“Jesus, Peace-Maker or Peace-Breaker”
Scripture: Luke 12:49-56
I read this passage and I want to say – “O Jesus, really? You’re calling me to reflect on THESE words about fiery destruction and heated divisions among families? I just got back from a nine week leave, and this is the lectionary gospel reading I’ve come back to? I’m still glowing from the warmth of all the visits I made. Most of my time away was spent with family members. My husband and I traveled in Switzerland and Italy with my sister, and experienced the blessing of seeing every single one of my still-living first cousins. And guess what? In all those gatherings, not one burning moment of anger, not one blazing insult, no divisions in the family - just genuine joy around lots of great dinner tables filled with laughter and warmth and love. We later also drove to Boston to celebrate my brother’s 50th birthday. A group of 14 family and friends gathered at an amazing restaurant, and no smoking taunts, scorching comments, or fiery conversation erupted. We had a wonderful time of meeting new people and making connections, not divisions. The only fire we experienced was the candle atop the delicious birthday cake. After that, we flew to our daughter’s in-law’s farm in rural Illinois. We spent three days there, with both of our daughters, and our son-in-law and his parents, who were the most gracious of hosts. There was no searing divide between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, between father and son. The only fire we experienced during this family gathering was the one we sat around every evening enjoying snacks and wine and great conversation. So why, Jesus, are you bringing up wrathful fire and family strife? Why are you preaching about division and destruction? I thought gospel meant good news. I thought you were the Prince of Peace. Where is the good news, where the promised peace, in this gospel passage?”
As you can tell, this has not been an easy passage for me to reflect on. This is a side of Jesus we don’t often hear about, we don’t often think about, one that we would probably rather ignore. Maybe he was just having a bad day? But maybe, and most probably, there is something meaningful, challenging, and inspiring we can take in, even from these very off-putting words.
First of all, it feels like we need to reconcile two different versions of Jesus that the gospel of Luke seems to present. Luke’s gospel begins with the angels heralding Jesus’s birth with the proclamation of peace to those on earth, and it ends with Jesus’s post-resurrection blessing of “Peace be with you” as he gathers with his disciples. Jesus is a Peace-maker. So why now does he come across as Peace-breaker, saying he comes has come to bring not peace, but division?
We need to remember that Jesus lived in a time and place of relative peace. He and his contemporaries lived under Roman rule during a time called Pax Romana, about a 200 year period with very few wars beginning around 25 years before Jesus was born. But “Pax Romana,” which means “Roman Peace”, was only possible because of Rome’s military might. Roman Peace was peace by coercion. People got along because if they didn’t, if they challenged the reign of Rome, they would be nailed to a wooden cross. That’s pretty strong incentive for keeping the peace.
But any peace like that Roman peace that is sustained through violent means, any system, even peaceful, like the Roman one, that is built on keeping the powerful in power, on keeping the rich in riches, on keeping the downtrodden trodden down, and the marginalized in the margins, Jesus says that that kind of peace needs to be burned away so that a just, compassionate, equitable and loving peace can grow in its stead.
And any time someone like Jesus, like one of his followers, comes along and advocates for changing the status quo that the powerful and well-to-do are benefitting from, there’s no question that there will be conflict and division. Many times we think that conflict is always a bad thing, that division is always a negative. Why can’t we just all agree and live in peace? And especially, why can’t everyone in the Christian Church just be united and on the same page? Aren’t we, after all, all following the same Jesus?
Yet without division, conflict, crisis, there would never be any change. The teachings of Jesus have been bringing division throughout history, and granted some of it has been really bloody, deadly, horrible and tragic. But much has also brought about new ways of thinking, new structures and systems, new ways of life. The teachings of Jesus brought conflict between Martin Luther and the Catholic church, when Luther understood grace rather than works as the vehicle to salvation. The teachings of Jesus brought division between those Christians who saw the institution of slavery as biblical, and those who saw it as the abomination that it is. Jesus’s teachings brought division when some church denominations began to ordain women, and others believed that women should never hold any kind of leadership positions in the church. I have to admit, those are some divisions and conflicts that I am very grateful for.
Followers of Jesus have also been divided between seeing gay marriage and homosexuality as a sin, and knowing that love is love and that all people should have the right to be with and marry the person whom they love, regardless of their gender. I remember in 2015 being a delegate at the bi-annual General Synod where clergy and lay UCC members from all over the country were gathered. This took place just after the historic Supreme Court ruling that all fifty states were required to perform and recognize the marriages of same-sex couples on the same terms and conditions as the marriages of opposite-sex couples, with all the accompanying rights and responsibilities. There was such cheering and joy from most of us at Synod, a Christian gathering, as we saw this ruling as upholding the inclusiveness, acceptance and love that Jesus so fiercely demonstrated. And at the same time, other Christians were decrying the decision as yet one more step away from Christianity and biblical teaching. Just as Jesus predicted, he brought division within the Christian family.
Yet even as Jesus brings division and conflict, I don’t believe his fiery words advocate for all-out war, for all-out viciousness and hatred and incivility. Jesus is still the one who calls his followers to love our enemies, to forgive those who sin against us, to treat each other as beloved children of God.
One of my favorite preachers, Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, tells this story in her book Pastrix. She talks about how she ended up befriending Chris Rosebrough, who, under the name Pirate Christian, has an internet radio show which attacks all kinds of Christians who depart from his understanding of the faith. Nadia says, “My liberalness and femaleness and gay-lovingness made me easy plunder for the Pirate. On several occasions he had spent time on his radio show talking about “pastrix” Nadia Bolz-Weber and all her false teachings.” (p.110). And then, Nadia was speaking at a conference. After one of her talks, as she was greeting people, the last person in line was a guy in his mid-forties with a beer gut and a bad goatee, as she says. “Nadia, I’m Chris. The Pirate Christian,” he said. Nadia admits to fighting the urge to dismiss him or to swear at him, and instead, she shook his hand. Chris said to her, “We obviously disagree about a lot, but something tells me that …you and I have a couple things we might agree on.” What ended up happening is that they shared a thirty-minute public dialogue about their brokenness and their need for confession and absolution, among other things. She looked him in the eye and said, “Chris, I have two things to say to you. One, you are a beautiful child of God. Two, I think that maybe you and I are desperate enough to hear the Gospel that we can even hear it from each other.” (p.113).
What a beautiful example of bridging division, right? If only it could be done like this everywhere, then we would have more peace, right? Well, maybe not. Here is the aftermath of that meeting. The Pirate Christian Chris posted a picture of himself and Nadia on his facebook page with the caption “My good friend Nadia.” He paid dearly as his followers lambasted him with horrible comments. Nadia texted him saying, “Honey, it’s looking pretty rough out there. If you need to renounce our friendship in public I would totally understand and still be your friend in private.” He replied to her, “Never. If being your friend is a sin, it’s still worth it.” (p 110). A few months later, Nadia did something many in her own congregation blasted her for, and Chris, her former enemy, seeing all those negative comments on her page, reached out to her to comfort her, since he understood what it was like to be attacked by your own tribe, by your own “family.”1
Jesus said, “I have come not to bring peace, but division.” So does this mean we should not try to build bridges across divisions, that we should not try to hear each other when we disagree, that we should not try to even be open to the possibility that someone we don’t agree with may have a morsel of the truth? I don’t think this is what Jesus is saying. I think that the hardest thing for us is to walk that thin line that divides crying out for that which we believe in and at the same time not decrying those people who stand in the way. There needs to be a way to bridge that wide divide that is separating us from those we consider our enemies, and maybe even those we consider our friends. How might we do that?
Deep down, I think we all know that the inflammatory rhetoric and flaming insults we may want to use do little, really do nothing, to warm peoples’ hearts towards us, do little to light the way forward, do little to spark any interest or openness to our way of thinking. No matter how passionately our hearts burn against injustice, if we skewer our enemies, we are not following Jesus. Because as much as it burns us, we must always remember that everyone, even those people we can absolutely not abide, every single person is a beloved child of God.
Jesus never said that following him, that loving our enemies while still advocating for justice would be easy, or would bring peace. Jesus, the peace-breaker calls us to follow him, to advocate for those unjustly treated, for those who are down-trodden, for those who have no means to make their voices heard, even if this advocacy and work brings about division. And at the same time Jesus, the peace-maker says to never ever forgot that we, and those we love, and even those we cannot bring ourselves to love, are held in the heart of God, a heart that burns with an unquenchable love for every single one of us. May we rise to the challenge of following this fiery Jesus, knowing always his presence accompanying us, his wisdom guiding us, his passion empowering us, and his fierce love burning within us. Amen.
1Bolz-Weber, N. (2014). Pastrix: The cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner & saint. New York: Jericho Books. (Chapter 11)