Preached at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, High Point, on August 14.
"Do you think I have come to give peace
on earth? No, I tell
you, but rather division..." These are the words I just read to you...
proclaiming them to be the GOSPEL of our Lord... the Good News.
And you- all of you- responded, "Praise to you, O Christ!" Seems
a little ironic, doesn't it, to be calling such deeply disturbing words,
"The GOOD NEWS of our Lord"?
Or perhaps you weren't really listening... so hear the words
again... spoken by the same Jesus we call "the Prince of Peace"...
I HAVE COME TO CAST FIRE UPON THE EARTH...DO YOU
THINK THAT I HAVE COME TO GIVE PEACE ON EARTH?
NO, I TELL YOU, BUT RATHER DIVISION...EVEN WITHIN
The hard truth, the seeming harshness of these words, takes the
breath away...sets our teeth on edge...makes us cross our arms
and lean back, prepared to reject whatever comes next, doesn't it?
John the Baptist, who baptized with water in the River Jordan,
predicted that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with
FIRE- which ignites...which burns;
FIRE- which refines, cleanses impurities...
Jesus, the Living Word, breathes out a red-hot message to ignite
the listener, to refine and cleanse away all the impurities which
prevent us- ANY OF US WHO HEAR...from answering his call to
But how does this message... this image... fit with our picture
of "the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay"? the Jesus we all love to
love and cherish? The Good Shepherd who cherishes and loves his
flock? Who is this- STRANGER- who challenges us...burns us with
with the fire of his words...his message...his CALL?
Well, our Jesus- the Jesus we love and trust- was a REBEL,
whether we realize that or not. He antagonized the religious
authorities at Nazareth- and they sought to stone him. He
challenged the religious leaders of Jerusalem- and they put him to
death. His message of truth was one which so unsettled the world
of his day and time- as well as the world of every day and time,
including our own- that the establishment did and often continues
to do everything it could to discount and discredit his message...
his message which teaches:
TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM TREAT YOU...LOVE
YOUR ENEMIES...DO GOOD TO THOSE WHO HATE YOU...IF YOU
HAVE TWO COATS, GIVE ONE TO THE PERSON WHO HAS NONE...
FEED THE HUNGRY...VISIT THE PRISONER...CARE FOR THE SICK...
WORK FOR JUSTICE FOR THE POOR AND HELPLESS, FOR ALL
PEOPLE...WORDS FILLED WITH FIRE!
And then he backed up his fiery words with actions...as he ate
with tax collectors and prostitutes... those whom society deemed
"sinners"...as he touched lepers- those whom society considered
unclean...as he taught women- those who had no status or clout
in society... as he spent time with children- those whom society
saw only as property...teaching, healing, loving those whom the
rest of society considered unimportant.. undesirable... unworthy.
This long-awaited Messiah came, not to primarily overthrow
the political systems of his day...not to lead might armies as
people of his day expected and hopes, or to wear a crown of gold...
but to KINDLE THE FIRE of the Kingdom of God in the world...to
FIRE UP those he called and calls as disciples...to refine and purify
them and us so that each day, we reflect the Christ in us more and
more purely...more clearly...refining away the OLD...that which
was before...to make way for the coming of the NEW KINGDOM...
a new way of life...a new relationship with God and with one
The fire of Jesus separates the true from the false... divides
faith from unfaith...good from evil...easy from hard. The coming
of God's kingdom, God's reign, drives a double-edged sword into
the world...Christ's coming brings peace on earth- AND DIVISION,
and here are those other HARD WORDS...
DO YOU THINK I HAVE COME TO BRING PEACE ON EARTH?
NO, I TELL YOU...BUT RATHER DIVISION...
And we shy away from that...at least, I do...we pull back from
those FIERY words of the Gospel and cry out for the comfort...the
peace. After all, as Christians, aren't we called to be peacemakers?
To bring healing and reconciliation and love to our relationships
and to our world?
But there is another face...A HARD FACE...to that call...for that
call...for the peace we are called to makes is not always sweet...
for ourselves or for others. Sometimes it shatters our best-laid
plans...burns up our fondest hopes... destroying the status quo.
It wipes away the illusion that following Jesus, living the Jesus Way,
will ONLY bring serenity of life and peace of mind. For, in reality,
Following Jesus will bring INDIVIDUAL & PERSONAL WARFARE!
(And I don't use that terminology lightly, as I eschew the language
language of war whenever possible.) There will be constant and
continual skirmishes of conscience over agonizing decisions about
how to spend out time and our money...internal battles over our
internal battles over our moral compromises about whether or not
to take a stand on an important issue, as well as the awareness
of the very real cost of that decision...the deep inner wrenching
as we see our neighbor's need night after night on the TV screen
from the comfort of our living room couch...
Our Jesus, you see, is a DISTURBING LORD as well as a
comforting one. He comes to disturb the comfortable and comfort
the disturbed...and the peace he came to bring was-IS- the very
peace of God...not peace as humans define it... for human "peace"
is basically an exchange, a "trade-off"- "I'll scratch your back if
you scratch mine"...giving something in order to GET something-
and as long as the arrangement is MUTUALLY satisfying, there is
'peace"...we avoid hostilities. We see this all the time at the inter-
national level, don't we? And within the peculiarly contentious
midst of this election season.
But the peace of GOD is basically a matter of TRUTH...
INTEGRITY...LOVE...saying, feeling, believing, "I'll do this
because it is the RIGHT and LOVING thing to do- even if I get
NOTHING out of it." And how counter-cultural is that? How out-
of-this-world? Where trade-offs seem to be the very stuff of
human relationships...where our very identities are built on the
trade-off of playing a role in exchange for approval from others?
But the people of the Kingdom...those set afire...refined...
purified...claim that they can build their identity on ANOTHER
foundation...GOD'S LOVE...GOD'S UNCONDITIONAL, ALL-
ENCOMPASSING LOVE...and proclaiming...laying claim to
that reality shakes up the entire system of human relationship
To its very roots...to its heart and soul and core...for it tells us
that our value is NOT in what we produce...or who we know...
or how much we make...or how we dress...or what car we drive...
or where we live...or the color of our skin...or our sexuality... or
our age... or how perfectly we behave... but rather in the FACT-
the FACT of God's TOTAL UNCONDITIONAL LOVE for us- ALL OF
US- as God's own children, created in the Divine Image...the LOVE
made real to us in the person of Jesus, the fire-breathing Christ.
Ernst Kasemann, a German theologian of the recent 20th
Century, wrote these words:
The church has managed to reduce Jesus' red-hot
message, which promises to kindle fire, fire throughout
the world, to room temperature.
Or in the words of one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard:
It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats
to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God
may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God
may draw us out to where we can never return.
DO YOU THINK I HAVE COME TO GIVE PEACE? Those red-hot
Words sear across our brains, our hearts, like a lightning strike...
Or SHOULD!!! NO, I TELL YOU...BUT DIVISION...HARD
CHOICES...A CALL TO COMMITMENT...A CALL TO COURAGE...
TO COURAGEOUS LIVING.
Do you feel the HEAT of Christ's call? His word of truth is cast
upon us like fire...burning up every false foundation upon which we
try to base our individual and communal identities. And for
speaking the TRUTH, he was crucified. Never forget that, this price
of truth-telling, of true discipleship. Neither then nor now can the
powers-that-be permit the status quo to be confronted by the
TRUTH...the truth which burns with a flames so intense that we
cannot escape from it untouched...for this truth divides for the sake
of justice and righteousness...this kingdom come to put down
Other kingdoms to make way for the ultimate truth of GOD'S ALL-
INCLUSIVE LOVE...this love which is incarnated in and among us
in so many and varied ways:
Martin Luther King, Jr., leading the march in Birmingham...
Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus...
North Carolina A&T students refusing to leave the Wool-
The unnamed young man facing the tanks in Tiananmen
Sister Helen Prejean accompanying a murderer to the death
The Dalai Lama, continuing to speak out for the Tibetan
people, even at risk of his own life...
Nelson Mandela, spending thirty-three years in prison in
behalf of the rights of his people...
Dr. William Barber, leading people in North Carolina week
after week in Moral Monday peaceful protests for fair
wages, better schools, equal justice for all...
People in towns and cities all over the globe quietly pro-
testing injustice of every sort...
This IS the Good News... and we celebrate it always at our
Eucharistic table...where the unity we affirm requires that we
relinquish every false unity, every human trade-off... drop every
mask we wear... and take up instead the cross of love, in Jesus'
name. PRAISE BE TO YOU, O CHRIST, indeed. Amen & amen.