Today, Foley Park Methodist Church worshipped together with the Kidderminster West Team Ministry at Holy Innocents' Anglican Church. I preached and the Gospel reading was not exactly one that you might wish for at an ecumenical event: Luke 12:49-59.
There are strong Girardian overtones in this sermon. For Girard fans, it's a sermon and not a lecture on Girard; I'm not trying to set out Girard's anthropology, but I believe from the commentaries that it explains this reading well.
It was just about a year ago that I came to my first Sunday worship service at Holy Innocents. Just like today, it was a service for all the churches in the Kidderminster West team ministry and it was my first Sunday in Kidderminster after moving house. I wasn’t supposed to worship at Foley Park Methodist until the first Sunday in September and so I thought I’d come to worship here with my Anglican brothers and sisters.
In the year that has passed, I have got to know the people who attend the Wednesday morning communion services quite well. And I’ve been very pleased to find that both the members of the Kidderminster West Team Ministry and the members of Foley Park Methodist Church are eager to get to know each other better. I’m very keen on ecumenical cooperation and I hope that, as time grows on, our relationship will build and that we’ll be able to cooperate together in our Christian witness in this part of Kidderminster.
So I think it’s slightly ironic that as we worship together this morning in unity as Christian brothers and sisters that we are given a Gospel reading like the one we have this morning: ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’
At first glance, this seems like a rather jarring thing for Jesus to say, particularly in the Gospel of Luke where ‘peace’ is one of Luke’s central themes. Early in Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah proclaims that Jesus will guide humanity in the way of peace; the angels sing of the peace that the baby Jesus will bring; and the 72 are sent out in front of Jesus to proclaim peace to all they visit. The word ‘peace’ is used in Luke’s Gospel more times than in any of the other Gospels, yet apparently in today’s reading Jesus is now saying that he comes to bring division even amongst the closest of relations.
The Gospel reading this morning is an urgent call to repentance as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem to be crucified. Jesus, the Son of God, has come into the world and it is time for all of Luke’s readers – including us – to decide which direction they will take. Will we continue to walk in the direction away from the Kingdom of God or will we repent, turn to Christ and walk in God’s direction?
To choose repentance is to choose to be separated from what ‘the world’ holds to be true. To choose repentance is to choose God’s way and God’s Kingdom.
Peace is a Divisive Issue
What I’d like to suggest this morning is that ‘peace’ – God’s peace in God’s manner and in God’s Kingdom – is a divisive issue. I believe that division amongst people, including close family members is a consequence of Jesus’ call to the Kingdom of God, not the desired end-product.
Peace is a divisive issue because, in our sinful world, it’s not safe. God’s peace is particularly dangerous because he calls us not only to reconciliation with himself but also with other people.
What is safe in a sinful world is power. Specifically, in order to be safe, we need to be the person or the group who wields sufficient power to silence those who threaten us or disagree with us.
We can see very directly how this works at the national and international level. Human history consists of a long litany of wars: of one nation or society looking to conquer another. Historically, human society has not put its faith in peace through reconciliation but in the idea that if we can gain enough power over our enemies, we can keep them in perfect submission and thus ensure our own peace.
This was exactly the philosophy of the Roman Empire. It was prepared to be tolerant up to a point but ultimately, the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, rested on the might of the sword.
Of course, when it comes to relationships between individuals, power plays are a lot more subtle. Gone are the days when personal disputes were settled by battles and duels.
But often in our relationships we still jockey for the position of power. Sometimes we try to achieve the status of being the most successful, the most attractive or the most intelligent person in our peer group. ‘Peace’ is maintained as long as our friends don’t challenge our self-perception.
There are also times when we need to think that we are absolutely in the right and that others are absolutely in the wrong and we are therefore loathe to seek or grant reconciliation. The tenuous stability that results between people in this kind of situation is not what God means by peace. This is a stand-off. It’s a stand-off rooted in the ‘worldly’ belief that we hold so dear: that ultimately I will be proven right and will be vindicated, so I don’t need to seek reconciliation.
But time is short. Whenever we live and whoever we are, if we are human, the time that we have to share in relationship with other people and with God is short. The wisdom of the Kingdom of God cries out to us: what is more important to us, to be right, or to reconcile with those we love before it is too late?
The Way of the Cross
As I said earlier, in Luke’s Gospel, this teaching happens as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified.
In Jerusalem, Jesus will lay down his life willingly in order to reconcile us to God. For our sake, Jesus – God incarnate – did what we are incapable of doing: he put himself in a position of powerlessness for the sole purpose of achieving reconciliation with us. God became powerless and humble not because he was in the wrong but because there was no other way for humanity to be reconciled with God.
The self-sacrifice, humility and willing powerlessness of Jesus on the cross for our sake is the good news of the Gospel but it is also the scandal of the Gospel. Jesus Christ was vindicated not by gaining coercive power over his enemies but in laying down his life and, importantly, in rising from the dead.
This is a vindication – a declaration of Jesus’ Lordship – that the world does not and cannot recognise. In worldly terms, the resurrection is unbelievable and Jesus’ willing sacrifice on the cross is both dangerous and absurd.
‘Peace’ – God’s peace in God’s manner and in God’s Kingdom – is a divisive issue. The Gospel is a divisive issue. Reconciliation is, ironically, a divisive issue. The world believes that peace through reconciliation is a nice idea but one that ultimately does not work. The world believes that peace can only be won through power.
The world believes in the Peace of Rome but not the Peace of Christ.
In a few minutes, we will come together at the Lord’s Table. The celebration table of the Kingdom of God, a celebration that is physically present with us here and now.
My prayer is that, in coming together with our Lord and with each other, we will recognise our essential unity in the body of Christ and look for ways to cooperate and grow ever closer together. And I make my prayer in the name of Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord. Amen