Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Prince of Peace?" Luke 12: 49-56 (Proper 15C, Ordinary 20C)
Prince of Peace?
Some of you may have seen on facebook a funny meme I posted. It was a picture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, which as the title suggests, takes a hard look at what it means when we commit to truly following in the footsteps of Christ. Only this particular picture of the book was a copy of The Cost of Discipleship was at a bookstore – right next to a price tag that said $16. The Cost of Discipleship? Well, pretty cheap at Barnes & Noble!
What do you think, though? What is the cost of following Jesus? Is there a cost to being a Jesus follower? Shortly after my facebook post, I came across some powerful words from Bonehoeffer. He wrote, “If we water down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands, then the cross is an ordinary calamity.” For Bonhoeffer, writing and preaching and teaching at the height of Nazi power in Germany, the gospel made very costly demands. He found no way he could follow Jesus completely without his obedience to the gospel making him willing to offer his own life. Indeed, he was executed by the Nazis for his actions attempting to remove Adolf Hitler from power. What does it cost to follow Jesus?
There are places in the world today where it is risky to be a Jesus-follower, where people who follow Jesus are arrested and persecuted and killed. Most of us never have to experience that. Not that being a Christian is never challenging, not that we never had to make tough choices. But I wonder – what does it really cost me to follow Jesus?
Today, our gospel lesson continues in Luke Chapter 12. Remember, last week, Jesus was telling us: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He was telling the crowds that it is God’s good pleasure to give us God’s kingdom, God’s reign – and that’s what we’re meant to strive after, to work for – God’s reign on earth. After Jesus finishes talking, Peter, one of the Twelve Disciples, asks Jesus to explain his words a little more. Our text for today picks up in the middle of Jesus’ response. He says, “I came to bring fire to the earth … I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” Jesus goes on to say that father will be set against son, and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, and so on.
Last week, as I was starting to prepare for tomorrow, I had my brother read this text to me aloud as I was driving us somewhere or other. After he finished the passage, he said to me, puzzled, “Jesus said this?” I knew why he sounded surprised. We love to celebrate Jesus as the Prince of Peace! And indeed, Jesus speaks in the gospels of bringing peace to us. But here, we are getting a very different message. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather division!” My first reaction is: Wow. What the world really doesn’t need any more of is division. We have that in abundance! We look around and wonder – have we ever lived in a world more divided? Over everything? Why would Jesus say he’s coming to bring division? Why would we need that? What does he mean? And what about this part about being divided – parents from children, children from parents? And that brings us back to our first question: What does it cost to follow Jesus?
For the first followers of Jesus, the cost was very, very steep. Sara Dylan Bruer helps us imagine. She writes: “Imagine for a moment the scene when Peter goes back to his mother-in-law [after responding to Jesus’ call on the beach to “follow me”] and [he] says, ‘Hey, mom ... I've got some important news. I'm not going fishing tomorrow morning. I don't know if I'll ever step in a boat or lift a net again. I'm glad that you were healed of that fever, and I hope you don't catch one again, because I have to tell you that I probably won't be around to take care of you or to bury you when you die. See, that man who healed you asked me to follow him as he travels around teaching and healing, and I'm going to do it. I really think that God's kingdom is breaking through in this guy's work, and that's just too important for me to stay here, even to take care of you.’
“How would you feel if it were your son who said that to you? There's no social security to fall back on if you're Peter's mother-in-law; Peter is the closest thing you've got to that, and he's leaving. I have some idea of what I'd probably feel if I were Peter's mother-in-law: Betrayed. Abandoned. Despised. Shamed. Perhaps even hopeless. I have some idea of the kinds of things I'd say if I were in her shoes … When I found out that Peter AND Andrew were both going, my language would reflect even more anger, grief, fear, and straight-up, no-chaser, and very bitter pain. I think the same would be true … if Peter and Andrew had other brothers and I were one of them. I'd want to ask Peter and Andrew how they could do this to all of us, how they think we'll survive without their help with the fishing, and whose prophet would ask a man to walk out on his family. I'd ask Peter and Andrew if this is how they were going to follow God's command in holy writ to honor parents and care for widows.” (1)
Suddenly, Jesus’ words make a little more sense to me. Sometimes I forget that for the disciples who literally followed Jesus, they were leaving more than their fishing boats to go where God was calling them. Sometimes, following Jesus doesn’t bring peace – not if we’re thinking of peace as the absence of conflict, and everyone just getting along. Sometimes, Jesus brings not peace, but division, because choosing to follow Jesus should have consequences. What does it cost to follow Jesus?
Our temptation whenever we read words like this from Jesus – and he says stuff like this more often than our minds want to remember – our temptation is to try to find a way to soften their blow, mute their impact so it doesn’t seem as bad as it sounds. But in this case, I think that’s exactly what Jesus is warning against. Do you think I come to make things easier, Jesus asks? Nope – I come to make them more and more challenging! That’s my paraphrase at least. Listen to the verse just before today’s passage: Jesus says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” In other words – we’ve received a lot – God’s blessings, God’s love, God’s unfailing grace, limitless second chances. But God expects a lot from us, too. And foremost, what God expects, what Jesus expects, is that if we choose to follow Jesus, we actually follow Jesus. It’s both that simple of a request and that hard of a request. Because following Jesus means choosing one path and not the other, and we’re very much a people who want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to take the path of Jesus, but we also want to make our own choices, choose our own way, and go our own direction when it suits us. Jesus says that he comes and brings division – and we must choose our way or Jesus’ way, and they are not always going the same way, friends!
Years ago, I heard Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, one of our now-retired United Methodist bishops, preach on this text at General Conference. She was using the version that appears in Matthew, where Jesus says, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” I can still picture her preaching, wielding this imaginary sword. She asked, “When we say we are born again, aren’t we saying there is something distinctive about our life before and after Jesus? The dividing line is dividing what we leave behind and what we take up … If the world is not different because you and I have come here, then it’s because you and I have put something other than Christ at the center of our lives. Jesus comes with a sword. The sword cuts to purpose, to results. And I believe that Jesus is extremely impatient for the results. He is impatient for the results because he is passionate about people. It is a divine, consuming love that cuts to the results … You know, even more, Jesus says he brings a sword, but perhaps Jesus himself might be a sword, cutting us free from the past, from our weaknesses, our errors, opening us to a new future, reborn. Jesus is calling us to himself, to the edge of transformation, inviting us to enter into a new reality that God is creating.” (2)
Friends, if we are not different because of following Jesus – then maybe we better check and make sure we’re actually following him, going where he goes, living as he lives. If we are not different, if our world is not different, if those with whom we come in contact are not different because of what we do in the name of Jesus, then perhaps we have put something else, something other than Jesus at the center of our lives.
Sara Dylan Breuer gives us two more scenarios to imagine. “Here's another possible outcome: Peter and Andrew tell Jesus that no prophet of the God of Israel would ask people to ignore the Ten Commandments, and they tell Jesus that on that basis they know precisely what sort of a man Jesus is, and there is no way they'd follow him. They go home and tell their families about what kind of dangerous nutcase the wandering healer turned out to be, and how glad they are that they figured it out. The next morning, they go fishing … Here's another one:
“Peter and Andrew tell their families more about Jesus, what he's saying, what he's doing, and what they think that means about what God is accomplishing right now for the world. They talk about the community of people following Jesus and how they care for one another, how their life together is a sign to all of how relationships could be in the world and what might come of it if we believed the kingdom of God was breaking through this world and therefore we could live as though God were king here and now. Peter's mother-in-law, his sisters and all his brothers, and the rest of the family face and go through the break that Jesus talks about in our former relationships. It's only natural for them to grieve sometimes at the passing of old ways of being and to chafe at or stumble in the new relationships that are forming, but they have a new joy, a new peace, a new freedom from anxiety in the living reality that if they have lost a mother-in-law, a son-in-law, a daughter, or a father, they have gained more sisters and brothers than they ever imagined they could have, and had joined a people who would come to fulfill the promise to Abraham of numbering more than the stars of the clear desert sky -- more to care for them and be supported by them, more to love and be loved by than any earthly family could offer.”
What does it cost to follow Jesus? It means we have come right up to the dividing line and must choose a path. Which way will we follow? Amen.
(1) Breuer, Sara Dylan. http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2007/08/proper-15-year-.html
(2) Swenson, Bishop Mary Ann.