a sermon, based on Luke 12.49-56, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
During his ministry, Jesus knew that the message of the gospel he preached and the baptism, the immersion into the life he proclaimed would bear the bitter fruit of division. For he stood against the powers and principalities, the authorities of his time, principally Rome and a religious hierarchy that practiced more outward observance of God’s law and less inward allegiance to the Spirit of the law of love and justice, the life of unconditional generosity and equality. He knew that to follow him inevitably would stretch, strain, shatter allegiances among even the nearest and dearest, thus his warning of households divided between and among parents and children and in-laws.
So it was and is that the Prince of Peace – peace, that is, union, communion, at-oneness, wholeness with the God – whose coming we commemorate in Advent and celebrate at Christmas, has been causing a ruckus ever since he was born!
Perhaps in our time, most of the time, there is little disagreement in our individual family’s Christian practice or, at least, what we believe it should be. So, arching an inquisitive, perhaps incredulous eyebrow, we might ask, “Jesus, what, pray tell, do you mean by ‘division’?”
Looking back over two millennia of Christianity, there is a notion, still believed by some, that the early Christians were all of one mind and divisions happened over time. That is fiction. If it were true, portions of the New Testament epistles of instruction directed at factions within the various churches would not have had to be written. Even more, the first Christian community centered in Jerusalem fell into dispute with Christianity’s chief apostle, Paul, over the issue of whether Gentile proselytes to the faith had to convert first to Judaism, then Christianity. Still more, the fourth century councils that produced that orthodox doctrinal statement, the Nicene Creed, were called together in the face of controversy over various beliefs about the nature of God. And let’s not forget that from the 11th century split between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches centered in Rome and Constantinople, respectively, and through the Protestant Reformation in Europe and England of the 16th and 17th centuries, we have come to this present day with 33,000 or more Christian denominations in over two hundred countries and some 10,000 Christian organizations, each with its own view of what it means to be Christian!
So, if or as division is the norm, the nature of Christian life, let alone the life of the world between and among disparate communities of peoples and nations, ideologies and religions, then how do we, as Jesus says, “interpret the present time”? Even more, how do we make sense of his gospel, so that we, in the words of the hymn, can see him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly, day by day?
Good question! An answer to which, I believe, rests in the very thing of which we’ve already spoken. Division.
Jesus, describing his ministry, declares, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” Fire, an ancient element and symbol of purification. Concerning Jesus’ intention, I recall the words of another hymn:
When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
Jesus wants, wills to purify us that we, again, as at the dawn of creation, may dwell at one with God, live at peace within the will of God. Thus, the search for division need not go even as far as our relationships with our nearest and dearest. Rather let us look first and only to ourselves. Where is the division within you and within me between God’s will for us as revealed in Jesus and our self-will? Where is the line of demarcation between our thoughts and feelings, our intentions and actions, our words and deeds in following “the devices and desires of our own hearts” and our obedience to Jesus’ call, “Follow me”?
To answer these questions is to engage the sacred labor of interpreting our present time.
As I never ask of you what I will not do, for me, it’s all about love and justice, unreserved benevolence and fairness that by the grace of God’s Spirit I am empowered to do, emboldened to be. The boundary, the barricade of division separates me from Jesus whene’er I choose my very human preferences and prejudices and, thereby, refuse to be loving and just toward you. And whene’er that happens, every time I sense the presence of the Spirit’s fire burning the barrier I have erected to the ground of my soul that I once again might see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly, and, day by day, love you.
Where’s the line for you?
 For example, see Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 1.10-15, 11.17-22, Galatians 5.20.
 See Galatians 2.1-14 and Acts 15.1-6f.
 First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople (325 and 381 Common Era, respectively)
 Statistics drawn from the World Christian Encyclopedia by Barrett, Kurian, Johnson (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2001)
 Day by Day; words attributed to Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)
 How firm a foundation, verse 3; words by K. (attributed to George Keith or R. Keen, c. 1787)
 From the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 41