Luke’s Gospel contains some of the more difficult of Jesus sayings. Our reading today represents one of those that many Christians would struggle with.
“Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, not peace but division!?” He then goes on to say that there will be divisions even between family members, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother. Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Well, I guess Some might not find that last one so surprising.)
When we read these words of Jesus, they are confounding. Isn't Jesus meant to be the Prince of Peace? Didn't Jesus say, Blessed are the peace-makers?
Luke’s Gospel especially has sometimes been called the Gospel of Peace. The theme runs throughout Luke’s Gospel. When Zechariah bursts into song at the birth of John the Baptist who will prepare the way of the Messiah, he speaks of how God will guide our feet into the path of peace. When the angels announced his birth at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, didn't they sing out “Glory to God in the Highest and Peace on earth to people of good will”. When Simeon meets the infant Jesus when he is presented to God in the Temple, Simeon says “Now Lord, as you have promised, you may dismiss your servant in peace”. When Jesus sends out the 12 to preach in pairs, he instructs them that the first thing they are to say as they enter a house are the words: “Peace be upon this home”. When Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, in Luke’s version the crowds say “Peace on earth and glory in the highest”. In Luke’s Gospel, instead of the crucifixion of Jesus being presented as the Passover lamb as it is in John’s Gospel, Jesus death according to Luke is presented in the mould of the Old Testament “peace offering”. Lastly, in Luke’s Gospel, the first words Jesus speaks to the disciples when he meets them as a group after his resurrection are the words “Peace be upon you”.
And so when we read these words of Jesus from our passage today, they are confounding. How is it, if the whole message of Luke’s Gospel is meant to present Jesus as the bringer of peace, in the middle of Luke’s Gospel Jesus says these confusing words:
“Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, not peace but division!?”
To uncover what Jesus might have meant by these words, I would like to tell three stories. You might have your own stories: The first two are from South Africa.
Beyers Naude was a Dutch Reformed minister in South Africa, a descendant of Dutch and French Huguenot settlers in South Africa. He came from a well-respected Afrikaner family that were pillars of Afrikaner nationalism. As a young minister in the Dutch Reformed Church he had preached his support for Apartheid using texts from the Bible, but as he grew a little older, he grew more and more concerned about the injustices he saw happening in South Africa with the treatment of Black South Africans often literally as third class citizens in their own country and how the economic system was destroying black family life, tearing families apart as families were forced to live in one part of the country while husbands and fathers were forced to spend most of the year in another part of the country working on the mines. After the massacre of peaceful protestors in 1960 in Sharpville, Beyers Naude who was now the moderator in his presbytery, began publicly to raise concern over the injustices that he was seeing. As he began to speak out for real peace and justice in South Africa, rooted in his faith and understanding of Jesus, he began to receive more and more opposition from his Church and fellow ministers. In 1963, when opposition had grown too strong against him in the Dutch Reformed Church as well as his own congregation he preached his final sermon in the Church where he had been ministering for 4 years. At the end of the service as he came down from the pulpit he symbolically took off his preachers gown and went to the door to greet the members of the Church as he normally did after a service. Some walked past him with tears in their eyes, but many walked past him without even looking at him.
He and his wife and his family became ostracized by the Afrikaner community and his own Church family for what he regarded as his obedience and faithfullness to the Gospel of Jesus. Wanting to bring peace to South Africa he felt the pain of division caused by the stand that he took.
The second story is about the minister who I grew up under for about 15 years, the Rev. Ray Light. He was ministering in a well-to-do white Methodist Church in Pretoria. Wanting to build relationship and friendship he invited black minister colleague and his wife to come and share a meal with them at the Church Manse where he lived. In the course of the evening, the meal was served on the crockery and cutlery that belonged to the Church, the same crockery and cutlery that they would have used when hosting meals with congregation members who came to visit from time to time. In South Africa at the time this kind of thing was just not done. Somehow for fear of some kind of contamination, black people would never be allowed to eat or drink from items that would be used by white people.
When members of the Church heard about what had happened, the Ray Light and his wife Edna were completely ostracized from the Church and the wider community. The only people in the neighbourhood who gave them support during that period of their lives was a Jewish family that lived nearby. None of their Christian friends or neighbours would even speak to them.
Seeking to be reconcilers and peace-makers in their community, in accordance with their faith in Christ, brought division from their own congregation.
As Bill Schlesinger put it a comment I found on this text: Division happens. It happens when we choose to embrace others that some reject.
And then a last story...
In January 2015 a news story broke about a Catholic Priest from County Tyrone who was then ministering in the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida in the United States.
When Father John Gallagher was informed that a fellow priest had been showing pornographic images to a fourteen year old, he quite rightly reported this fellow priest to the police.
But instead of being praised or even just supported by church authorities for acting with decisiveness and courage in reporting the matter to the police, Gallagher was ostracized by them instead. The locks on the parish house were changed so that he could not get into his own home, and he had to end up living for a period with a friend. The bishop then placed him on medical leave.
This continued, even after the accused priest had admitted to what he had done and that he had a previous history as a pedophile. At one point a local police chief was so concerned at the Irish priests treatment, that he wrote to church leaders to complain about how the whistle-blower was being treated.
Acting according to his conscience by identifying and reporting a pedophile priest to the police, Father Gallagher found himself in opposition to those within his church who wanted to keep things secret and who didn’t want to admit publicly that such abuse was happening in the church.
While Jesus is described as the Prince of Peace and that his coming is meant to bring peace on earth, clearly Jesus knew that being a real peacemaker, can bring opposition and division from within one’s own community and sometimes even sometimes within one’s own family.
When Jesus says: “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division,” it is a deliberate statement, a hyperbole, meant to get us thinking, and that will help us as his followers to realise that sometimes standing for peace, and standing for what is right can bring opposition and division.
It is why Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel that every day we will need to be willing take up our cross if we wish to follow him. Amen.