Prince of Peace?

By Rev Margaret Middleton

Luke 12:49-56; Heb 12:1-13

The Gospel of Luke begins with the proclamation that Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” At Jesus’s birth, an angelic choir sings “Peace on earth!” On numerous occasions during his ministry, Jesus offers words of peace: “Go in peace and sin no more.” “Peace I leave with you.” “My peace I give you.” “I have told you these things, so that in me you might have peace.”

The majority of us assume that ours is a religion of peace – of peace-making, peace-loving, and peace-keeping.

What then are we to make of Jesus’s startling words in this week’s Gospel? “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he asks his followers. “No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus cries as he makes his way towards Jerusalem and death.

Jesus himself and many of his disciples knew first-hand what it meant to be separated from family – mother, father, sister and brother for the sake of the gospel. His immediate family thought he was crazy! Many of his first disciples had left family to be with him at great personal cost. Later followers were physically separated from their synagogues, their churches and their families in the name of Christ. The lectionary reading from Hebrews talks of “a great cloud of witnesses” describing in gruesome detail what happened to many of the first believers for the sake of the gospel of peace!

So our reading compels us to move beyond “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship. The words are not prescriptive but they do describe in no uncertain terms what may happen in our families, our communities, our churches, and our world if we allow the “fire” of God’s word to burn in and through us. These words challenge us. If feel-good, peace-at all cost religion is the comfort zone we refuse to leave, then we have forgotten that shalom, the peace of God, is about so much more than good feelings.

Consider this story. Before I begin though, let me add a word of caution. This story may cause discomfort. If it affects you and you need to leave, please do so or come and see me after the service.

Daniel is a young man who had it all. He and his wife had highly paid executive jobs, a young family and a comfortable life style. He treasured his birth family. His mother and father, his sister and two brothers. The family had always been highly respected in the community and their church – his father a doctor and his mother in a highly paid public servant.

Even as a child and teenager, Daniel had never done anything to tarnish the good name of his family. Unlike his brothers, he had never done anything to cause his parents grief.

Following the sudden death of his father two years earlier, Daniel began to feel uneasy. The family supported one another, but for Daniel everything had changed. After his father’s death he took a long hard look at his own life. Deep down, he came to realize that he really wasn’t a happy person. It seemed now that all the happiness in his life was mostly a surface thing. Happiness was keeping up family appearances. It dawned on him that in fact he had never been happy, even in his childhood. His life had become a long string of apparent successes but he lacked the one thing that he now knew he needed the most: he needed to know deep down that he was loved. Not for what he had achieved but for who he was.

As he began to share some of his unhappiness with other family members, they cut him off. It was as if they couldn’t handle what he had to say. Daniel wasn’t trying to blame anyone; he was simply trying to share his unhappiness. But it seemed to them that he was threatening to burst their bubble of the one big, happy family.

His mother reacted most strongly. “Rubbish!” she said. “My children have always had everything they needed.’ And then change the subject. His brothers were pretty much the same way. So now Daniel had an added unhappiness. He was beginning to feel more distant from his own family. Truth telling seemed to only bring division.

One day he had the chance to talk to his sister Cheryl who had always seemed to be on the edge of the family. She had never been as regular at family events as her other siblings; she even lived farther away. No one ever asked why.

So much to Daniel’s surprise, when he began to share his feelings with her over the phone, he found a listening, sympathetic ear. As they talked Cheryl began to share her own pain with Daniel. When she had been in 6th grade, their family had hosted an exchange student for a year. During the year, this student had repeatedly raped her. She had tried to tell her mother but her mother wouldn’t listen. So she had kept this terrible secret all these years, not daring to risk bursting the perfect family happiness-bubble.

So it was that for Daniel and Cheryl, in sharing their suffering, they truly became brother and sister sharing their pain and joy. The truth they had tried to share with their mother and brothers, which now divided them, was the same truth that brought the two of them great healing and brought them closer together than ever before. Together they found hope. They were no longer divided within themselves but the family was.

Jesus calls to us: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…”

How many families today have similar experiences to Daniel? I think if we were to speak to Christians in the LBGTI community for example, there would be a great many who have experienced estrangement from their families in the name of Christ. This same pain is dividing many congregations and churches. Within our own denomination, a very large number of congregations in the UCA will not, in the name of Christ, support same gender marriage or same gender relationships. The truth that all are in God’s family, all are sisters and brothers does not always bring peace.

Christians in Hong King are finding themselves in a very conflicted situation. Some months ago, a group of young people, mostly Christian, began to protest against the pending law change which would see dissidents extradited to mainland China for questioning and possible trial. Fearing the danger to religious freedom and democratic rule, they took to the streets seeking justice.

Rather than reacting violently, when confronted by police, they sang the song “Sing alleluia to the Lord.” At first the protesters were small in number and successful in their non-violent approach. It is a different story now. Huge numbers of people are involved and not all have same idea of peaceful protest. The division within families and across the community brought about by the fire of these young people cannot be imagined in our safe space here in Canberra.

There are many examples around us of how the fire of the gospel is expressed in various ways bringing division and unrest. Think of the climate change issue which will in Australia bring many people onto the streets again after the recent meeting of Pacifica leaders and the failure of our Prime Minister to come to an agreement.

“But we want peace, Jesus, not division. We want the peace you said you came to bring.”

People listening to Jesus at the time hoped he would bring a united country under the Messiah King. That they would be one family under God. But that is not how he understood his mission. He came to bring division. His words constantly challenged people to rethink how they viewed one another. In fact, Jesus forced choices from just about everyone he met during his ministry. He consistently brought people to the point of tension, movement or transformation. So, I ask myself when was the last time my faith divided me about something? I ask myself: What motivates me?

The peace of God, God’s Shalom, is not victory at any cost, not absence from violence or noise or commotion. It is not ignoring the pain of another. It is peace that comes at a price and that price may well be division even in the most sacrosanct places of all – the family – as Daniel and his sister discovered.

Scripture offers us many beautiful names for Jesus. Son of God. Son of Man. Emmanuel. Logos. Word. Christ. Dare we add another? Jesus, the Disturber of Peace?

What would it be like to experience the peace that costs, the peace that breaks, the peace that saves? Jesus will indeed guide our feet into the way of peace – if we’ll let him. May it be so.

Sources Paul J. Nuechterlein, delivered at Emmaus Lutheran, Racine, WI, September 2-3, 1995 Debie Thomas, Disturbing the Peace “Hong Kong Christians turn ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord’ into unlikely protest anthem. Nathan Nettleton, Laughingbird Liturgies, What if Jesus is to Blame (Proper 15)

Photo of Rev Margaret Middleton

Written by Rev Margaret Middleton

The Rev Margaret Middleton is a retired Uniting Church minister. She occasionally provides supply ministry in the wider church but leads worship in TUC regularly. 

Margaret also supports our work by leading several groups of people seeking to grow and deepen their faith. She is a member of the Karralika outreach team and is a member of the Presbytery Pastoral Relations Committee.

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