August 14, 2022
There is something very off-putting about Jesus’ words this morning. We’re very used to the idea of a loving, accepting Jesus who brings people together, right? We hear his prayer in John’s gospel, “that they may all be one,” and nod our heads in agreement. Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the world who rescues us from its brokenness, is a guy who’s supposed to bring us together. He’s supposed to be the one who invites us to just love one another, set aside differences, and work toward the common goal of the kingdom.
But then here he is in our gospel reading, in what seems to be a rebuke of that idea. “You think I’ve come to bring peace? No! I’ve come to bring a sword that will divide families!” Uffda, right? I don’t want Jesus telling me that my very household is going to be divided. As a congregation, we don’t want to hear Jesus talking about his word causing rifts. As a nation already experiencing awful division with bad feelings on both sides, we don’t want Jesus to tell us that division is what happens when his word is spoken. So how do we understand what Jesus is saying here?
What if, when Jesus tells us that he has come to bring division, we didn’t see it as a bad thing? I know we’re geared toward wanting everyone to agree and get along, but how could division not necessarily be a bad thing on its own? After all, when the Truth is revealed, there will be people who push back against it, right? Jesus’ words of justice, kingdom-building hope, and a new way of living got him on the wrong side of the authorities after all; that was a division. So maybe when Jesus tells us that he comes to bring division, we look at why there is division, and how that serves God’s purposes.
Just listen to his question: “do you think that I have come to bring peace?” Well, what do we think of when we hear “peace?” Good things, I think. We think of goodness thriving, people getting along, a lack of arguments, that kind of thing. But there was a phrase in Jesus’ day that spoke of peace too: Pax Romana. It was a kind of peace, but Jesus had a problem with that kind of peace. It was a peace that only happened because Rome did not allow any variety of opinion on how things should be done. If you stepped out of line, you were eliminated. Peace was maintained through silencing any difference of opinion. That doesn’t sound like the kind of peace that leads to wholeness, right? That doesn’t sound like the kind of peace Jesus brings.
But the flip side is that if we don’t silence dissent in the name of peace, then those disagreements will happen. If people are allowed to disagree on important things, there will be divisions based on those important things. Nothing of importance has 100% agreement, ever. It’s true of marriages, friendships, communities, nations, and churches. It’s why denominations mushroomed in the years after the Reformation began—once disagreement was allowed, it grew. The thing that Jesus invites us to, then, is what to do when division rears its head. What happens when a household is divided over the truth of God’s kingdom? How do we as a church answer the important questions of how we share God’s grace with others when we don’t all agree on what that looks like?
“You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky.”
In short, Jesus says, pay attention. Pay attention to each other. Pay attention to what is behind our positions in a disagreement. Listen to one another. A household can be divided in opinion but it’s what it does with that division, that disagreement, that matters. If we let disagreement deepen our divisions, and choose the way of pride that refuses to listen and interpret the signs of the other side, then division is a bad thing. But if we enter into division humbly, paying attention to one another, reading the signs and believing that the Spirit is saying something through each of us in the midst of our division—well, then suddenly division is a path to discerning God’s will and desire for us.
The Spirit gives a piece of the Truth to each of us, and where we run into trouble is when we desire the enforced peace of Pax Romana, stifling any disagreement and expecting everyone to conform to the way things are rather than opening ourselves up to division that reveals more of the truth in each of us. When we listen instead, when we trust that the Spirit wants us to turn to each other to find the Truth, then we learn to see division as a path to discernment. We see difference of opinion as an opportunity to become more like the people God wants us to be. We shouldn’t be under the impression that the Great Cloud of Witnesses was always of one united opinion on how God was calling the Church to act in the world.
Because the first-century Church was divided over whether to include Gentiles without requiring that they follow Jewish customs and laws first, until they listened to each other and discerned that the Spirit was widening the scope of salvation.
Because nineteenth century Christians were divided over whether slavery could be reconciled with Christianity, until discernment showed that dehumanizing others is incompatible with Christian virtue.
Because the church was divided over whether women should be allowed to preach and preside as ordained ministers, until by discernment we discovered that God calls who God will call, regardless of who we say can and cannot proclaim the gospel.
Because the church continues to have disagreements and divisions, whether it’s ordination of LGBTQ clergy, or if our ministry should be focused more on global missions or needs closer to home, or how the Church is called to respond to the call for justice for the Black community, or how teaching our young people about the love of Jesus should look, or any number of deeply important questions, and it’s only by wrestling with them and the divisions they cause with honesty and humility that we can come to understand where God is calling us.
So let’s not be afraid of something causing “division.” More often than not, it’s something very important and something that can reveal more of God’s truth to us. So listen when there is division. Pay attention to the signs and approach disagreement with humility. Look at those on the other side of the division with love, even if you don’t like them. Trust that God is at work in it, even when division and disagreement are uncomfortable. When we love and trust Jesus and we lean on him to guide us through times of division, he through the Spirit will help us see the signs. Let’s let division lead to discernment of God’s will.
Thanks be to God. Amen.