Why does Jesus sound so stressed, strident, divisive? (Luke 12:49-56) Jesus saying that he hasn’t come to bring peace, but instead, division, is really strange. Jesus saying that households would be divided father against son, mother against daughter, confuses us. Why does Jesus say this? Why this upsetting image of conflict and division?
It seems so out of character for Jesus who we’ve come to value and cherish and see so often in the Gospels as a reconciling, healing, forgiving person in the world. It’s hard to accept that Jesus, or his Church, would be anything but a peaceful, reconciling force.
Biblical scholars and preachers alike have said that these eight verses are the toughest in Luke’s Gospel. No doubt. To any outside observer, these verses can be very off-putting, offensive, confirming in them the worst that religion can be.
One of the questions you had for our summer’s “Wrestling with Big Questions” preaching series was: How do we come to faith? How does anyone “catch” faith? How do we find ourselves happily in a certain church, a certain faith, a certain denominational brand of Christianity, and more generally, Christianity itself?
Let me share with you, in my reading, I came upon the story of Alvin, who was fifteen years old, wandering the city streets of Durham, North Carolina, homeless and rootless.
Then he met Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a pastor, author and speaker, and also a member of what we might call a “House Church” – an intentional community of family and friends living together in one house, eating, praying, worshipping and studying scripture together, in a kind of “monastic-type” community, one might say.
As Alvin and Jonathan began to hang out together, Jonathan learned of Alvin’s difficult and troubled background.
Alvin’s father had killed his mother when Alvin was only five years old.
Alvin said: “If there is a God, I don’t like him.”
One day, Alvin came to Jonathan’s “House Church” with a sharp pain in his side. They rushed him to the emergency, where Alvin had his appendix removed.
After Alvin was discharged, Alvin came back to Jonathan’s “House Church” to recover. For a teenager who was used to fending for himself, to stay put in a stable home was very different.
They invited Alvin to stay and be part of the community.
Alvin, at first, was very cautious and uncertain and didn’t know what to think about the fact that everyone gathered to pray first thing in the morning, and again at night.
“Do I have to come to the prayer time?” Alvin asked.
“No,” everyone said. “We pray because we want to spend time with God. No one has to come.”
For the next two years, even though he lived in the same house with everyone else, Alvin avoided those prayer times like the plague.
Nevertheless, the community embraced Alvin, despite his religious aversions.
They were there for his high school graduation.
They supported him financially to go to college.
One week, in a course studying the African-American experience, Alvin was reading about Martin Luther King. And Alvin called home to say to Jonathan: “You know, I think I’m starting to understand what ya’ll are about.”
The community continued to walk with Alvin, navigating with him the twists and turns of life.
Then, after helping him through a particularly difficult and expensive bout with dental trouble, Alvin said this to Jonathan: “I still don’t like God, but I’m starting to like Christians.”
And Alvin’s spiritual journey continues.
This little snippet of Alvin’s story can tell us a lot about what “coming to faith” is all about.
For one thing, it’s not about having to be “perfect” before you start the journey to faith. And it’s hard for us to accept this because we already live in, and are already so imbued in such a perfectionistic, competitive culture, where we’re already pressured so much, in our work place, in our educational system to do more, to be more, to produce more.
But as the spiritual and Biblical wisdom tradition has said, “the pathway to being a saint, is never about “doing better”, or “being better”; rather it’s about being yourself, being more who you really are, letting your uniqueness shine out fully and gloriously.
Like all of us, Alvin was many good things, but he wasn’t perfect.
Our common reality of imperfection, however, doesn’t, nor should it, keep us from God, and embarking on the spiritual journey. It certainly doesn’t stop God. In fact, those places of pain and struggle are precisely where God first nudges us, prompts us, draws us out and forward to grow toward the vision of God’s loving presence.
Alvin’s story also tells us that coming to faith takes time, and is really a life-long process, a journey, a long term experience of gradually awakening to, a gradual coming to awareness of, a loving, divine presence. There are twists and turns, disappointments and setbacks, but we keep our focus and vision on Jesus, who modelled the deep love of God.
That’s why the author of the Hebrews puts it in the context of a road, a journey, a race, of “running with perseverance the race set before us, and always holding the vision of Jesus before us, Jesus the focus and goal of our lives, Jesus the “pioneer and perfecter” of our faith.
The only Being that is completely and fully “perfect” is God. And, as the scriptures tell us, and as the life of Jesus reveals, God is perfect in God’s love; God’s limitless, boundless, all-inclusive love for all people, with no boundaries, no distinctions, no favourites.
And so, God wants us to use our lives to grow toward this vision of becoming “perfect” in loving; loving ourselves, others, and God.
But in the meantime, we need to be patient with our own, and others’ imperfection as we journey along the way.
That’s partly why I think Jesus says what he does in today’s Gospel passage; about the conflict, division and trouble in families – all imperfections to be sure.
Jesus is describing the inescapable reality of our imperfect lives, with difficult relationships – something we all simply need to accept and deal with. Jesus is giving his listeners a “reality check”, maybe bursting their bubble they may’ve had of themselves as being some “perfect”, “having-it-all-together”, having-arrived”, exceptional, superior beings.
All the more reason, then, that we need, through prayer, worship, and the support of a loving, patient community – as Alvin himself discovered – to open our hearts to God’s healing, transformative love, a love that slowly but surely, changes us from the inside-out.
And as author Annie Dillard will say, these “God-moments” come as a total, unexpected surprise, a gift. These fantastic, grace-filled moments where we’re, even for a moment, flooded with assurance, love, courage and peace – these moments we can’t force or manufacture on our own.
Just as we can’t force or cause sunlight to shine on us; it just does, we just need to step out of the shadows, and put ourselves into the path of its beam – so too, we need to acknowledge that the goodness and grace of God, is already there, everywhere shining on us; we just need to turn into it, let its light shine on us, and receive it as pure gift.
The present moment, the here-and-now, as Dillard would say, is just full and pregnant with God’s grace and goodness; again, just like stream of water, constantly flowing toward us as we stand in its path; so too we receive the future as it comes to us – because the future is coming – and we receive it as pure gift from God.
As she says, “You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled…”
“Coming to faith” is waiting for God, who will most certainly show up, and fill our hearts. And so we wait, together, in prayer, meditation, worship, and caring community, accepting our imperfections, but always having the vision of Jesus ahead of us, as the focus and goal of our lives.