Pentecost 13C Hebrews 11:29-12:2 Luke 12:49-56
Each week I have the great joy of declaring the Gospel of the Lord. The Holy Gospel According to whichever of the four, the reading is done, then This is the Gospel of the Lord, and we all say Thanks Be to God. It is a great privilege to read scriptures to the congregation each week as a lector or as the preacher, and I am always awed and grateful for this privilege. That does not mean, however, that it isn’t occasionally difficult. The gospel, a word which means Good News, is indeed always good, but that does not mean it is always easy to hear. Today was one of those times that reading the gospel text was a little uncomfortable.
This is one ticked off Jesus we have here today! “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Well, actually, Jesus, I did think you’d come to bring peace; peace, unity, harmony and all kinds of things like love and grace! You know, peace on earth, good will? “No, I tell you, but rather division!” Does this make anyone else feel uncomfortable?
Often on this Sunday, that is the Sunday closest to August 15th, I choose to preach about Mary since the 15th is when the church has chosen to honor and learn about Mary, the mother of Jesus. I’ve chosen instead to go with the texts for today but to tell you the truth I would much rather run and hide in the comforting words of the faithful young Mary asking Gabriel her earnest question ‘how can this be?’ and singing her song of the triumph of God and God’s never failing devotion and love for the lowly ones. O Gentle Mary, let us run to your comfort and not have to face all this confusing conflict!
Somehow, I think that Mother Mary would not allow us to hide from Jesus. It seems probable that she might, as any good parent, tell us to keep the faith and face what is hard.
Keeping the faith is exactly what our second lesson is all about. By faith, by faith, by faith. Paul recounts the lives of many throughout the history of the people of God who displayed great faith and were able to accomplish many amazing things in the name of and for God. Paul also describes the great faith of those who suffered terribly because of their beliefs, even paying the price of their very lives. No one said keeping the faith was easy and it is pretty clear that following Jesus wasn’t easy, either.
For us, who live in a nation where it is easy to be Christian, some of this difficulty seems distant and altogether foreign to our experience. For us, to be Christian means we show up at church, maybe serve on a committee and possibly attend a bible study. No one will threaten our lives for being in church on this day. No one will threaten the lives of our loved ones because we have been baptized. No one will arrest us for carrying a bible or wearing a cross.
That has not always been the case for Christians.
But we face far more subtle threats like complacency and cheapened religion. Keeping the faith in the face of these kinds of threats seems far easier. Or is it? When faith itself seems less dire and has fewer life and death connections, it can become slipper. Perhaps we can even lose a sense of clarity about what it is we are holding on to in the first place. Some might say that there is a significant and needed place for fear in the life of faith. Some might even say that it is good to be afraid of Jesus and the consequences of following him.
On the other hand, there are real concrete and important advantages to NOT living in a society where coming to church is a life and death choice. Fear can be a strengthening motivator to faith, but it is the only one? Or even the best? Is it a requirement for faith that we fear something first that then drives us to God? While that can be and is not infrequently a catalyst for faith, (many people have renewed faith or even turn to religion and faith for the first time when there is a frightening crisis in their lives) it is also possible that some Christians can take the great motivator of “fear” and apply it in a terribly damaging way.
I have a good friend who experienced this kind of fear of God as a child. She grew up in a church, learned about Jesus, but clearly remembers hearing a message of fear. Be afraid of God because if you don’t believe right, you’re going to hell. God will punish you if you don’t behave right and who knows what might happen to you if you don’t have enough or the right kind of faith. Many people might be able to relate to those kinds of phrases. My friend said that she remembered being very afraid of God but later on in her life she began to wonder about all that fear and threat. ‘If God is good and all powerful,’ she said, ‘why would he want or need to threaten me with never ending punishment because I couldn’t get my faith perfect?’
I think she’s got a good point. Frightening people into faith just doesn’t seem quite right. Actually, it seems like a cheap shot at best and emotional manipulation at worst. Frightening people into submission is more the work of a bully and not the work of the Creator of the Universe.
That is why Jesus’ words in our Gospel text are stressful: they are frightening. Is he trying to make us fear him? Are we supposed to be afraid of him? An angry Jesus is scary! However, if we were to run to Mother Mary, as I originally wanted to do, not only might we get the advice from her to keep the faith and face the difficult things, we are also faced with the undeniable fact that Jesus, Mary’s son, was not only divine but also human. It is a frustrated and stressed human, who speaks to the disciples about the divisions that faith in the Son of God may unfortunately bring. Following the one who declares the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the peacemakers to be blessed will most likely divide us from the world that says might makes right and wealth and power are of the greatest value.
It is not so much about Jesus trying to frighten his hearers as it is his freely speaking the truth about what some of the consequences of his ministry on earth are and will be. And he’s doing so in a very human way. Human doesn’t mean ‘weak’ or ‘wrong’. When we say Jesus was truly human it means ‘like us’. Jesus was like us. Additionally, the Old Testament is fully of scriptures showing God’s heart full of emotions and more than once does God weep for love and a heart broken by the people of God. So we see that Jesus had both the emotions of God and of humans like us.
“I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” Jesus says, “and what stress I am under until it is completed!” The word stressed in Greek means, among other things, to struggle to hold together something that might fling itself apart. We all know what that feels like, don’t we? It seems that Jesus is feeling the pressure of opposing forces. He lists possible family divisions that may occur because of his ministry. There are also growing divisions within Judaism, Jesus’ own family of faith. The Pharisees and others holding positions of religious power are intensifying their challenges of and confrontations with Jesus. Frequently, Jesus points out the corruption of religious leaders and his frustration, and perhaps even anger, can be heard in his words to and about them. It will not be long before he will indeed be baptized into this baptism for which he has been waiting; his death on the cross. In this way, no, he didn’t come to bring peace, he didn’t come to cover up and smooth over problems we have with one another and problems we have with God, pretending that all is well even when it isn’t. When it all comes to the end, Jesus will not be about making concessions and making peace with Herod or Pilate. Most of all, he won’t be making some sort of peace treaty with evil and death.
He has set his face toward Jerusalem. There is no turning back and he must hold things together until it is time. He must keep the faith. Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, divine but also human (just like us), in the face of his very real human death, must keep the faith.
That brings us back to all those “by faith”s that Paul recounts. Whose faith is he talking about? Well obviously, the faith of these people he is holding up as examples, like Moses, Rahab, David, Samuel, the prophets, and all those nameless ones who endured torture and hardship. The great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, even now, right now, the cloud of the faithful who have gone before us. Certainly, yes, their faith. And yet something completely overshadows all of that.
“…Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” The faith of all that great cloud of witnesses is impressive and important, but all their faith and all of ours even on our very best days added together is a mere candle to the sun-bright faith of Jesus. He is the one who has kept the faith.
By faith many who believed in the promises of God endured great difficulty and pain for the sake of their beliefs. By faith many faced death for their beliefs. By faith Jesus believed in the promises of God to heal and restore all of creation. By faith he endured great persecution and torture—these things done to him because he dared to speak and enact the truth of the Kingdom of God. By faith Moses led the people of God through the Red Sea as if it were dry land while the enemy was destroyed behind them. By faith Jesus climbed the hill of the skull, willingly laying down his life as he was raised on the cross, to lead the people of God through the great river of brokenness and betrayal that rages as a great barrier between us and God and to bring us home, while our greatest enemy, death, is destroyed behind us.
All our faith is based upon him.
All our faith is made true and possible because of Jesus’ faith in God and his faith that this baptism that he is distressed about, wishing it were already here in order to get on with it, leads to joy. Jesus’ faith that we are worth it, Jesus’ faith that God’s purpose and love for all creation is worth anything, even his life, is the faith by which we are saved. It is the faith by which we have faith at all. It is the faith by which we can face the fearful and frightening things, and the difficulties and divisions that come in life. Perhaps Jesus’ faith is even that by which we can face our own struggles as we try to keep the faith.
Yes, by faith many have done and seen great things in the name of and for God. But the faith by which all these things were and will be done is not only our faith, but Jesus’ faith in God.