By Pastor Vince Gerhardy
Did you hear what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading. “I came to throw fire on the earth. I wish it were already kindled…. Do you think that I have come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, no, but rather division”(12:49, 51). Fire? Division? Families set against one another? Was Jesus just having a bad day? Was he depressed, rundown, moody because all he could see was suffering and death in his immediate future?
Jesus states clearly that because of him families will now be divided – father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, father-in-law against son-in-law. We have problems enough in our families. Jesus is supposed to help our families. He is supposed to be the glue that keeps us together. You know, “The family that prays together, stays together.”
How could Jesus say that he came, not to bring peace, but division? When Matthew records these words of Jesus he spares us nothing. In fact, Jesus’ words sound downright violent, “I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword”(Matthew 10:34). A sword! And then Jesus explains what he meant by all this, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me. He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me. He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39).
No, I don’t believe that Jesus was just having a bad day. He is telling us an important truth. We sing about“gentle Jesus meek and mild”, Jesus the “beautiful Saviour”, and “fairest Lord Jesus”. Beautiful and fair he might be but mouse-like and compliant he is not. When it comes to the meaning of discipleship, the cost that is involved, the conflict and division that the gospel can cause, he calls a spade a spade.
He is telling it like it is because he knows that in the future the strength of the disciples’ faith in their Lord and the discipleship of the early Christians will be severely tested. It will mean that families will be divided – those who follow Christ and those who ignore and reject the hope and true peace that he is offering. He is giving his followers this warning now so that they will not be shocked when following Jesus will mean some very tough choices – and what can be tougher than choosing between loyalty to family and loyalty to Jesus.
Perhaps an illustration of this at this point would be helpful. Francis Bernardone was born at the end of 12th century. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant and had high hopes for his son. He became a knight in a war with a neighbouring province, and had a fabulous future in front of him. His father was proud of his son, but the problem was that Francis kept going to church and praying, asking God what he wanted him to do. Over time, he became convinced that God did not want him to be a dashing knight, but rather to be a follower of Christ, a genuine disciple. God wanted Francis to serve the poorest of the poor, and in those times there were a lot of very poor people.
Francis heard the scriptures say, “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor” and took this as a personal call. He sold all that he had and gave it to the poor. He even changed clothes with a beggar, and spent time begging in the streets of Rome.
But his father took exception to all this since Francis had given away everything that his father had given to him. He had no urge to take the Bible literally like his son. He threw Francis in jail, then took him to court. Francis of Assisi (as he became known) said, “No longer is Pietro Bernardone my father for, from now on, my father is in heaven.” We might admire Francis for his heroic and noble stand and his persistence to follow the call of the gospel in spite of the cost. But the pain is real and lasting. He experienced first hand the division that following Jesus can cause. Following Jesus sets father against son.
Francis of Assisi wasn’t the first to feel the harshness and difficulty that came with following Jesus, nor is he the last. There are some in this congregation who have experienced something of this pain as they have chosen to follow Christ even though their family is indifferent, sceptical or even opposed to their involvement in the church.
I recall a pastor, who had a school in his parish much like we do, recalling what he said to some parents who were enrolling their child, “Please understand that in sending your child to our school you might be putting him in a situation of tension. We don’t apologise for that because we make it clear what the school stands for as it strives to share the message of God’s love in Jesus. If you are in conflict with that, then your child will be put in a situation of conflict”. Tough words but true.
I wonder about us.
To what extent does being a Christian put you in a situation of tension, even conflict?
To what extent are you prepared to put yourself at risk, go out on a limb so to say, as a Christian?
To what extent are you prepared to stand up for what you believe, even though it means separation from others, or have we just blended in with those who clearly don’t have any time for Jesus or the church or with a society that lives and conducts business as if there was no God?
To what extent have we merged with the values and morals of our world so that being a Christian makes no difference what so ever?
To what extent have we shrunk back from the whole idea that being a Christian will often bring us into a state of tension with the rest of the world?
I wonder how much we have given in to the rest of the world. Let’s look at a couple of examples. This can be a touchy thing to talk about but here goes.
Once Sunday was a day dedicated to worship and rest. I remember as a kid not being allowed to start up a model aeroplane motor on a Sunday because it would disturb the peace and quiet of Sunday. You certainly wouldn’t mow your grass on Sunday, and the only sport played on Sunday was a not too rowdy Sunday afternoon cricket game on the back lawn. Maybe some of rules about what could and could not be done on a Sunday were more a reflection of the culture of the time, but it was like that to preserve the distinctiveness of the first day of the week.
The reality is this – the secular world has taken over Sunday.
Has it become this way because Christians have let it happen?
Have we blended in with the rest of the world so that Sunday is no longer a day of worship. We squeeze in a quick hour at church only if it fits in with the football team or the golf club, family picnic or holiday time?
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What would happen if every Christian in Australia together with one voice said “Sorry I can’t do that – that’s my time to worship God”? Would it make a difference?
Or what about this? Listening to some radio stations and watching some movies can be quite an education in filthy talk and gutter language. Some time ago we went to see a concert by the clever ventriloquist who is the voice of Teddy Bear. The man has a clever sense of humour, but the show was laced with what I would call unnecessary sexual references.
Why has this happened? Have we as Christians who are in the world but not of the world just shrugged our shoulders, given up, and just merged in with the world because it is easier to go along with everyone than be called a “Bible basher”, prudish, old fashioned or whatever?
What difference would there be if every Christian refused to fall in line with what the world offers? At the least, people would see that there is another way, a better way of speaking and a healthier way of being entertained or getting a few laughs.
Whatever you opinion on matters such as these, you can’t get around Jesus’ words today that his presence in our lives sets us apart, makes us different, causes us to be like a purifying fire.
Or are we prepared to just go along with everyone else, not rock the boat, just being comfortable and cosy?
When we are faced with choices which mean either following God’s way or the way of the world, is Jesus really the controlling factor in how we decide what we’re going to spend our money on, how we will use our time, the way we raise our children, what kind of language we use, whether we view sex as a special part of the marriage relationship or just something to be used for pleasure whenever we feel like it, and so on.
No doubt today’s text contains uncomfortable words. Cutting words. Words we are inclined to ignore as we stay with warmer sentiments and more harmonious thoughts. But Jesus said it, Matthew and Luke wrote it down it, and those who selected the readings for today included it.
Ernst Kasemann said that “Christians today have managed to reduce Jesus’ real hot message which promises to kindle fire throughout the world to room temperature.” We have tried to domesticate the Gospel and tame the Holy Spirit of God by reducing it to such a degree to make it acceptable and to fit in with our particular life style.
Jesus died for us. He died so that we are made fresh and clean, given a new life, a new way of living, a new relationship, a new rule of God in our hearts and minds. Jesus does mind if we try to tack our Christianity on to our old ways. The new life demands an end to the old – old loyalties, old ways of behaviour, old attitudes, in fact, everything that does not fit with the command of putting God and the needs of others before ourselves. Jesus calls for a division between faith and unfaith, good and evil, easy and hard. Jesus calls us to have a lifestyle that is opposed to that of the world. He calls us to let the light that came into our lives at our baptism shine into the dark places of our world where sin rules. Where there is light there can be no darkness.
These words of Jesus are a wake up call to his followers. The values and the way of life that the world is not the way Jesus has called us to. He has called us not simply to blend in but to stand against the sin that has taken control of the world. This stuff is outside our comfort zone, but it’s the raw truth.
There is only one way that we are able to do this. The Letter to the Hebrews gives us the answer, “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1,2).
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2004, Vince Gerhardy. Used by permission.