Let’s face it. This is one of those weeks when the Gospel reading makes you want to turn to one of the other texts appointed for this Sunday. :) It is harsh, more than a little threatening, and rather uncomfortable to hear. But here’s the question: Is that the passage’s fault or ours?
Here’s what I’m getting at. Reading and preaching biblical texts always involves bridging the distinct contexts of the biblical story and today’s world, and some weeks the chasm between those two is both deep and wide. This week is a good example. By and large, we avoid conflict and division in our congregations at all costs, yet here Jesus is talking about bringing just that.
We want peace and moreover call Jesus the prince of peace, yet just now Jesus says that’s not what he came to bring. We are, by and large, focused on the present or at least certainly not looking for the end of the world, and yet in this passage Jesus seems to look to the future and it is, to say the least, foreboding.
Do you see what I mean? We are firmly rooted in a world that seems so different than the one Jesus lives in that it makes it hard for us to relate and even, perhaps, to hear. And that’s what’s challenging about today’s passage: When we read it primarily in light of our context it seems remarkably out of place. But looking more closely at the context of the passage itself and suspending our judgments may help us find a way to read and preach it.
I said “context,” but there is more than one. The first is the narrative context. At this point in the story, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where the conflicts he has been experiencing will boil over into a plot to take his life. And Jesus knows this. He knows, that is, that he will soon be baptized not by water but by the fire kindled with nails and wood, and just now he feels the weight and pressure of what is to come. He is, to use a word with which we are very familiar, stressed, stretched to the point of breaking.
And here, at least, is one point of entry. Stress is one of the watchwords of our age, as we also often feel pulled by schedules and responsibilities and pressures beyond what we can endure. And Jesus knows this. We confess that God became human in Jesus precisely to know and redeem our condition. Might the Jesus who is stressed by what is to come have something to say to Christians today?
No, we are not facing crucifixion. But many of us are facing terminal illness, or a loss of job or wages, or deep loneliness, or mental illness, or … the list goes on. We at times feel pulled beyond what we can endure and Jesus has been there.
The other context is historical. Luke writes of these events about 40 years after they’ve happened, 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 spades in Christian communities by the time Luke writes.
This will be more foreign to most of us. Christianity has long been not just acceptable but almost expected in North America. Even in what many call a post-Christian era, going to church occasions no controversy. This isn’t true in all lands, of course, and we would do well to remember—and pray for—those Christians in various parts of the world for whom the confession of Jesus brings division, strife and danger.
But all of this occasions a question that may be worth pursuing: Is the relative ease of the Christian life in this land 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, 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.
What might our personal and congregational lives look like if we took Jesus' words more seriously at home, work, school and in our communities? Might we experience more of the stress and division Jesus speaks of if we were to push our community leaders or stretch our personal and congregational budgets to care more fully for the poor? What holds us back from embracing the kingdom life Jesus both describes and demands? What fears, pressures and stresses distract us from the mission to which Jesus has called us?
This isn’t to suggest that we have intentionally shirked our responsibilities. No, the pressures and stresses we feel are real. We have families to care for, jobs to tend, responsibilities to all manner of people and organizations. But we also live in a culture that equates wealth with character, that elevates consumption to an art form, and that teaches us to look out for our own well-being above that of all others.
So what kind of sermon might encourage us in leading the kind of life that Jesus modeled? Perhaps one that takes the stresses of this life seriously, that reminds us that Jesus understands these stresses, and that promises that the baptism of fire that Jesus underwent in his crucifixion he endured so that we might have the promise that wherever we are, Jesus has already been, and where Jesus is now, we shall someday be. Jesus dies, we regularly confess, for our sins, those of both omission and commission. And the promise of the gospel is that there is nothing we can do to lose that forgiveness or the larger inheritance of abundant life that Jesus won.
Sometimes that promise leads us into a kind of pious indolence, where we come to believe that our failures and shortcoming aren’t all that serious, for we have been justified by faith. But sometimes—and perhaps this is one of those times—that promise of forgiveness and life might also lead us to a kind of holy engagement, where we—as individuals, households and communities of faith—commit ourselves once again to being “people of the Way,” people who strive to follow Jesus in word and deed, knowing that the path we tread follows his own and that he accompanies us on it.
Perhaps our efforts will lead to strife and division, at least for a time. But they will also lead to a deeper sense of that peace that passes all understanding, as we are caught up in the abundant life that comes from following our Lord. As with the words Jesus speaks in today’s reading, Working Preacher, so also your words may not be easy to hear or to speak. But they will be faithful. And that, ultimately, is what we are called to. Know as you work on and deliver this week’s message and endure the stress it may occasion that I give thanks for your willingness to follow that call, for your faith, and for your preaching. What you do matters, and I am so very grateful for your labor.