Peace by the Way of Conflict

A sermon preached  by Christopher L. Webber on August 15, 2010, at St, Barbara’s Church, Newcomb, New York, and St. Christopher’s Church, North Creek, New York.

TEXT:  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to earth?  No, I tell you but rather division.  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and twom against three; they will be divided father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.  St. Luke 12:51-53

There’s an old story of the nineteenth century evangelist who was upset by the new top-knot fashion in women’s hair and went around preaching sermons on the text, “Top-knot, come down.”  Finally someone asked him where to find that text in the Bible and he told them it was Mark 13: 15, which, when they looked it up, said  “In that day, let him that is on the housetop not come down into the house.”

I’ve told that story more than once because it’s the perfect illustration of the problem of taking a text out of context.  So take this morning’s words in the Gospel:

“Jesus said,  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, 1tell you, but rather division. 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 mother-in-law.”

So now, if we are being faithful, we need divided families; right?  And if your family isn’t divided that way, maybe it’s evidence that God is not at work in your family? And how does all this fit with last week’s gospel: “Do not fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom . . .”

So God will give us the kingdom and divide our families?  Is that good news? And then why did Jesus say, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” And why did St. Paul write, “Be at peace among yourselves?” (I Thess. 5:13)  If today Jesus says he came to bring division, not peace, why did the angels proclaim peace to all at his birth and why did he tell the disciples that peace was his parting gift?

Thomas Jefferson, you know, went through the Bible and chose the passages he liked and cut the rest and produced a Bible with no problems.  It’s very tempting to do that: to read only our favorite passage and skip the parts we don’t understand or don’t like.  And I would certainly skip this.  But Luke gives us a picture of Jesus moving slowly toward Jerusalem preaching a gospel of peace and well aware that the very attractiveness of that gospel was leading some to conspire against him. The bigger the crowds he drew, the more threatening his presence was to others.  The more people listened to his words of peace, the more likely it was that there would be conflict.  The awareness of that danger had led his own mother and brothers and sisters
to try to get him to stop  and led him to say, in effect, that they were no longer his family.  The peace he proclaimed divided his own family and certainly divided others.  What did James and John’s parents think when their sons put down the nets and went off following this new preacher? What happened when Jesus sat down to speak of peace in the home of Mary and Martha and one listened and the other complained?

There was a message of peace and that message produced conflict.  Jesus was well aware of that and had to be honest enough to tell his disciples, “I’m bringing division, not peace.”  And how realistic would we be, then, if we were to proclaim a gospel without problems and without conflict?

Newspaper reports on the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion these days tend to focus on the conflict over homosexuality and the deep divisions among us on that issue.  But suppose you brought together a cross section of Americans – two or three million Americans –  and found no differences of opinion.  Suppose Anglican bishops came together from Texas and Massachusetts and Albany and California and Rwanda and the Middle East and found themselves in perfect agreement on everything.  Wouldn’t you wonder what they’d been smoking?  They say that the first world-wide conference of bishops at Nicaea in 325 a.d. that produced the Creed we’ll be saying in a few minutes came to a point where they literally threw bricks at each other and that was in the good old days when the church was still young and filled with the Spirit and deeply faithful.  Why should it be different now?

Maybe it’s a sign of unfaithfulness and lack of concern when we have a conference and come away saying that everything’s fine and we all love each other.  Maybe we’d do better If we oared more.  Maybe we’re not divided enough.

Jesus was heading for Jerusalem.  He could have stayed in Galilee and tried to avoid crowds and conflict but he headed straight for .Jerusalem and he knew what the consequences would be and he tried to prepare the disciples for it. Faithfulness meant death.  But that faithfulness would also bring peace and unity beyond what any avoiding of conflict could ever have done.

What except the gospel could possibly bring Anglican representatives of every race and many nations to sit down together seeking solutions, seeking understanding, with so little selfishness involved?  At the so-called United Nations the bottom line is always, “What’s in it for us?”  When the United States fails to pay its dues to the United Nations it’s because some members of Congress don’t see what we get out of it but this church and every church worthy of the name sends money off to help others we will never meet or see
and who can never possibly help us except by their prayers.

Because Jesus faced the conflict and died for us there is a world-wide church working and praying for a peace beyond what the United Nations will ever be able to create.  And it may well be because of that church and those prayers that the world has somehow not destroyed itself  over the last sixty years.

What could have been harder for Jesus to face than the dividing of his own family? But his goal was far greater and could endure the immediate division for the sake of the greater peace.  And I would imagine that every one of us faces that same conflict in some form or other sooner or later If we live with others in a household, we won’t all have the same agenda and there will be times when our sense of faithfulness will cause conflict “How come you have to go to that service, that meeting?  Seems like you care more about that church of yours than about me or the rest of us.”  There will be times when someone we care about is going to want to read the paper or play golf rather than go with us.   And it may be that only by facing and accepting that conflict will we be able to keep the greater unity and peace

I’ve always liked the blunt realism with which Saint Paul wrote to the Romans: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  If it is possible . . .”   “So far as it depends on you . . .”  There will be times when it isn’t possible and there’s nothing we can do except remain faithful and say our prayers and do what God calls us to do.  And it may cause conflict and that may have to be faced. But the peace we might gain by avoiding the issue is no real peace and will rob us of the strength and inner peace we need to overcome the immediate conflict and receive the gift of God’s peace.

Last week we came to church and heard reassurance: “Do not fear not . . .”  This week it’s the same message in a different form:  There will be conflict; we can’t change the world without making a difference and an unchanged world is bad news for everyone.  So, yes, there will be conflict.  There’s no way to the kingdom except by the cross. But we know it’s the way to the kingdom, the way we need to go, the way to get where God wants us to be because Jesus faced it and overcame it and brought us the peace that not only lies ahead but is here already in our hearts.

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