“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?
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There was a Washington state representative who’d gotten himself in some trouble a while back when a manifesto he’d written was leaked to the public. The representative is an extremist conservative Christian, and his manifesto was titled “The Biblical Basis for War;” it was all about how people who shared his religious and political views needed to prepare themselves for a coming holy war between them and Muslims, liberals, and pretty much everyone in the world who didn’t hold to their specific extremist beliefs. This man found himself back in the news this past week because it was discovered that he was connected with a group that runs camps for adult men, teens, and even children, to teach them actual combat techniques to prepare for this supposedly coming religious holy war.
The representative is far from alone. He’s just one person in a growing extremist movement within Christianity that espouses what’s known as Dominionist Theology. There are different strands of it, but they all agree on the idea that they have been specially appointed by God to exercise complete dominion over society by taking control of all religious, political, and cultural institutions, in order to implement their interpretation of God’s will on society as the law of the land – essentially eliminating the idea of democracy or representative government, and replacing it with an extremist conservative Christian theocracy.
These people are a very real threat to our country and our society, and their dangerous beliefs are increasingly being put into violent action. They believe that God ordains and blesses the idea that Christians – their kind of Christians, at least – are called to take control of government and society by force if necessary. They believe that Christianity isn’t supposed to be humble, or meek, or peaceful, but instead, it’s supposed to be strong, and powerful, and take the world over for God by force. It’s the same twisted concept that was used to justify the Crusades, and the so-called German Christian movement in Nazi Germany, and that gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan, and any number of other harmful movements within Christian history, and now we’re seeing it rise again. In each case, these people will point to certain snippets of scripture to justify their militant mindset – and today’s gospel text is one of those.
In this passage, Jesus seems on the surface to be looking forward to, he almost seems to be longing for, the violent divisions that his coming into the world would cause. So what are we supposed to make of this? Are these Dominionists right? Well, in a word, no; in fact, their twisted biblical interpretation borders on crazy. They’re actually so kooky that if they weren’t so dangerous, they’d be laughable.
But really, with all the divisiveness in the world today, it would seem like the last thing we need to hear are words from Jesus that seem to glorify and encourage this kind of violent division as being God’s will, and that would give these extremist groups any cover. Still, here are the words that Luke attributes to Jesus, and these are the words that we have to deal with. So what’s he talking about here?
It’s really undeniable that Jesus is saying that his coming into the world, and the message of the gospel he was proclaiming, was going to cause great division, disagreements, stress, as people wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ life. Trying to understand the gospel that he proclaimed has certainly split families, and nations, apart; we all know that; and it’s done that on its own without any added help needed from half-baked pseudo-Christian paramilitary groups trying to start another holy war, or any addle-minded politicians who cozy up to them. If you just consider your own life, your own beliefs, I’m sure that you can identify some difference of belief, probably a strong difference of belief, between you and some relatively close family member. Parents; children; brothers or sisters, who just operate on a different religious belief system than you do. The division is real; the stress that it creates is real. And most of us don’t like or want confrontation and division; most of us would be much happier if we could all find a way to avoid that. But Jesus tells us that we really can’t ever totally avoid it. Sure, we need to work at being a peaceful, unifying presence; this is an important command that Christ has given us – but at some time or another, we’ll be unable to reconcile with someone else, and it’s going to cause division, and stress. The truth is, there are simply times that we’re going to have to take a stand for some aspect of our faith, and speak out against those who would have a different or opposite view. There will be times where we have to speak truth to power, and stir the pot, and even cause discomfort to some, in order to work some change for the betterment of God’s people. And sometimes, that will make us unpopular. It might cause people to say unkind things about us. Sometimes, it will probably lose us friends. It might even break family relationships, as Jesus mentions in this gospel text. I’m sure that most of us has experienced that in some way or another.
So we have to take Jesus’ promise that the gospel, and living it out, would cause division, seriously. But we shouldn’t take these words more seriously than many other promises that Jesus gave us. Most importantly, we should take seriously Jesus’ words that even when we face problems, divisions, stress, as a result of taking a stand to live out the precepts of the kingdom of God, and especially working to help make the kingdom real in the lives of others, not to fear – that as bad as those stresses might be, God has also promised us a life of joy, and complete, utter contentment and peace in every aspect of our present and future being, physically, spiritually, emotionally – a life of the all-encompassing peace described by the Hebrew word shalom. So here again today, we’ll eat bread together, and drink wine together. We’ll do it together recognizing our differences, even celebrating them, and praying for difference without division. We’ll come to this table as a sign of our desire to be in relationship with God, and not only with God, with one another. Coming to this table is a sign to the world that we offer a different way, a way of peace, a way of unity, a way of compassion; not a way of division, violence, or war. We’ll come to this table, this meal, proclaiming the good news of that time when God will end all divisions, end all stress, and draw all of us into unity with God’s self, and unity with all people, in the great eternal banquet prepared for us, and in the great shalom that we’ve been created to enjoy. That’s the dominion that we look forward to – a dominion that won’t be ushered in by a militia of violence and stupidity, but rather, by the incarnation of God’s eternal Wisdom, the Prince of Peace.
Thanks be to God.