‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 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,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 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?’ – Luke 12:49-56
I don’t know how much thought went into my parents naming me what they did. I do know that my middle name, “Martin,” was carefully chosen; it is my father’s middle name, my grandfather’s middle name, and was also the first name of my grandfather’s uncle and goes back at least one more generation. The name Martin means “warrior” or “warlike” and alludes to the name “Mars,” a Roman god of war. You can think back to several named Martin and how fitting this is – that they fought through some difficult times – Martin Luther King, Jr., Martin Luther, Martin of Tours, to name a few.
But my first name is Jeffrey, which has roots in German and Greek and is a name that means “peaceful” or “the peace of heaven.” So, when you put my name together it means “a peaceful warrior.”
I’m a walking contradiction.
But there’s something funny for many people: even if there wasn’t a great deal of intention by the parents regarding the name’s meaning of their child, children grow up and their personality or character seems to fit their name meaning anyway. I feel that way about myself. I’m typically a pretty peaceful person. In fact, one of my greatest dislikes, aside from mushrooms on pizza, is conflict – I will try to avoid it like the plague, though at times, my “Martin” side kicks in and I have to fight for a cause. But typically, I’m Jeffrey. I like peace. I like keeping the peace. I love those passages that say, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth,” “He shall be called…the Prince of Peace,” and “My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you.” I typically sign off my emails by typing, “Peace…”
So when I come to a passage like what we’ve read today, I cringe a little bit. It strikes a dissonant chord within me, because my nature is to long for peace and goodwill. Why, Jesus, do you have to come in here and say, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword!”? Doesn’t this seem so contradictory to what we know of Jesus elsewhere? Even at the beginning of this gospel, Luke indicated through Zachariah that Jesus would “guide our feet into the way of peace,” and at his birth “peace on earth” was declared. At the end of this same gospel, Jesus in his resurrected body says, “Peace be with you.” How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements?
Peace or division? Which is your mission, Jesus? Which is your kingdom about?
Do you feel the tension? I think it comes from a couple of different ways of understanding the concept of peace. One route that people take when talking about the different meanings of peace is to distinguish peace as the absence of conflict from peace as a sense of shalom, or wholeness, realized by the presence of God. That is a valuable conversation and distinction, but I think Jesus is dealing with something other than this here. You see, peace in the ancient world wasn’t just about an internal feeling or sense of serenity; it had to do with territorial influence and how a kingdom would exert that influence or power. In Latin, the word for peace is “pax” and if you remember anything about the Roman Empire from your history classes you might remember about the Pax Romana or the “Peace of Rome.” It was that period of time when Rome was “at peace,” meaning there weren’t any significant military powers or governments that challenged their reign over the world. Subtly, that might seem like a situation that is well and good. It is comfortable, but it is only comfortable so long as you comply with the expectations of those in power. You see, the Pax Romana was more about exerting its power than walking in a sense of peace and reconciliation.
If I might call it something that would resonate with us today, I would call this the “Peace of the Status Quo.” Things are all well and good, so long as those who have power and authority maintain it and it doesn’t ever get challenged. To rephrase, it was as though Jesus said, “I have not come for the Peace of the Status Quo.” No, Jesus was bringing a peace of a different sort – the peace of Christ, the Pax Christi, which Paul would say surpasses our understanding, a peace of a kingdom that brings good news to the outcast, to those without power – the lost, the last, the least – a peace at odds with the Pax Romana, at odds with the status quo; and this led to the conflict on which Jesus’ life would be taken by the Pax Romana on a Roman cross.
The peace of the status quo, if we seek to maintain it, will cost us our very souls. William Wilberforce, an 18th century Englishman, knew and exposed the evils of the slave trade, a system bent on maintaining power over others for the sake of a false sense of peace and prosperity. The reality was that many others knew its evils but chose to look the other way because their lives were comfortable. In his address to the House of Commons in 1789 when he continued his quest to abolish the slave trade, Wilberforce said: “The nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we can not evade it; it is now an object placed before us, we can not pass it; we may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we can not turn aside so as to avoid seeing it.”
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, in his last written document, wrote a letter to Wilberforce six days before his own death. Wesley spoke of the great cost of Wilberforce’s mission, but in his encouraging message pointed out, albeit implicitly, that Wilberforce had chosen the Pax Christi, the peace of Christ, which stood at odds with the status quo of the slave trade. Wesley wrote: “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might.”
And so we come to the heart of the tension. When the peace of Christ’s kingdom is at odds with the peace of the kingdoms of the world, the peace of the status quo, then lines get drawn, a sword gets wielded. This is not because of any inherent antagonism of Jesus’ way, but rather because the world will invoke its power and use force to do so whenever something or someone comes along that dares to get in its way or claim allegiance to another sovereign.
So how does this affect us? How does this impact how we live for the coming kingdom even now? A peace at odds? I think this takes a great deal of discernment on a day to day basis, but it’s based primarily on a loyalty to Christ that is unfading, and it is unwilling to live in such a way that shows that anything else is more important than Christ’s reign and being a follower of Jesus. While this sort of loyalty might bring or seem to bring division now, there is a deeper unity, a deeper peace that is beyond our sight and understanding, in which our hope anchors us in the knowledge that there will come a time, as the prophet Isaiah envisioned, when swords will be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
To sum up, I return to one of the Martins I alluded to earlier. Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, on the Eve of All Saints’ day in 1517, nailed a document called the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Listen to the last two statements:
- Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
- And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace.
Let us so follow Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.