Arguing over Weather

Luke 12:49-56

 

I have a confession to make: Today’s Gospel bothers me.

Jesus asks, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

And I think, “Really?  Division?  This was your mission, Jesus?”

This passage bothers me because in my heart, at my core, I don’t like division.

I come home from a day at the office, tired from mentally wrestling all day with difficult passages like this one, glad to see my family, to kick my shoes off, enjoy a sumptuous dinner and a glass of wine, maybe play a little Wii with the kids, and otherwise relax.

But no sooner do I walk through the door than a heated argument breaks out between two of the kids in the other room.  Now, abruptly, my plans are forced to change.  Now I must make a choice.  Do I intervene, engage this argument head on, act as mediator?  Or do I stick my fingers in my ears, walk into another room and close the door behind me, and hope that the kids will work it out themselves?  Either way—whether I choose to fight or flee—division has dashed my hopes for an evening of peace and tranquility.

I’ll say it again: I don’t like division.

It’s part of the reason I’m an Episcopalian today, you know.  Yeah!  I desire unity in the church, not division.  So, once upon a time on this journey I call my Christian story, I was a part of a small Presbyterian church.  Mind you, this wasn’t a mainline denomination, but one of those second- or third-degree offshoots, a break-off of a break-off.  So, every Sunday as a congregation we said the Nicene Creed together.  And every Sunday I found myself confronted by the words, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  And, looking from side to side at this gathering of maybe twenty-five people, I would ask, “We do?”

Since I don’t like division, this weekly confession of my faith got me thinking: Why has there been so much division in the history of the church?

I looked up the history of this particular denomination.  And—wouldn’t you know?—it was only a few years old!  Apparently it had started because a group of Presbyterians convinced themselves that church congregations needed to be independent and autonomous; or, in other words, a group of Presbyterians convinced themselves that Baptist polity was right and true.

“So,” I asked some of the church leaders, “why didn’t this group just go and join a local Baptist congregation?”

“Well,” they answered, “that’s because we believe that baptism is a sacrament, not an ordinance.  Baptists call it an ordinance, Tim.  Didn’t you know?  Besides, baptism’s for babies as well as professing adults.  This is simply the credo– versus paedobaptist controversy, Tim.  Don’t you know anything?  We’re paedobaptists.  Baptists are credobaptists.”

“Oh,” I said, “I see.”  But I didn’t really.

“So,” I asked, “why didn’t they join a group of modern-day Congregationalists?  They baptize babies, don’t they?”

The church leaders were again ready with an answer.  “Well,” they said, “Congregationalists allow women to be elders; and we all know,” they said, “that there’s no place in Scripture for that.”

At this point I had a choice.  Should I engage this argument further?  Or should I stick my fingers in my ears, walk into the other room and shut the door behind me, and hope that the kids would work it out themselves?

Point is, I wanted to be a part of a church that was much more unified than this—in spite of whatever internal divisions may exist.  This pretty much ruled out for me any denomination that began because of the Protestant Reformation.  That left, in my thinking, Roman Catholicism, the Anglican tradition, Orthodoxy, and not much else.

With four kids (at the time) and a sense of call to the priesthood, that pretty much ruled out Roman Catholicism.  And, to be honest, I don’t know much about Orthodoxy.  So here I am: an Episcopal priest, in no small part because I desire unity in the church, not division.

Yet right here, today, we read that Christ came to bring division.  Because of Christ, mother and daughter will be divided.  Father and son will be divided.  And, I could add, Presbyterian and Baptist will be divided.  Brother and sister, vestry member and parishioner, Democrat and Republican, progressive and conservative, Fox News and CNN—will be divided!

But I don’t like division!  Perhaps you don’t either.  What gives?  Could this really be Christ’s mission, to bring division to the earth, not peace?

So much of what Jesus says and does elsewhere in the Scriptures seems to conflict with this passage!  His overarching message has to do with love, after all.  And didn’t he model this message by eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, with lepers and outcasts?  This was Jesus’s mission, this is why he came: love!  John’s Gospel says so: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

True then: Jesus’s mission was love.  Christ’s mission today is love.  The church’s mission has been and will continue to be love.  It is a love for humanity; it is a love that forgives and seeks forgiveness in all people; it is a love whose end is to reconcile a fallen universe to God.

But why should such a mission—a mission of such radical love—not yield division?

This question is especially good to consider in light of what follows.  “You hypocrites!” Jesus says.  “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky”—you know how to predict the weather—“but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Jesus came into the world at a time when religious leaders abided by a very strict set of principles.  They would not help a man, for instance, who lay in the gutter half-dead, the victim of a robbery.  They would pray long and loud prayers in the streets in order to be heard by crowds and have their names lifted up as spiritual leaders.  They would take the places of honor at banquet tables.  They would find it morally repulsive to be in the same room with a woman of questionable reputation.  They would bribe someone with thirty pieces of silver to betray a close friend.

These religious leaders did not know how to interpret the present time.  They did not know that Jesus was the Christ, sent by God the Father to reconcile a fallen world.  They did not know that Christ had come to seek and save the lost; or that it was the sick who need a doctor, not the well.

It is no wonder then that Jesus and his mission yielded division.  He poured forth the love of God upon a weary and miserable, yet pitiable world.  Yet the religious leaders of his day saw no sense in pitying it.  They did not know how to interpret the present time.  Rather than focusing on the mission of God they focused on differences, how they were right—they just knew it—when this Jesus guy was so wrong.  He offered sacraments to the forlorn people; whereas they maintained there were no such things, only ordinances.

Division resulted, sure!  But the religious leaders of Jesus’s day allowed themselves to become distracted by the division and therefore could not interpret the present time.  As it were, they argued about the weather instead.

The mission of Christ will yield division, no question.  We should expect it from such a radical mission, certainly.  But above this distraction God sent his only Son to reconcile a fallen universe to himself.  This is our ultimate mission statement.  This is the business of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.  Our ultimate goal then is a sort of unified whole, not division.

Nevertheless, much division has, does, and will continue to happen along the way—in society, between faiths, among the Christian faith, within the Episcopal Church, in our parish, even in our individual families.  Do not become distracted by it!  Keep your eye on the goal: spread the Good News to the ends of the earth.  Then you will not be hypocrites.  Then you will be able to interpret both the weather and the present time.

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