Peace Work is Unrestful

A sermon based on Luke 12:49-56
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 18, 2019 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

There’s a cartoon of a stick outlined church. Outside it is a stick figure of Jesus struggling to open the church door. Inside the church is a crowd of stick figures desperately holding that door shut saying “Don’t let him in! It will change everything.”
Today’s reading is about the more drastic changes Jesus brings that people are afraid of. A part of letting Jesus into our life and into church can be jarring. That Jesus disturbs, is not what we want to think. We like to think that letting Jesus into our life– into church especially– will change us calmly for the better. But Jesus indicates in our Lectionary reading that the change is initiated by fire and division . We learn later in the Luke-Acts narratives that it is the Pentecost fire, but even still Jesus notes it will be divisive. That Pentecost fire makes us and the world better for sure, but typically “better” make us think about less stress and calmness, not about fire and division.

So while it is true that Jesus changes us for the better, the definition of “better” may not always be what we want or expect. On a personal level I can affirm that Jesus certainly changed everything in this former agnostic Oregon lawyer’s life– drastically. I let Jesus in and it changed everything! I am a Christian minister in Ohio, who would have thought? Certainly not me or my wife. Much good has happened and it is great to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian. But a part of the following has included old ways being metaphorically burned down, I’ve been divided from my former life – I have been divided from people and not just by distance, but by new differences. While I certainly think the changes have been wonderful and for the better, they disrupted my whole life. They have given me great Spiritual highs and personal peace even as people I know, even Christian brothers and sisters, have responded in negatives ways I never imagined.

Our last hymn (Peace I Leave with You My Friends)will remind us and leave us with the sense of personal peace we tend to think of, but it will also tell us to show God’s kindness without end, that Jesus gives us peace so we can give peace to others too. And therein lies the rub. In the words of Jesus in the lesson that Becky read so well, Jesus Way brings fire and division. Love’s aim for peace for all has a way of disturbing people, including people in churches and they lash out and even want to bar Jesus from getting in. It may make us uncomfortable and upset us, but the tumult signals we’ve successfully let Jesus in and embarked on his Way.

To frame it in a different metaphor, I like to think of it as Jesus being a sail we put up, a sail that catches the wind of God’s Spirit and takes us where God wills on the rough seas of life. It’s not a smooth ride, but it is a holy one. Nance and I rode the winds of the Spirit here to this church on such a holy ride. This church is our port of call because unlike the STick church in the cartoon I mentioned, this church has made a concerted effort to not bar the door to Jesus.

This community has let Jesus in and over and over again it causes change. We have been celebrating the church’s birthday the past month. It’s been a good reminder of the transformative power of letting Jesus in, which First Congregational Church has done for 185 years. That power causes change even now. I have seen it in the five and half years that I have been here. When I arrived I heard this church was the best kept secret in the county. Jesus has changed that. Acting as the Body of Christ we have declared loud and strong Jesus’ Way of wide openness and inclusive-ness. We have worshiped and followed Jesus’ God of Love. All the while doing what God requires of us, seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. Along the way we have continued the church’s nine score and five years of effectively challenging injustices and working to help those in need and provides special programs children and youth like Peace Village and Community Family Players. Like our predecessors– and Jesus– we have continued to make it our business to tend to the least among us.

The sail of Jesus set out by this church has caught the wind of the Spirit and taken our predecessors and us on a powerful ride in many ways. It was, and remains, a beautiful thing.It has been the Holy Spirit powering us through, well, the Body of Christ (the church), and as such should be deeply revered. This church matters, especially to those suffering injustices and those who cannot find a church that teaches and preaches and worships and loves and listens to and acts on behalf of the God of love. Love, at the center of a faith community, matters. It matters to us. It matters to the greater community. It matters to God.

The congregations of this church, generation after generation, have decided to hold the door open for Christ to come in. Using my other metaphor, we have let Christ’s sail up and into the wind of the Holy Spirit that has taken us on Jesus’ Way of the wide embrace. In other words, where God propels us. It is a good thing, but it also changes things. Christ shakes things up. Taking Christ into our lives and out into the world in word and deed changes things, transforms lives and challenges human institutions.
Like Jesus’ original following there are no strings attached here. All are honored and loved equally. Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Sadly, and even painfully, Jesus’ leading us on his path of love and peace has caused more than few folks to say less than nice and peaceful things. For 185 years now it has caused some to lash out, some to not come here and some to leave. Being advocates and actors for God’s unconditional love upsets people– it does. Unconditional love sounds like a sweet thing, but it disturbs.

Today’s Bible reading is about that very thing. Jesus tells his followers the painful truth that I am talking about today. The truth that being on the side of love is a very difficult task, not only does it take energy and get us out of our comfort zone, we are also required to do more than just say to ourselves we support love, we have to act on it.

Some folks do not want to hear that– let alone do that. And in fairness the text today gives a reason not to. It may be one of the most difficult texts in all the Bible. Jesus begins by telling his followers that he came to “to bring fire to the earth,” and how he wished that fire were “already kindled!” That phrase “how I wished” in Greek can more accurately be heard to mean “how I am committed to” 1. See, it’s a fire Jesus is committed to having kindled. The Luke-Acts narrative is the only part of the Bible with the Pentecost story, where the fiery Spirit descends after Jesus’ accession and ignites the church.

With that in mind, we can hear the fire Jesus is to kindle in this Lukean text, as us, the church. Jesus dies and rises and ascends to heaven in order to kindle and ignite the bright burning flame of the church. So he can rise from the ashes like a Phoenix anew in me and you and in all that we do. But even though Luke begins and ends with Jesus heralded as a peacemaker and peace bringer, Jesus in the midst of the turmoil of blazing a path of justice and love for all, warns that path which leads to peace – the one we follow as church– can, and will, cause a lot of strife.

The fire of the Holy Spirit is not always peaceful in immediate affect. And that is difficult and disturbing news. That Jesus’ path to peace leads to unrest is an irony that we have to learn to live with as followers of Christ. Jesus is up front about this in the lesson, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Jesus then lists relations being divided. None of this should surprise us. Notwithstanding Hollywood versions of the Bible, the greatest story ever told has as A pivotal point a cross. That awful, scandalous and very unpeaceful death on the cross is a part of what got us here today. We can’t get to the promise and the hope of the risen Christ without that unpeaceful rugged unjust tool of terror. TOO many people want Christianity to be about a Hallmark ending without the suffering that must occur to get there. God’s shalom comes at a price, crucifixion, literally for Jesus, and at least in some sense figuratively for all serious peace makers.

The reason there is unpeacefulness on the path to peace is because, as The Feasting on the Word commentary puts it: “Jesus has not come to validate human institutions and their values but to initiate God’s radical will.” 2. The commentary goes on to note that:

The divinely wrought peace that Jesus inaugurates and bestows involves the establishment of proper relationships of mercy, compassion, and justice between God and humanity. Not everyone, however, wants or welcomes the divine peace plan. Hence the initiation of Jesus’ peace agenda also triggers contentious disunity and fissures among all facets of society, right down to the social core of the family. 3

We learn in the words of that commentary and in Jesus’ words and experiences– and in our own experiences– that blood relatives and brothers and sisters in Christ, do get upset and divided over the wide open embrace of love being offered by Jesus’ Way. We learn that in our nation’s history. When Jesus’ followers have sought the abolition of slavery and to end racism, divisions in blood and church families occurred. When Jesus’ followers have sought to end the genocide of Native Americans, and discrimination against those of other nations and other faiths divisions in blood and church families occurred. When Jesus’ followers have sought an end to sexism and an end to heterosexism, division in blood and church families occurred. When Jesus followers seek to substantively challenge injustices division in blood and church families occurs.

The path to Jesus’ peace is unpeaceful. Shalom shakes us up. Jesus did not set out to create division in blood and church families with God’ peace, but he knew it was part and parcel of God’s Way. It’s a hurdle in the path. The only way around it is through it, and any Christian who thinks that we can go around it or let people bar the door to keep Christ out and get to peace is mistaken.
I wish I could stand up here and tell you that Jesus’ Way is easy and full of only peace and quiet and comfortable ideas and only peaceful moments for all who walk in the door. But, I can’t do that. Those moments of peace certainly exist, and abound-fully so, but the pursuit of peace for all also shakes things up, personally and corporately. What I can tell you, is the good news that for all who walk through that door there will be love. There is love because we let Jesus in the door and love is always the result. Always! And God . . . God is love. And love not only ultimately brings peace but pursues it. As our ending hymn puts it, the peace is given to us so we can give it to others too. May we always let Jesus in and strive to do just that.

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2013
1.Carlson, Richard, Feasting on the Word, Year C. Vol. 3, p. 359-360.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.