This is a challenging Gospel, to say the least. Jesus speaks of fire, of division, of family conflict. It’s hard to find good news in his words. And the reading from the prophet Jeremiah doesn’t help either, with its talk of prophets who lie, of God’s Word being like a hammer. What are we to make of such language? We come to church seeking a moment’s respite from the world that is full of violence, dissension, and tragedy. We come here longing for the peace that passes understanding. And here we encounter Scripture that, far from comforting the afflicted, seems to add to our pain. Is it really the mission of Jesus to set family members against each other?
Let’s take a step back and look at the context of these words.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a prophet, mighty in word and deed. He comes to turn the world upside down – that is made clear even before his birth, when his mother Mary sings of God casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. Story after story focuses on those without power: women, Samaritans, lepers, the disabled. A couple of chapters before today’s reading, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. He began to move, physically and emotionally, towards his inevitable showdown with the authorities.
The ensuing chapters describe his increasingly urgent focus on doing what he is called to do before the powers that be step in to shut him up. We have seen a series of teachings, parables, and warnings to ever-greater crowds. He has turned up the heat on the scribes and Pharisees. He has defied established customs. He has warned against greed and hypocrisy. He has used images of home invasions and demons, referred to secret crimes and ancient scandals. And now he speaks of the inevitable results if his listeners change in the ways he calls them to change. There will be conflict. There will be heartbreak. There will be storms ahead. Because the only path to the peace of God lies through change, and change means conflict.
So this passage today is simply a continuation of Jesus ramping up the urgency and seriousness of his mission. Jesus is bringing fire – the fire of the Holy Spirit, the fire that purifies, the fire that cleanses, the fire that clears the way for a new creation. And that kind of fire is painful and upsetting. When someone makes a commitment to Christ, when they turn their life over to Jesus, when they renounce the violent and selfish ways of the world to embrace the ideal of sacrificial love, it’s a radical change and all their relationships will change too. Those who study social sciences and family dynamics know this, and we have probably all experienced it.
We live within systems: families, communities, congregations, corporations, nations. Anywhere that people interact with each other a system will form: a network of relationships that settles into a pattern. Each person in a system takes on at least one role: authority figure, rebel, peacemaker, organizer. You can probably assign each of those roles to someone in your family. I’ve observed that boards and committees always seem to contain certain roles and no matter who the members are, there will be the ideas person, the idealist, the person who always says we can’t afford that, the person who has to disagree with the chair, and the one who says no to every initiative.
Within a system everyone knows how to relate: we tiptoe around Dad because he gets belligerent when he’s been drinking. We allow big sister to plan the Christmas celebration. We put up with Grandma’s political rants. We never ask what happened to Uncle Charlie all those years ago. And we tell ourselves that the result is peace. Keeping peace in the system depends on everyone sticking to their role. We get used to coping with our disfunction. But what if the one who looks after everyone becomes ill and needs to be cared for? What if the heir-apparent decides that she’s not interested in running the family business? A radical change by one person in the system, even a beneficial change, threatens the stability of the whole thing; that fragile façade of peace turns out to be an illusion.
Rabbi Edwin Friedman wrote about family systems, whether in biological families, church families, or national families, and he demonstrated that no matter the size or nature of the system, certain behaviors can be predicted. When the stability of a system is threatened by one member, the other members will band together to maintain homeostasis. They will try to force the rebel back into line so that the system resumes its familiar patterns. And if that rebel persists in the change, conflict is inevitable: “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law”. They will be divided. Because there’s something about humankind that makes us resist change, even change that we know is good for us, even change that leads to true peace.
Those among us who are LGBT can attest to the challenge of living into who you truly are in the face of opposition. It takes courage and grace to come out, just as it takes courage and grace to break free of an abusive relationship or to embrace sobriety. Whenever we shine light into the dark places, we know that ugly things will come to light. But only by telling truth and shining light will we find our way to the peace of God.
Jesus comes to bring fire to the earth. He comes to bring good news to the poor, to free the prisoners and feed the hungry. He wants to bring what has been hidden into the light, he wants people to stop obsessing about possessions, achievements, and appearances. He wants us to let go of tribalism and share our abundance with those who have less. If his followers actually do as he teaches, the world will be turned upside down. The change he calls us to is deeply threatening to the systems within which human beings live, and the systems will fight back.
The letter to the Hebrews gives a hint of the dramatic things that can happen, good and bad, when people commit their lives to God. Slaves walk free. Walls fall down. Justice prevails. The living are reunited with their dead. But people also suffer, because the powers and principalities of this world won’t go down without a fight.
So it should come as no surprise that Jesus himself ultimately paid the price for his revolutionary teaching, publicly executed for daring to call out the corruption in high places and declare that every human being is precious in God’s sight, worthy of dignity and compassion. I have to wonder if he would be treated any better in today’s world.
In light of all this, the words of today’s Collect suddenly seem more challenging than they were at the beginning of the service, as we ask God for the grace to receive thankfully the fruits of Jesus’ redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life. Those steps lead to true and lasting peace, but we may have to pass through the fire to reach it. God grant us the grace and courage to follow Jesus in the way of fire, the way to the peace of God.
August 18 2019
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges