August 14, 2016 – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Ordinary 20C; Proper 15

Well, perhaps Jesus is right around the corner because, according to this Luke text, he has come to bring division.

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

The word “division” in verse 51 is found only here in the New Testament and the definition of this Greek word is “division into partisan and contentious units.” How’s that for timely? Does this reality conjure up hope or add to an already discouraging election news cycle?

What does it mean that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the one who says in John’s Gospel, “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you” is in Luke’s gospel saying, “Peace? You think I come to bring peace? Hardly, my presence will be so contentious even family members will be at odds.”

That Talking Heads song “Life During War Time” keeps running through my head when I read these verses from Luke. “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco.” This is a the-sky-really-is-falling and the-end-is-not-near-it-is-here kind of moment. What are you going to do? How are you going to respond?

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, let’s not forget. He is anguished. The verbs are intense. The images vivid. Baptism in this context is not a sweet sprinkling; it is, according to Danker and Bauer’s lexicon, “an extraordinary experience akin to an initiatory purification rite – a plunge.” Fire also evokes purification, forged in the fire, dross burned away. It alludes to the Spirit and the Spirit doesn’t come without major upheaval and disruption. Jesus is distressed, compressed, seized, under attack and tormented. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no I enjoyed the sermon and the anthem was lovely and I wonder where we’ll have lunch today kind of Sunday.

In “Teaching a Stone to Talk” Annie Dillard writes about worship, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

This is a crash-helmet-and-life-preserver-wearing Sunday, and if you preach it plain it may cause some division where you are, too. It is decision time and we Presbyterian are a little uncomfortable with that language. It smacks of an altar call and we have neither altar nor call. It has loud echoes of “Are you saved?” language, and we elect know that, according to question 49 of the Study Catechism, “The limits of salvation, whatever they are, are known only to God.” We blithely respond to that naïve question with, “I was saved 2,000 years ago.” Now, excuse us, we need to beat the Baptists to the Sunday brunch buffet.

And all of that is well and good and important Reformed theology. We don’t save ourselves. Our works don’t save us. God acts and we respond. However, sometimes we emphasize the “God acts” part to the exclusion of our required response. We get lulled into images of a gentle Jesus with a lamb nuzzled to his cheek – forgetting the compressed, distressed, anguished Jesus of this text. The Jesus who commands that those who want to save their lives must lose them. The Jesus who tells us to take up the cross and follow. The Jesus who demands that we make a choice to follow him no matter the cost: friends, family, possessions, our lives. Such unequivocal loyalty always causes contentious divisions, and if we aren’t experiencing some, then perhaps we aren’t going where Jesus is headed.

A decision to follow by faith means going through the Red Sea, heading toward the unknown. It is the kind of commitment that stresses and compresses, causes anguish and trials by fire as one is forced into lions’ dens, prisons and potential persecution. It requires speaking truth to power and siding with the oppressed. The baptism into which we are baptized is no gentle sponge bath, it is a plunge into death in order to be raised to new life – and sometimes those three days in between seem endless.

God most certainly acts first and foremost, sending Jesus Christ to save the world. This text demands that we make a response to God’s earthshattering action, recognizing that discipleship involves deep waters, painfully purifying fire and siding with Jesus even at the cost of dissension with those closest to us.

This ain’t no fooling around.

The question that follows is this: What has our decision to follow Jesus Christ cost us? The word “sacrifice” has been batted back and forth a lot in recent days. What is it? Who can claim to have made it? If our discipleship doesn’t cause us any stress or consternation or even cognitive dissonance, then perhaps we are misinterpreting the present time. Have we sacrificed nothing for the One who poured Himself out completely for our sake?

A few Saturdays ago I was home, working on a sermon, actually. It was late morning and I was closing in on finishing my work. A few hours of free time were just on the horizon. The doorbell rang. This was odd for a number of reasons. Reason number one is that we recently moved and subsequently we know very few people. I could think of no one who would just pop by for a cup of coffee. The second reason is that our new home is, well, to quote my daughter, “really in the boonies.” No one would simply happen by our place. Reason number three is the fact that it was hot, oppressively hot, not the kind of weather that would have gutter or security system sales people out looking for business. Nonetheless, the doorbell rang.

My dogs went nuts and given that they aren’t known to “sit” or “stay” at my command, I decided it was best if I corralled them before answering the door. It took a while. They don’t come when I call.

Eventually, I answered the door. There were two women standing on my front porch. One young and one quite elderly. The elderly woman was markedly bent over and leaning on a cane. They were both sweating. The young woman stood slightly behind the older one. I greeted them and the bent over woman handed me a pamphlet for an upcoming worship service. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The woman invited me to the event, told me it was free and assured me that no offering would be taken. I thanked them and admonished them to be careful due to the excessive heat.

The younger one helped the older one down my front stairs and they got into an old beater car and backed out of my driveway.

While I had no intention of going to the worship service, I couldn’t bring myself to throw the flyer away. I was struck by the level of commitment that the trifold, colored paper demonstrated. A commitment that compelled people to drive a less-than-reliable looking car into a sparsely populated area on a dangerously hot Saturday morning and slowly, painfully knock on strangers’ doors and wait until not very interested people finally answered or not.

It seemed to me an undertaking of faith and it made me wonder: What has my decision to follow Jesus Christ cost me? How have I sensed Jesus’ Kingdom at hand and done something as a result? It made me wonder as I sat in the comfort of my air conditioned home and finished writing my sermon: Am I a hypocrite?

This week:

  1. How are we called to interpret the present time? Are there signs of Jesus’ present and coming Kingdom that we are missing? How do we know?
  2. How do we balance the Reformed emphasis on God’s prevenient grace with our need to respond to it? When do we publicly profess our faith and commitment to Jesus Christ? What difference do those public professions make in our daily living?
  3. There is an urgency in this Luke passage. When have you felt an urgent need to make a decision to follow Jesus?
  4. Have there been times when your faith has put you at odds with others? Have there been occasions when your faith has caused a division within your own family?
  5. In her book, “Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary,” Gail Ramshaw writes, “All references to fire should recall for Christians both the fire kindled at the Easter Vigil and the fires on the community at Pentecost. The flames symbolize the resurrection of death to life and the transformation of the community by the Spirit of the resurrection.” How does Ramshaw’s quote help us interpret this text from Luke?
  6. Why does Jesus say he does not come to bring peace to earth? It seems to contradict many other parts of Scripture. Is there a difference between the peace Christ brings and a false peace that we too often embrace?


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