Pentecost 13: 18 August Luke 12:49-56
This is not a text one would choose for a sermon on ecumenism - or is it? ‘Harmony’ is one of those soft words which people sometimes use to plea for peace. The peace is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts which are bound to emerge from under their marshmallow captivity. Orderliness and harmony were great Stoic themes. At worst it meant everyone in their place, an unchanged and unchanging status quo. For many people Christian peace is still seen as that kind of harmony, if not achievable outwardly, then at least achievable inwardly. The gospel then takes up its stall beside all the others offering serenity of life and ‘feel good’ spiritualities.
If there is a place for ‘harmony’ in the teaching of Jesus, it is about unity with God and what God is doing in the world and a sense of solidarity with those travelling that path. In Jesus’ conversation with the ambitious James and John in Mark 10:35-40 Jesus uses the image of baptism to speak of his death. Water, flood, was a disaster, just as a fire storm is a disaster. Jesus is walking into disaster and taking others with him. Matthew’s version of the Q saying spells it out less tactfully: Jesus has come not to bring peace but a sword (Luke has: ‘division’). While Mark sees Jesus entering the treacherous waters of that Jerusalem Passover, Luke directs our attention to family.
‘Peace at all costs’ has no place here. That kind of harmony gilds oppression with respectability and rewards wrong. Instead we face a full scale conflict, taken right into the heart of human formation: the family. The family is being dethroned from its absolute claims. It is not an invitation to the kind of fanaticism which dislocates sectarians from family and friends and all else for obsession with an unrelated cause. Rather this passion springs from the heart of the human condition. It is the passion for love, for change, for justice, for renewal. These are not the fanatical tenets of a cult, but the foundations of hope. So Jesus is confronting the gods of family and warning that this is very dangerous territory.
It was not that Jesus sought to subvert families as such. It was rather that he espoused a vision of God and God’s agenda for change which often stood in direct conflict with other absolute claims, like wealth, possessions, land, culture, religion and family. He appears to have deliberately encouraged some to dislocate by leaving behind the claims of their local communities, clan, and family. Like him they travelled with him as a kind of entourage of protest against the prevailing systems. But he also encouraged others who stayed where they were to put the kingdom first. Everything else has its place but falls into proper perspective when the ‘God part’ is taken care of. That is not a guarantee of peace and harmony, but an involvement in change which will have its own rewards. It will encounter resistance and rejection from the powerbrokers of the gods of family and tradition.
As Christians remembered and retold these sayings, they might have been consoled by the warnings as they reflected on their own painful experiences. Some may have used such predictions to rationalise their ineptitude at relationships. Nothing much has changed in this regard. There is a fascination, even a stimulus, which people can get from such pain. The real thing can so easily be twisted into another form of self indulgence.
The passage ends by talking about the weather, as conversations sometimes do when they run out of steam. This is not the case here. In its present context the exhortation focuses on looking for signs of danger of conflict. Perhaps originally the perspective was wider than this. Reading the signs of the times is a way of saying: recognising what is really going on and likely to happen. It is very much a prophetic role. Today it means helping people probe beneath the surface of events, to recognise the gods and hidden agenda which drives the world in which we live. The same caution about families applies to all other systems.
A passage like this provides an opportunity for reflection on centres of powerful influence in our local communities. What are these gods? We need to name them. For some they will still be in families. Liberation will come as they learn to say no to family authorities, whether in real life outside or in the real life of the mind. Grace invites us to stand on our own two feet, to say No, to grow up, to be born again. If you touch on this, be prepared to ensure there is support for those who dare such a change. It can be lonely and painful.
For others the gods run them in their workplace or across the counters of commerce or in the obsessions of advertising. Gods are always bigger than particular people. This is about more than addressing individual loyalties. Ultimately it is about the vision of justice and peace for all which we celebrate in the feast of the eucharist. The radical inclusiveness of that meal and that vision is a fellowship of sacrifice in which we nourish ourselves from a broken and poured out life. Perhaps the best commentary on today’s passage is, indeed, the breaking of the bread.
Epistle: Pentecost 13: 18 August Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2