Proper 15, Year C, 2013, All Saints’ (Click here for readings)
Two men were comparing mother-in-laws of all things. One said, “My mother-in-law is an angel!” The other said, “You're lucky! Mine is still alive.” I know this joke might seem a little harsh, but I think a little humor is called for after we are confronted with these difficult words from Jesus this morning.
In case you forgot, today we hear Jesus say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided…father against son and son against father…” and the list goes on. These are "fightin’ words" from our Good Shepherd who takes children in his arms.
To help put all this into context let me tell you of one of the greatest stories ever told. A young man decided that he was tired of living on his father’s farm and wanted to see the city lights. So the young man asked his father for a lump sum settlement. The father watched his boy set off into the sunset wondering if he would ever see him again.
The young man played one too many games at the black jack table and eventually lost it all. Oh how he wished he was back on his father’s farm. He thought, “even my father’s livestock get the scraps from the table, and I have nothing.” The young man swallowed his pride and thought that if he could bargain with his father then he would be welcomed home.
To the young man’s surprise his father was waiting for him with open arms when he arrived back on the farm. The father ordered a great celebration, for one who was lost has been found. Meanwhile, the older son who did everything right hid in the corner murmuring curses on his father and young brother. “Why should he get a party, I am the one who stayed behind and worked my finger to the bone?” the older son complained to this father.
By now you know this is the story of the Prodigal Son. As Glenda mentioned last week, the meaning of parables are found in the twist. And the twist in this story is that the older brother complained to his father. He complained that he was the one who should have received a party—not the younger son who wasted his inheritance on loose living.
This twist helps shed some more light on today’s Gospel lesson. In this case, the twist is found in God’s ultimate favor for those who were lost and are found. This new way of looking at things doesn’t sit well with the older brother who did everything according to the book. We get an idea from the story of the Prodigal Son that in order for God’s ultimate plan of reconciliation to be accomplished there will be a reordering of how things are supposed to be and that reordering might cause division. Ultimately, the end of this story about God’s plan for reconciliation puts father against son and son against father.
The Jesus we get this morning certainly doesn’t conjure up images of the Good Shepherd. This doesn’t seem like the Jesus that would gather children in his arms. This Jesus looks more like the Jesus we get in Revelation. This Jesus is on fire. The words that come out of his mouth look like a double edged sword.
Where is the grace you might ask? As one of my professors always said, there is always grace.
I spent most of this year leading a Bible study on the Book of Revelation. Even if you haven’t read the book, you might already know that the Jesus we get in that book kind of looks like the Jesus we get today. Many disregard Revelation because it seems to be devoid of grace. But the very last line in this book, the last line in all of scripture says, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” All of scripture, including the book of Revelation, hang on the grace of God. How wonderful!
I say this to remind you (and myself) that we can’t separate God’s mercy and God’s judgment into different categories. We can’t disregard Jesus’ hard sayings and only seek out the ones that make us feel comfortable. God’s grace depends on Jesus’ words of mercy and Jesus’ words of judgment—both of which are executed on the cross. If we want to experience the fullness of God’s grace, we need to follow the Jesus who comforts us and the Jesus who afflicts us.
Someone recently reminded me that we must remember that behind Jesus’ strong word of judgment is an equally strong word about God’s mercy and forgiveness. We play this out every Sunday with the confession of our sins. Our confession is then followed by an absolution, followed by the assurance that the judgment that should be ours has been reconciled through Jesus our only mediator and advocate. This is grace. How can we know grace if we don’t know how serious our sin is?
In today’s passage, Jesus is reminding us of how serious our sin is by exposing our divisions. Jesus isn’t creating new divisions. I don’t think we need any help from Jesus to set mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. Apparently, father-in-laws and son-in-laws get along just fine. Anyway, we know that ultimately Jesus came to bring unity and oneness. But before Jesus can get to unity, he must point out the divisions that already exist, he must endure the cross. Jesus has to deal with our division before he can show us the hope of reconciliation.
Like the metaphor I used in my Bible study, think of spring cleaning. You have to create a little chaos around the house in order to really clean it. On some level you have to pass judgment on how messy your house is and identify where it is dirty. Eventually, you will have to move the refrigerator away from the wall in order to get to all the dirt and sin that has collected under it. It won’t do just to go on pretending the dirt isn’t there because eventually you will have to deal with what is under the refrigerator. As it is in life, any unresolved issues will eventually show their ugly head especially during times of transition (birth, marriage, death).
This little metaphor speaks to what Jesus is talking about with the baptism of fire. This baptism of fire isn’t like the fire that James and John want to rain down upon the Samaritans. The baptism of fire that Jesus is talking about is a fire that means to purify, it is a fire that means to clean house. This baptism of fire marks a transition in our world, a transition where the kingdom of God draws near, a transition where God’s ultimate plan for reconciliation shapes up. Ultimately, Jesus’ baptism of fire means death for the old way of doing things and birth to something new.
And this something new is the kingdom of God. Jesus keeps on saying that the kingdom of God is drawing near but is frustrated that the disciples can't seem to see the signs. Jesus says, “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" Jesus says this in response to the disciples demands to know when the kingdom of God will come.
Today, Jesus basically tells his disciples that when the kingdom of God draws near division will inevitably happen. Division will happen because Jesus’ kingdom seeks to reorder things. And we all know what happens when we look at things in a new way.
Jesus’ reorders things because Jesus’ kingdom does not look like the kingdoms of this world. Jesus’ kingdom does not look like the city of Babel where the people tried to build their way to heaven with things and wealth, where the people served their own glory instead of the glory of God. God’s kingdom is different. The peace that Jesus is bringing is not from his world.
The peace that Jesus is bringing happens when those who want to become greatest of all must become servant to all. The peace that God is bringing is executed through grace and mercy and not through the justification of our actions. After all, it was the sinner who repented that went away justified not the Pharisee who said, “thank God I am not like them!” This is also something the older brother did not understand.
And the kingdom of God is certainly not about kicking our problems underneath the refrigerator, it’s not about covering up our sins with excuses. Peace isn’t really peace at all when we try to kick injustice and hatred and division down the road for another time—for the kingdom of God is near.
Before our division and separation can be dealt with properly, it must be brought to light, it must be confessed. The sin of this world, our sin, must be brought out into the open and given room to be redeemed by our Good Shepherd whose property is always to have mercy.
We can’t put off living in God’s world any longer because the kingdom of God is near. It is time to start living into God’s kingdom today. In God’s new world there is no room for division, only peace and unity. Living more fully in God’s kingdom might cause disruption to your lives. Living in a world that depends on mercy and humble service to others might even cause division among those you love. But then and only then will you experience the peace of God which passes all understanding.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.