard to hear. “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three, they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” But as we read these hard-to-hear words, it is important to place them in an historical context. It is important to understand why Jesus, sometimes called the Prince of Peace, was also the Creator of Conflict. Only then can we begin to understand what this text means for us today.
Luke is writing about 40 years after Jesus’ ministry, and with all the Gospel writers he shapes his account to address the situation and questions of his community. And so we can guess with some confidence that the division Jesus speaks of has manifested itself in the Christian communities by the time Luke writes. It is safe to assume that Luke is addressing questions of what it means to truly follow Jesus. And furthermore, what are the costs of doing so.
While Christianity has long been not just acceptable but almost expected in North America, this is not so at the time of Luke’s writing. Even in what many call a post-Christian era, going to church happens with little controversy. This isn’t true in all lands, of course, and we would do well to remember those Christians in various parts of the world for whom it does bring division, strife and danger. For Luke’s readers, and for our friends in the Republic of Georgia and still somewhat in Cuba, following Jesus came with great cost, with real danger, and painful division not just within society or in the Christian communities, but within families as well.
With that historical context in mind, the text raises a significant question for those of us living in the land of the free today: Is the relative ease of the Christian life in our nation entirely the result of cultural acceptance or is it because we fail to live into the gospel Jesus announced? Throughout Luke’s account, Jesus announces a new community—he calls it the kingdom of God—that is governed not by power but by equity and equality, where all those in need are cared for, where forgiveness is the norm, where the poor are privileged, where wealth is shared rather than hoarded, and where the weak and lonely are honored.
And it is this kingdom of God—this new community—that is at the heart of Luke 12. As one commentator wrote: “Jesus didn’t come to bring a period of tranquility where everyone holds hands in a circle—he came to bring upheaval to the ways of this world. He came to flip tables. He came to disrupt a faux version of peace. He came to speak up for the oppressed, to loose their chains, to welcome the sojourner, and to make room for those the religious elite want excluded from God’s table.” (Patheos blog)
Luke wants us to know that if we join up with Jesus, if we believe in this new community that he announced and gave his life for, if we want to follow his way today, we too, will disrupt and confront and create conflict with strangers and family alike. Luke wants us to know that our lives will be disrupted. Luke wants us to know that there is cost to living a life of faith and to building God’s commonwealth here on this earth. And Luke wants us to know that sometimes the cost comes in the relationships that are most dear to us. Should we accept Jesus mission to love the world the way he taught us, it will inevitably create conflict and division in the relationships most dear to us. And let’s be honest, that’s a tough choice.
We tried hard in lectionary this week to make it not a tough choice. We said things like: “You can have conflict but you don’t have to choose up sides.” It’s always about relationships and staying in relationship.” “We can always agree to disagree.” But it was our good friend from Zimbabwe, Henry Mugabe, who had joined us for lectionary, and who knows a bit about the cost of following Jesus and the conflict and division it can create, who said, “Following Jesus, conflict is inevitable. We do have to choose sides. We can’t be neutral.” Then he reminded us of a quote from Desmond Tutu. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Luke 12 is saying to us, you can’t be neutral and follow Jesus. Speaking against violence, against racism, against Islamophobia, against the injustices of greed and wealth, and so many other things that stand against love, will inevitably create conflict and division and it will complicate our closest relationships. And that is what Jesus meant when he said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
Like most things in life, it’s not either/or but rather both/and. Jesus is both the Prince of Peace and the Creator of Conflict. Not the kind of Prince of Peace that smooths things over and makes everything nice. But rather the kind of Prince of Peace who knows that without justice there is no peace. And Luke comes along and reminds us that as we move toward justice, we will encounter conflict and division, and sometimes with people we deeply love. The path to the Prince of Peace is often through the Creator of Conflict.
I am struggling to end this sermon. One of my mentors, Alan Neely, always told me to end a sermon with the good news. “Leave ’em with some hope,” he would say. I’ve spent the last week trying to figure out how to conclude this sermon with some hope. So here is my best shot given this hard-to-hear text. We might not like conflict, but it ain’t gonna kill us, and in fact, it might just set us free. I do not choose to cast Jesus’ call to conflict as a badge of honor. I don’t believe it means we appoint ourselves the community crier of all that is wrong. But I do believe that it calls us to bring our full voice to the town square. I do believe that it calls us to work to stay in relationship, even as we own our commitment and understanding to what it takes to build the new community Jesus envisioned. And I do believe that it gives us permission to say “no” when our hearts and our guts are not ok with what is happening in the world. And that, my friends, is good news with some hope mixed in. May this good news set us free to and give us hope to follow the itinerant rabbi we call the Prince of Peace and the Creator of Conflict.