For Sunday August 18, 2019
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
The Gospel of Luke begins with the proclamation that Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” At Jesus’s birth, an angelic choir sings “Peace on earth!” On numerous occasions during his ministry, Jesus offers men and women words of peace: “Go in peace and sin no more.” “Peace I leave with you.” “My peace I give you.” “I have told you these things, so that in me you might have peace.”
Many of us, following Jesus’s example, “share the peace” with each other every Sunday morning: “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” “And also with you.” We assume — the vast majority of us, anyway — that ours is a religion of peace. Of peace-making, peace-loving, and peace-keeping.
So what are we to make of Jesus’s startling words in this week’s Gospel? “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he asks his followers. “No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.”
Indeed, what are we to make of this week’s lectionary as a whole, which explodes off the page with harsh, provocative language that sounds anything but peaceful? “Is not my word like fire?” God asks in the reading from Jeremiah. “And like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” “You shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince,” writes the Psalmist, referring to those who deny justice to the weak and needy. Many great heroes of the faith, writes the author of Hebrews, died gruesome deaths, but “did not receive what was promised.” “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus cries as he makes his way towards Jerusalem and death.
These texts invite us — or no, they compel us — to move beyond soft, saccharine Christianity, and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship. Descriptive rather than prescriptive, they declare in honest, unflinching terms what will happen if we dare to take our faith seriously. What will happen in our families, our communities, our churches, and our world if we allow the “fire” of God’s word to burn through us. Bottom line? If "tender Jesus, meek and mild" is what we prefer, then this week’s lectionary is not for us. If feel-good religion is the comfort zone we refuse to leave, then we’re missing out, because the shalom of God is about so much more than good feelings. Or to put it differently, if neither you nor anyone within your sphere of influence has ever been provoked, disturbed, surprised, or challenged by your life of faith, then things are not okay in your life of faith.
Since the week’s readings offer such an embarrassment of riches, I want to highlight just a few representative phrases that strike me, and consider what they might offer us:
“What has straw in common with wheat?” In our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah, God uses a metaphor of straw and wheat to contrast false and true prophets. False prophets offer their listeners empty, insubstantial “dreams,” while true prophets speak words that are hearty and nourishing. I’m not a farmer, but I do know that straw and wheat can look alike if you’re not paying attention. Both look golden. Both look beautiful, waving in the wind. But only one can feed us. Only one can keep us alive when we’re starving. So I have to ask: which one am I? Is my faith substantive enough to offer anyone real nourishment? Not dessert. Not a happy hour cocktail. Not a sugar high and a brief buzz, but food. Food that sustains the body and satisfies the soul. Or is my faith thin and flimsy — golden on the outside, but empty within?
“Like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.” This is the phrase Jeremiah uses to describe the word of God, and I’ll confess at the outset that the phrase makes me wince. I grew up with “fire and brimstone” preaching. I know what it’s like to experience God’s Word as harsh and punitive. So I tread carefully, aware of the pitfalls. And yet I wonder: are we, the 21stcentury Church, willing to allow God’s “hammer” to shatter certain “rocks” in our personal and communal lives? Are we willing, for example, to allow the Gospel to shatter the monolith that is white privilege and white supremacy in America? Are we open to God’s hammering when it comes to our thoughtless consumerism? Can we allow God to break the indifference to death and addiction to guns that daily turn our streets, schools, playgrounds, and shopping malls into bloody war zones? Are we open to God breaking our hearts with compassion so that we can welcome into our midst the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, the exile? Make no mistake — some things must break, must shatter, must die, before the Word of God can take root and grow. Whether it’s a besetting sin in my personal life, or a corporate failure in my communal or national life, the question that matters is this: do I trust God to break what needs to be broken? Do I really want God’s Word to engage my life at its hardest, stoniest core? Or do I only want a soft substitute?
“Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.” Hebrews chapter eleven is often called the “Faith Hall of Fame,” since it highlights the remarkable lives and achievements of those who lived “by faith” in the Hebrew Bible. And indeed, the achievements of these faith-filled men and women are awe-inspiring. During their lifetimes, they “administered justice,” “shut the mouths of lions,” “quenched raging fire,” “won strength out of weakness,” and “received their dead by resurrection.” How much more impressive can you get? But the “Hall of Fame” doesn’t stop there; it’s far too honest to omit the dark underside of triumph and victory. Many of God’s faithful were tortured, flogged, mocked, and stoned to death. Many went about “destitute, persecuted, and tormented.” Many spent their lives wandering in deserts and mountains, in caves and holes in the ground. And all of them — all of them– died without receiving what was promised to them. What does this mean? Well, among other things, it means that God’s timing doesn’t always align with ours. It means that crises of absurdity, meaninglessness, pain, and horror are part and parcel of human existence, regardless of whether we profess faith in a benevolent God or not. It means that we Christians need to be clear and honest about the faith we profess. Yes, there is joy in the Christian life. Yes, there is beauty. Yes, there is the promise of love, wholeness, healing, and grace. But the life of faith is also arduous. The life of faith is also risky. And the life of faith does not ever guarantee us health, wealth, prosperity, or safety. To suggest otherwise is to lie, and to make a mockery of the Gospel.
“Since we are surrounded.” The “Hall of Fame” reading in Hebrews ends with a beautiful image of “a great cloud of witnesses.” The writer encourages us to persevere in the race of faith precisely because we are not alone. Jesus has pioneered the way of faith for us, and countless men and women have gone ahead through the millennia, shaping the path for us to follow. Their stories — stories of triumph and sorrow, gain and loss, trust and doubt, achievement and disappointment — offer us both comfort and accountability. I don’t know about you, but I find it far too easy to forget about this “cloud” in my daily life. Living as I do in a culture that worships individualism, I’m quick to assume that I’m alone, unseen, and unfettered in my spiritual life. But I’m not; I’m surrounded. I’m surrounded by witnesses whose testimonies both console and challenge me. I’m surrounded by witnesses whose stories must nuance and deepen my own. Christianity is not about me and my personal Jesus, doing our own private thing together. Ours is a profoundly communal faith, one that spans place, culture, race, ethnicity, and time.
“But rather division.” Again, it’s important to remember that when Jesus speaks of division rather than peace in Luke’s Gospel, he’s being descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s not Jesus’s desire or purpose to set fathers against sons or mothers against daughters. It’s certainly not his will that we stir up conflict for conflict’s sake, or use his words to justify violence or war. But his words are a necessary reminder that the peace Jesus offers us is not the fake peace of denial, dishonesty, and harmful accommodation. His is a holistic, truth-telling, disinfecting peace. The kind of deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to break in order to mend, and cut in order to heal. Jesus will name realities we don’t want named. He will upset hierarchies we’d rather keep intact. He will expose the lies we tell ourselves out of cowardice, laziness, or obstinacy. And he will disrupt all dynamics in our relationships with ourselves and with each other that keep us from wholeness and holiness. This is not because Jesus wants us to suffer. It's because he knows that real peace is worth fighting for. Consider the fact that Jesus forced choices from just about everyone he met during his years of incarnate ministry. No one met him without feeling compelled to change. He consistently brought people to the point of crisis, tension, movement, or transformation. He consistently led people to decisions their families and communities didn't understand. Jesus himself was considered crazy by his mother and siblings. Still, the status quo held no sway over him; his project was shalom or bust. And so I have to ask myself: when was the last time my faith “divided” me? When was the last time I allowed Jesus to bring me to a point of saving crisis? When was the last time my faith life encouraged holy division, holy change, in someone else’s heart? In other words: what am I most invested in? My comfort or my salvation?
Scripture offers us so many beautiful names for Jesus. Son of God. Son of Man. Emmanuel. Logos. Lord. Christ. Dare we add another? Jesus, the Disturber of Peace? What would it be like to allow him to disturb us, unmake us, and divide us? What would it be like to experience the peace that costs, the peace that breaks, the peace that saves? Jesus will indeed "guide our feet into the way of peace." He will. But only if we'll let him. May we do so.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: (1) Jesuswll.wordpress.com; (2) Radical Christian Millennial; and (3) CurchPOP.com.