The Promise of Division

Sermon for the Trinity 11, 2010 by Josh Nunziato

Lectionary Readings: Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” What powerful and disconcerting words from Jesus! “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus says in today’s lectionary reading that he has come to divide; and the division that he describes cuts across the most intimate of relationships—those of the household.

Now the Greek word used here for household is oikoi—it’s the same stem from which we derive English words like economical and economy. Thus, when Jesus says that he comes to divide the household, Jesus claims to cut across an entire way of organizing human life. Indeed, Jesus divides more than the home: he divides entire economies—ways of arranging human time, power, and resources.

Is this Jesus who speaks here really the same one we celebrate each Christmas as the ‘Prince of Peace’? Yes. This is the same one. But how should we understand Jesus’ declaration? Well, one way in which Jesus divides is that he calls. Those whom Jesus calls become his disciples. And those who become his disciples find themselves dramatically reoriented. When someone becomes a disciple of Christ, that person is disposed in an entirely new way towards the economic web of relationships that govern human life. Therefore, for disciples of Christ, family is not the final source of human meaning. For disciples of Christ, patriotism is not the decisive expression of loyalty. For disciples of Christ, technology is not the conclusive hope of the future. For disciples of Christ, the economy—that economy, which impacts each of us so intimately—is not the basic material of our well-being. All of these aspects of human life are rearranged by the ultimate and decisive call of Jesus Christ. This Jesus ‘has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.’ He has therefore demonstrated his supremacy over all the economies of this present world. Jesus is Lord over all our creaturely ways of arranging time, resources, and power.

But, if this Lordly Jesus calls disciples to follow him to the Father, how could Jesus fail to divide? After all, Jesus presents himself as the final source of our meaning, the decisive object of our loyalty, the conclusive hope of our future, and the basic material of our well-being. How could such an outrageous claim not generate division? Worldly values clamour for absolute recognition. When the call of Jesus conflicts with the supposed supremacy of these values, a division happens. Since Christian discipleship reorients us towards Jesus and since Jesus is not determined by our worldly economy, Jesus determines and shapes our lives in ways not entirely intelligible to others around us.

Does this mean that we should give up on inter-religious dialogue? Certainly not. Is this the end of ecumenism? No. Does Jesus mean to discourage us from seeking peace? Hardly: the character of Christian discipleship means that we must seek peace. However, we ought not to be surprised when we encounter conflict since our loves, priorities, convictions, and loyalties are aligned by One whose call exceeds the economic considerations of this world.

But this is good news! This is liberation! Now we may recognize ourselves no longer as creatures whose ultimate success or failure, well-being or woe depends upon the economy. Instead, we have been set free to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely” for the sake of following Jesus. We are empowered by a power from beyond this world as we look “to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

As pioneer, Jesus precedes us on our journey. He both opens up and points out the way to the Father. As perfecter, Jesus promises His Spirit, who draws us into communion with himself and with the Father. This communion is our end. However, this end does not begin with us. We have been anticipated by the entire company of the saints—that communion of faithful witnesses whose hope exceeded this world. It was these ‘of whom the world was not worthy.’ Indeed, these people were animated by a faith that aimed beyond this world and all its values. Yet, these “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” But why should these holy ones wait to be made perfect with us? And what is this ‘something better’ that God had provided? Jesus. Jesus is ‘the perfecter of our faith.’ Jesus is that ‘something better that God had provided.’ Since our faith is also the faith of those who have come before us in faith, it is with these that Christ is bringing us to perfection.

The vocation of discipleship to which we are called is hard. It demands perseverance, discipline, fortitude, courage, and confidence. It cuts across the boundaries of what we find acceptable, comfortable, and familiar. It rouses us from our complacency. It requires of us our all. It challenges us to a way of life that subverts those false demands that clamour for our absolute allegiance. Faithfulness to our vocation even involves the possibility of encountering outright hostility. Yet, we do not traverse this path alone. Others have come this way. Like us, they have been animated by the call of Jesus. Therefore, together with them, we are being brought to wholeness. And this wholeness is the harmony, peace, and life of the Triune God.   Amen.

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