Our contrary and divisive spiritual calling

A reflection on Luke 12:49-53 suggests ways in might Christ be calling his followers to be divisive.

November 20, 2013 | Web First
Markus Poetzsch |

There are some verses in the Bible that we studiously avoid thinking about, let alone discussing publicly. They are like repressed memories or family secrets that threaten, if evoked, to cast us back into shame and confusion, to undo the semblance of peace, fellowship and orderliness that we have so diligently cultivated for ourselves.

Freud coined the term unheimlich—popularly translated as “uncanny”—to describe such memories or events. The unheimlich is that which is strangely familiar but also profoundly unsettling and therefore carefully locked away in the dark attic of human consciousness or family history. The Scriptures not infrequently confront us with such uncanniness. I remember as a child leafing through our family Bible—a leatherbound behemoth from the nineteenth century, the width of three Yellow Pages directories stacked together, artfully decorated with illustrations by Gustav Doré.

If you have seen a Doré Bible, you will know that it’s not exactly child-friendly. The images are unflinchingly graphic, sometimes violent, harrowing, even spine-tingling. My fear of God as a child owed much to Doré.

Well, on one occasion I made the mistake of flipping all the way to the Book of Revelation, where I encountered not only the figure of ‘Death on the Pale Horse’ (which still makes my blood run cold) but the image of ‘The Last Judgment.’

What it reveals in the foreground is a precipice covered with naked, contorted human bodies, some clinging desperately, others falling into a void and above them a figure in dazzling white, wearing a crown and raising an arm aloft. Just above this figure is an arch-angel bringing from Paradise a sword which he appears to be passing to the figure in white. It was a scene that etched itself on my childhood brain and, for several days and sleepless nights thereafter, effaced all other thoughts. Who were these writhing, tortured people and what was Christ, the Prince of Peace, going to do with that sword?

The answers to these questions are difficult enough for adults to bear, but for a child the image of Christ preparing to deal out judgment with a weapon proved exceedingly hard to accept or to reconcile with Doré’s gentler visions of the Saviour. I mulled it over, was alternately baffled and terrified by it, and then, by degrees, forgot it.

After all, it’s not something I heard discussed in church—and nowadays ministers may well risk their career by preaching the Last Judgment. Christians have historically been accused of judging too hastily and too severely. It’s not how we wish to be seen any longer, and it’s certainly not how we wish to characterize our Saviour, the meek Lamb of God.

What a surprise then that our summer lectionary, composed by the Consultation on Common Texts (an ecumenical body of liturgical scholars and denominational representatives that sometimes errs on the side of cautious diplomacy in its selection of readings) included Luke 12:49-53, one of the least consoling and most bluntly divisive messages ever attributed to Christ. It is surpassed only by a parallel passage from the Gospel of Matthew (the obvious inspiration for Doré) where our Lord declares that he has come on earth “not […] to bring peace but a sword” (10:34). Luke softens the sentiment only a little:

"Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law" (Luke 12:51-53, NASB).

Whether sword or division, the message is the same: faith in Christ will divide us even at the level of our most intimate associations. How these words must have shocked Christ’s listeners then and how they shock us still today.

The twelfth chapter of Luke indeed presents a tremendous challenge to our life of faith. It asks us to consider the necessity, indeed, the inevitability, of division in the world and even in the church. It unsettles our treasured assumptions about Christ himself. And, perhaps most painfully of all, it shines a stark light on our spiritual complacency, on our wish to be both of the world and of Christ and somehow to keep these antagonistic forces in harmonious balance.

Isn’t this the surest mark of Christianity in the western world, this idea that we can easily separate our faith from our upwardly mobile lives, that we can open to Christ only the foyer of our souls while barring him from the rest of the house because his presence there might makes us and others uncomfortable? The book of Revelation has a fine word to characterize such faith: “lukewarm” (3:16). The result of a lukewarm faith, we are told, is that we will be spit out of the mouth of God. All of these uncomfortable notions confront us in Luke’s Gospel. So I ask, what should we do with them?

For many commentators, the answer lies in the specific context of Christ’s utterance. The twelfth chapter of Luke follows a pattern where Christ is addressing large crowds of followers and responding alternately to their questions, their murmurings, their provocations and their pettiness. Some demand signs from heaven, some berate him, some plot against him, some lay before him family squabbles, and sometimes even his own disciples interrupt him with outcries of confusion, so that by the time we get to verse 49, Jesus’s nerves appear quite clearly frayed: “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!” (49-50).

Emphatic punctuation aside, Christ’s focus on his own emotional state is key here. He confesses to feeling “distressed,” a word whose Greek roots mean being squeezed tightly. Simply put, he is stressed! Wherever he goes, he is beset by a needy and importunate mob, his disciples are often slow on the uptake, and on this occasion the thought of his baptism—the great trial he must undergo—flashes across his mind. And so he lashes out. He tells his listeners that the walk of faith is difficult and lonely; it involves hard choices and inevitable division. In effect, his baptism—his torture and humiliation, even his sense on the cross of being forsaken by God—becomes the model for those who would presume to follow him. At least in this moment, Christ is fed up with those who want an easy faith, those who expect the wished-for Messiah to do everything for them, those who desire change but will do nothing to mend their own ways. In this moment of his ministry, he spits the lukewarm out of his mouth.

A contextually-attuned reading of these verses is obviously important, but we should also be wary of allowing the historical context of Christ’s words to limit their contemporary force or relevance. Was he only preaching division to the early church in a moment of evident frustration or is he preaching division to us still today? Can we just pick and choose what we want to hear from Christ, sift the gospels only for those words most congenial to our current cultural values? How ready are we to listen to a gospel of division in an age that not only valorizes tolerance and inclusiveness as the highest moral good but that associates these specific values with Christ himself?

Whatever we may say for tolerance, it doesn’t risk as love risks. You certainly won’t die for the sake of those you merely tolerate. And if by tolerance we mean a sort of non-judgmental, bipartisan welcome of all that is other, different, not-me—and here tolerance begins to take on the guise of inclusiveness—then we need to revisit the discussion of lukewarmth in Revelation.

Not only does God condemn sin because it is an affront to his holiness, but he also rebukes a half-hearted faith that concerns itself as much with the opinions of the world as with his divine decrees. We can, in other words, tolerate too much—in others and in ourselves—and where that tolerance transgresses the word and will of God, it leads to a life of lukewarmth and that life, in turn, leads to separation from God.

The faith that Christ recommends in our readings for today has none of this lukewarmth attitude. It is founded instead on an Old Testament understanding of God’s Word as having the properties of fire. It will destroy, separate elements, and purify. The separation of elements is what Christ means by division. If we have in us his nature, his spirit, and allow ourselves to be governed by these, then we will walk a different path than many of our coworkers, acquaintances, friends and even relatives.

Division occurs first in the soul of the believer, as the person is divided against natural inclinations and then, by degrees, transformed in thought and belief. For to accept Christ is to be changed: “if anyone is in Christ, he [or she] is a new creature; the old things [have] passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17, NASB).

From this inner soul-searching division against the old that must pass away there follows an outer division, a change of perspective and conduct, by which we stand apart from and against all the ways of the world that deny, diminish or deride the ways of Christ. This is the realm of our inter-personal relationships, our work, social causes, consumer practices, political and environmental engagement, even our personal entertainment.

In all of these areas, we must first exercise prayerful discernment and then, as Christ says, expect division. Indeed, we cannot read the Bible closely, reflect on it, and pray for spiritual guidance without finding ourselves drawn away from something even as we are drawn to something. This is an inevitable part of discipleship.

But if, on the other hand, we are comfortable in the world, largely carefree and untroubled by the habits of our culture, easily able to reconcile the life of the spirit with the trends of the age, then we are not taking Christ’s admonitions seriously enough. Having separated us out even before we were born and consecrated us to his purposes, he wants us likewise to separate ourselves from a world of sin.

I am certain that we all have opportunities to exercise our contrary and divisive spiritual calling. And I don’t think this means entering the public sphere and making grand counter-cultural gestures or declarations. On the contrary, it is often in our everyday lives where our convictions, humbly followed, bear the greater fruit. Let me suggest three opportunities. But remember, these “opportunities” as I am calling them may have the very real effect of dividing you from someone else or at least declaring your willingness to be divided.

How we drive
The first seems easy enough, perhaps even trivial. It concerns habits of transportation, how we get around and treat others in our daily peregrinations.

I have never before lived in a community so ruled by the car and by speed. For pedestrians life here can be risky. Standing curbside even in the suburbs, you must expect to wait or else have your knees taken out. Even if you stand at a marked cross-walk holding the hand of a child, you have no priority.

We have counted. In seven years of living in Waterloo and waiting to cross at a nearby intersection, only about a dozen times has a car stopped and let us cross. Maybe twice a year such a miracle happens! I think how we drive our cars says something about our priorities. It also says something about our increasing detachment from one another. For if we don’t stop for a child, what will cause us to touch our brakes? How did we become so preoccupied with our own lives and schedules, so unmindful of the presence of others, so wedded to speed and our own “right of way”?

I encourage us each one to practice stopping for pedestrians young and old. Let go of your schedule. Risk the wrath of the drivers behind you. Change the culture of movement on your neighborhood streets. Who knows where that could lead?

Our relationship with technology
My second proposal is somewhat more challenging because it concerns our relationship with technology, one of the main drivers of the regional economy. I know that I risk tar and feathers for suggesting this, but I’m convinced that our reliance on mobile technology, our addiction to it—where we bring it, how we use it, what relationships we allow it to mediate for us—all of this is no longer just an issue of common courtesy or common sense. It has profound spiritual implications.

For if I am increasingly unable to be among people, whether at restaurants, ball games, music recitals, school plays, elevators, waiting rooms, even church, without my attention wandering to and being entirely engrossed by my devices, then I will miss opportunities, some that may never return, for serving God.

What we do for the least of those around us, we do for Christ himself. Yet how can we do anything, enter into anyone’s world of cares, extend any sympathetic gesture to the people immediately around us when our thumbs are busy hammering out ephemera for distant readers? We are becoming self-absorbed, myopic wanderers of virtual realities, evermore blind to the real needs of others in whom Christ himself is manifest.

So what do we do? In this case, I think it really helps to take radical steps as one would do with any other compulsive and addictive behaviour. Weed it out where you can. Give it up where you ought. Exercise self-restraint for the good of your most casual and your most intimate relationships—for the good of your relationship with Christ above all else. For such things we were created, not for a life of prostration before the cold flicker of technology.

Speaking about Christ
My final suggestion is the most overtly divisive. It will almost certainly turn someone away—a neighbour, a friend, perhaps even a fellow church member. It is a practice inspired by Christ’s great commission, a practice that many denominations have largely delegated to missionaries or given up on entirely. It involves essentially only this: telling someone else about Christ, inviting someone to hear the Word. Perhaps a neighbour, a coworker, an estranged family member, a passing acquaintance. Tell someone. Invite someone. Speak your faith.

What if it makes a difference to one person or one family—a life-altering difference that you yourself, from your own experience, can attest to? Would not all our effort and awkwardness be worth it for one?

I have wrestled with this issue often, and no matter what arguments I erect as stumbling blocks to my initiative, I always feel that this is the inescapable will of God, that this be done, with love and sensitivity. As one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread (D. T. Niles). It will assuredly mark us out as different. It is perhaps the most divisive but also, at the same time, the most generously unifying act that I can think of. May Christ give us the courage to be divisive—to lay our fears, our skepticism, our complacency aside for his sake and for the sake of those who are truly hungering and thirsting for the words of eternal life.

Markus Poetzsch preached this sermon at Waterloo North Mennonite Church, Waterloo, Ont., on June 18, 2013.

--Posted November 19, 2013

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tolerance leads to inclusiveness thus to lukewarmth in revelation.Elijah & Isaiah were inclusive. Ezra was exclusive as were religious leaders & the congregation @ Nazareth with Jesus' 1st sermon.What's wrong with inclusiveness? Thanx 4 the insite tolerance doesn't risk as love risks. the entire sermon is phenominal as I told my sis. in law Ruth Martin

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