Last week’s Gospel began with these words:
Jesus said to the disciples: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
That was verse thirty-two of chapter twelve. A scant 17 verses later the mood change is extraordinary:
Jesus said, I came to bring fire to the earth…Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
And he goes on to speak very clearly about the coming conflict, even within families.
This passage may be the most difficult one in Luke’s entire Gospel. Yet he has actually softened it a bit. When Matthew repeats these words, Jesus says
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34b)
Luke removes the violent image of a sword for the relational word of division. Yet the effect is still the same: division within families.
What are we to make of this?
My friend and mentor Verna Dozier always insisted that one of the most important questions we can ask while reading and studying a passage of the Bible is, “What was the significance of this passage for the community that considered it important enough to pass it on? What did it say to them?”
This is beyond, “Why did Jesus say that?” Jesus said a lot of things, and all four Gospels combined could not possibly have captured all that he said. When telling the story, the Gospel writers had to make choices from the stories passed on to them. Why did they choose to include such a difficult passage as this one?
My assumption is that they chose to include it because many of the first followers of Jesus were having this very experience. Their embrace of the Gospel caused division, conflict, even with the members of their own household.
This could happen for any number of reasons, but this text suggests the primary one, and it is backed up by innumerable other passages in the Gospels: Following Jesus meant entrance into a new family that took priority over the old one.
This is hard for most of us to imagine, because we were more or less born into Christianity. And the Christianity we have known, if it did nothing else, reinforced our loyalty to our families and our country, as well as our church. Indeed church—family—country has been a kind of holy trinity rivaling the real one. We do not think of following Jesus as causing division between members of a family, but rather the force that brings them together.
It turns out we are wrong. Now, of course, Jesus did not say this would happen to every family, nor did he in any way say the family itself was a bad thing. He would not want me to do anything but love my parents, my siblings, etc. But my love for them, like my love for anyone or anything else must find its source in God’s love for me and my love for God. Anything short of that is playing with idolatry.
Idolatry is putting anyone or anything in the place of God. Most of us tend to think about idolatry as primarily being about worship. But it is not just about worship. It is about love, it is about hope, and it is about identity. How I love and how I hope and how I understand who I am all must come first and foremost from my relationship with God—my experience of God’s love for me, God’s hope for me, God’s understanding of who I am.
If this is true for me, than I am put in somewhat of a dilemma with people I am in relationship with who do not understand this. It can be very unsettling, even threatening, for a spouse or a parent or a child or even a friend, to know that my love for them, though strong, is always dependent on God, not on them.
It flies in the face of one of the greatest of American mantras: family first. Family always comes first. Jesus says, “No, it does not.” And that is very hard for us to hear. I do not think Jesus would deny that, yes, sometimes family does come first. But not, by any means, always. Often, in Jesus’ way of being in the world, the exact opposite is true: the stranger comes first.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of Jesus’ family wanting to speak with him. In each one of them, Jesus says,
Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? …Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.
That must have hurt his actual mother and brothers, although if they knew him well, they might have understood the point he was making. I am first and foremost a member of God’s family. Complete strangers are just as much family to me as the people with whom I share a common ancestry and biology.
Still this is very hard. But think a little deeper. Is it possible that we have actually hurt the family by depending on it too much for too many things? I know that when I stopped expecting my parents to love me in ways that they, for various reasons, could not, I was actually freed up to love them more. And I think that when they finally got over the question, “Where did he come from?” they were able to love me more.
The myth of the family in our culture is that it is a mini-world, that it contains all things necessary for life. But it does not and it actually should not. That is God’s job. Now it is true that God does his job of nurturing our lives by our relationships with the people around us, but God gives us a people as large and even larger than it needs to be.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews calls this people, this family, the “great cloud of witnesses.” It is they, and not our immediate family alone, who enable us to “lay aside every burden and the sin that clings so closely” and to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
In the language of Hebrews, this family is our family “by faith,” who share with us relationship with God, that is worth everything, and is also, as the hymn we just sang says, “the peace of God that is no peace, but strife sown in the sod.” This strange paradox is to say that by faith we get a glimpse of the future that is promised us, and we work diligently to bring it closer to us, but in the end we depend only on Jesus who has gone before us.
Near the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer has set up this way of thinking, this way of life. She said (in my paraphrase):
The truth is that despite God’s promise that everything would be in his control, that is not the reality we see. The only thing we can see is Jesus, who became one of us, and suffered like we suffer, and died like we die, and is now crowned with glory and honor because of sharing our burden…Because of this Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. (Hebrews 2:8b-9, 11b)
Brothers and sisters by faith. Family by faith. It begins to sound good, doesn’t it? And then you think about just how big this family is, and how, although it seems to be a family of choice, it really is not. As our former presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, likes to say, “Baptism catches us up in solidarities not of our choosing.”
And there is another reason why the Gospel causes division: the people it makes us hang out with, depend on, and love. For someone whose ears are not tuned to the Gospel, this may seem the strangest thing of all, the company we keep, and not only keep, but consider ourselves to be in solidarity with, whom we call brother or sister, even if they are someone we must frequently forgive.
I love my biological family, and, as John will attest, am fiercely loyal to them even though we barely understand each other. But my larger family, the great cloud of witnesses that surround me, though often frustrating and challenging, have also saved my life more times than I can count.
The bottom line here is that God has given us all we need for life, abundant life. But it is a mistake to demand of our immediate family for all the love we need, all the hope we need, and the fullness of our sense of self that we need to thrive. We need the largest family of all for that, the great cloud of witnesses that begins here at this Welcome Table and spreads out in ripples through space and time. Only a family larger than we can even imagine can help us truly to know who we are and whose we are.