Is Jesus Divisive?

sermon on Luke12:49-56; Hebrews11:29-12:2
I’ve been practically giddy all week about this Bible reading.

Which I know sounds odd since this won’t rank among anybody’s favorites. But I relish the chance to struggle with Scripture, to wrestle with it until it releases a blessing for us.

In contrast, a month ago we heard the Good Samaritan, which is both so familiar and also almost self-explanatory. Be nice to each other, including some new people—it seems to say—or accept help from unexpected sources. You almost inherently can understand that, and barely would need a preacher.

With this passage, however, you’re left with two choices. Either you can claim that the Bible and religion are filled with too much nastiness and try to ignore and reject the whole spiel, or else you can hear these hard words, face the confusing dilemma, and exclaim, “Aha! This is why we pay Pastor Nick the big bucks!” So now we’ll see if you’re getting your money’s worth.

That comes with the immediate disclaimer that I don’t have a definite answer or resolution for you, but do have several possibilities to try on.

First, we may hear these words from Jesus simply as descriptive: there are divisions on earth. We may even find that on occasion to be a good thing: night and day, the weekend, our atmosphere separating air from outer space.

Other times, we sense division not necessarily as beneficial, but still at least as reality. Across the globe, we don’t all speak the same language. We don’t have the same skills or interests. And while Jesus may be indicating the individual differences or denominational disparities or interfaith turmoil that religion has caused, of arguments and separations in our families on up, still, stepping back from emotion, we are at a point in history where we might be able to recognize that there are real reasons we wouldn’t all have the same understanding of God, that our unique circumstances and upbringings and lot in life play a role.

That’s a fundamental distinction already in Jesus’ words. He was part of the monotheistic Jewish faith, but where they’d said the only, the sole, the mono- connection with God was in the Temple, Jesus was relocating the divine, taking away the hierarchy that made some closer to God and pushed others out of the perimeter. Simply by proclaiming the undoing of a central authority and enacting radical welcome with unconditional grace, Jesus was causing division and disrupting the old system.

That may point us toward a next step of reflection. Beyond description, is this word from Jesus prescriptive? Does he seek to cause divisions?

I have to say, this is mainly what makes this passage uncomfortable for me. This version from Luke, where Jesus says he brings division, is a notch gentler than Matthew’s version, where he says he brings a sword. But still, when Jesus declares he has not come to bring peace on earth, that disappointment is the exact opposite of why I usually turn to Jesus and what I expect from him. Some of the first things that grabbed me about Christianity when I was in middle school were words like “blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies.” These shaped my passion for nonviolence and even pacifism, to be against war and militarism and the death penalty. But here, Jesus seems to reverse his core message of love and healing and life, and—indeed—peace!

But that very reversal is the cue that we need to struggle with these words. Certainly there are some who employ this sort of message to reinforce violence or oppression or division or use of force. But the fact that they have to turn repeatedly to this passage or to an apparently angry Jesus cleansing the Temple or a single line about swords at the Garden of Gethsemane says that these hard passages are the exception and not the rule of Jesus.

So I would argue—and will argue—that Jesus isn’t stoking fires of hatred and fanning the flames that make us burn against each other. This isn’t a sort of division that lets me see myself as good and other races or religions as bad, much less worth-less and able to be excluded or exterminated or deported. Those have been dangerous precedents in history and are dangerous in our midst today. Such divisions are accusingly satanic, not godly or from Jesus. That is not God’s mission or intention for our world, and it must be resisted.

But that very resistance begins to illuminate another side of these words from Jesus. It’s not general divisiveness he promotes, as if desiring any and all animosity. But there are specific faithful distinctions that we would foster, that Jesus would back, when he’s prompting change and upset against tranquil apathy at the status quo. Such “peace” he may well be against. Amid plenty of divisions, we should readily and boldly proclaim, “I’m not that sort of Christian. We are not that kind of people.” We want to declare proudly and vitally that we are anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-bullying and anti-oppression and anti-poverty. We are anti-terrorism but simultaneously anti-anti-Muslim and anti-anti-immigrant (if you can handle important uses of a double-negative) and anti-anti-gay. We know these divisions and know where we must stand for justice. Sure, we can work to heal the splits and repair the breach with other people, and that may be among our more vital tasks in these days, but that doesn’t permit us to ignore the divides or to pretend that compromise plain and simple is always the right thing.

That’s hard enough when we’d prefer not to have to keep struggling amid society. We don’t want to feel like a voice in the wilderness, crying out. We don’t want every election to feel like a doomsday scenario or for every click of news to be filled with despair. But beyond those larger fears and frustrations, we also know this more intimately. We know divisions in families, conversations that cause consternation, the topics that somehow are off the table for discussion. We know those family fractures that are fueled by even kind and faithful views.

Such values may arise from stuff that seems like a big deal, like arguing faith’s perspectives on health care. Or that your beliefs mean you’re called to love Iranians and Russians, and—yes—even terrorists, and all those with whom you disagree. That’s not a fun conversation. Or it may be more personal, like around parenting styles or medical decisions or financial choices. Or it may seem smaller, like that you’d choose to be here today, that you intentionally give away some of your income, that you do the silly thing of saying a prayer in times of need. We may not be persecuted or our lives at risk for what we believe, but among your family and friends and coworkers—besides the broader culture—clinging to your beliefs is still apt to cause divisions. Jesus may have been envisioning that result simply because of what matters to you.

It’s already a relief that Jesus recognizes and names the brokenness we’re bound to face. It’s good news that my family isn’t the only one God knows with some dysfunction. But beyond just naming the reality, we do need more. Clearly, this involves difficult decisions to weigh and really requires endurance and patience to persist. So we need support. We need this community. We need the great cloud of witnesses, those saints throughout history that our Hebrews reading held up for us. We need examples of those who have willingly or unwillingly suffered and were mocked and continued through blood and sweat and tears, and conquered somehow in death, even as the loss appeared to be overwhelmingly futile. It’s a stunning Bible passage, making us ask if it’s worth it, even while motivating us to carry on. We’re caught up in something we can’t quite explain and may not always like, yet know we must proceed.

And that brings us to a final part of the reflection. We should always remember that Jesus is up to something particular. With him, it is not just a description of everyday life, but a new way of seeing and interacting with the world, a new order, for new life. He begins by saying he’s bringing fire to earth and wished it were already kindled, and his stress while awaiting his baptism. These are lines about his death. He isn’t kindling a fire to start fights among others or to give us permission to take up the sword against those we don’t like. He’s inviting that division against himself, recognizing that he’s the one who’s going to get burned, the one who will be plunged into death. This makes the Bible passage about him.

But that also makes it about you, doesn’t it? See, you’ve been baptized into Christ as well. Your baptism joins you to the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of new life, but also joins you to his passion and death. Amid the communion of saints, you are brought into this Jesus way, this Jesus vision, this Jesus practice for encountering the world, and striving both against it and yet simultaneously on its behalf.

That means the fire is spreading. Jesus kindled it against himself, but also in you. It’s remarkable that the one other place these words for division and fire happen together is on Pentecost (Acts 2:3), when divided tongues of flame appeared on the followers of Jesus, filling them with diverse gifts and sending them across the world. Among those believers, this word for division also became a word for sharing—that they divided among themselves the cup of the new testament in Jesus’ blood at the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17) and divided their possessions to distribute as any had need (Acts 2:45).

In this community of Jesus, then, we no longer recognize the world’s old, rotten divisions of haves and have-nots, of rich versus poor, of insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, successful or failure, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the worthy and the unworthy. In this community of Jesus, those divisions are cast out because finally, this is where we anticipate reconciliation will have the last word, since neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come will be able to divide us or separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.


Hymn: God of Tempest, God of Whirlwind (ELW #400)


Separate Unions

sermon on John17:20-26
I may be warped by competitive spirit of playing the card game Uno too much, but I’m apt to hear this reading as a challenge more than a blessing, which generally isn’t the best way to hear from Jesus.
On this 7th Sunday of the season of Easter, the last before Pentecost, the assigned Gospel reading is always from John 17, a chapter that is entirely Jesus praying. And the summary of his prayer, is Uno—one—unification—that we may be one as Jesus and his Father (as he prays) are one. (Today is among great times to pray “Mother” instead, though for different reasons.)
Anyway, as I said, I wind up tempted to hear that “oneness” as a challenge. Ostensibly about teamwork, this feels like competition, that it involves ranking and comparisons, with a starting place in trying to highlight marks of unity. That’s an easy temptation, since there are plenty of positives to highlight: for example, a week ago I was at our South-Central Synod of Wisconsin ELCA annual assembly, a great gathering of the 145 local ELCA congregations, to focus together on God’s mission and our work in the world. It was also a chance to feel part of the larger whole of our 3.7 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That could be a good mark of unity. Or, I suppose, it might conversely be identified as circling the wagons and hanging out with those of like mind. The basic fact that we’ve got a denomination could be an indicator of past divisions and schisms and ruptures.
Another apparent approach in highlighting positive examples of union would be right here as Madison Christian Community. We could claim we’ve got it figured out better than most. As you who have been through The Road Ahead process or any amount of history in this MCC know, we aren’t joined together with Community of Hope United Church of Christ because we’re the same or find it so darned easy to get along. No, we know there are differences and ongoing disagreements, maybe even about fairly fundamental distinctions, and yet we continue striving ahead. More, we continue celebrating ahead. As we share worship services the next two weeks, you may find some things aren’t the way that you’re used to doing it, but still find it important that we are sharing, that we’re joined, are continuing to come together to practice community. That could be a good mark to highlight.
For broader ecumenism, I would name the Wisconsin Council of Churches, with 18 member denominations all striving for a common ministry focused on church unity, peacemaking, and justice. Wider still, we might think of interfaith groups seeking religious harmony around intersections of Christianity.
Or, aside from official functions, there are the sorts of relationships in my family that maybe you’re also used to navigating—my Roman Catholic in-laws, my Episcopal father, my United Methodist grandma, my somewhat Buddhist New Age-y uncle, besides the agnostics and those who just don’t get around to much religion. So do we consider a positive mark of unity if we don’t have fistfights at family gatherings, or because we manage to live in a generally diverse society?
We have to ask that to understand what Jesus means or wants in us “being one.” Is his vision just that we don’t have too tough of a time not killing each other? Do we pat ourselves on the back because we’re not breathing threats and fear and hatred against others? Jesus must desire more than that we’re merely nice in church parking lots, or stop splitting churches apart over ethical conundrums, or are able to show up for community prayer vigils after a disaster. So is he seeking complete unanimity?
In that, we can’t help but notice the contrasts to our list of positives, the negative ways our efforts don’t go well. With so much brokenness and fracture, we’d have to feel we don’t quite measure up. So the ELCA has the most so-called “full communion” agreements between denominations. Yet we also witness that sharing communion is still divisive and complicated and hard to agree on. The other groups of Lutherans—who apparently should be our closest neighbors—are the ones with whom we have the hardest time. Or with Catholics, for all the decades of conversation and deliberation, maybe all the way back to the Reformation, still we can’t share enough officially to be able to come to the communion table together. In fact, just what happens with this bread and wine and how it can function and who is allowed have been among the fiercest and deepest of arguments between Christians throughout history. It’s a sad reality that this meal, this that we describe as communion—the very thing to bring us into union and make us one and unite us with the body of Christ—we can’t share this and so Jesus isn’t allowed to do his work. His efforts are somehow precluded or disabled.
At other tables, in contrast to Emily Tveite’s words about communal meals at the Lutheran Campus Ministry, I would say a frustrating example is at the Jesus Lunches. An event that is supposed to be about Jesus—and so should perhaps inherently have been about bringing people together—instead has served as a fierce mark of division, telling some students they don’t belong. As Sonja and I went to the gathering, I envisioned myself as part of Christianity that was about healing our separations and brokenness, bearing witness to how we should better be attending to each other. But my healing was thwarted, partially since I was standing on the same side of a barrier with the Freedom From Religion Foundation group offering pizza for an alternative “free thinkers’ lunch” and with signs that said “Any way you slice it, religion is divisive.” A lot of our hypocritical organized religious groups may have been accurately pegged by those signs, but not Jesus. Jesus was about crossing barriers and boundaries and being with those who had been excluded and harassed and offended. I find it tough to imagine Jesus actually wanting to be part of the lunch named after him, given the consequences for student wellbeing. In his words we hear today, Jesus acknowledges that his reputation and God’s is on the line in how the world perceives us.
With that notion of what he might reject or rebel against, we realize Jesus wasn’t and isn’t a bystander whining, “can’t we all just get along?!” Though we ought to be cautious on which side we place Jesus, we have to see there are vital dividing lines. In standing with the marginalized, Jesus stands against empire, against power, against economic bullies, even against religious institutions. In praying to his Father, Jesus prays and protests against patriarchy. So, still seeking to understand what kind of unity he’s fostering, it could be that he invites you in join his way, of what he stands for and against. But that still would leave plenty of challenge in this passage, where if you’re not with him, you’re against him and you’d better shape up. I suspect we’re not exactly eager to adopt a “his way or the highway” attitude about needing to agree with Jesus. It may leave us still further from realizing what kind of unity Jesus wants.
Our sisters and brothers in the Moravian denomination use the motto “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things,” charity. But even there, we could well be left arguing (even if arguing oh-so-charitably) on whether something is essential or not! Furthermore, having tried to list positives of joint agreement versus negatives of disintegration and dispute, that can’t be the end goal. It isn’t about tallying our points and credits. It can’t be that Jesus just wants us to play nice with each other and not pick too many inessential fights with our siblings in the back seat of the car as he and the heavenly Father continue driving down life’s highway.
By our official statements that have shaped Lutheran practice for just shy of half a millennium, we have said it isn’t any visible agreement that really matters. It’s not in looking or acting alike. It’s not about wearing matching worship vestments or using identical language or liking the same music or even really liking each other. What makes church, what unites us across divisions (we’ve said for 500 years) is that the gospel is preached, is that we hear Jesus as good news. We have that foundation of receiving Jesus, and gathered for that, it doesn’t matter how big the crowd is or when it happens or who is preaching or how they got ordained or by whom or their gender identity or sexual orientation or race or age or facial hair or grammar or creativity or any of that.
With that, we may notice that Jesus here isn’t trying to lecture or teach or instruct us on models of unity. In a verse Luther says should be “written in pure gold” (LW 69.101), Jesus is praying for us. That must change the perspective, that it can’t be about what we accomplish or how much accord we come to. That this is not just a competition or challenge also brings us, at last, to the good news. This prayer from Jesus promises unity not in those outward ways, but in love. The union that joins you is his love and God the Mother’s love. It isn’t in our behaviors that we are made one, but in being beloved. The blessing of his presence in you and among us is how we are united, is what makes us one. This is literally atonement, meaning this love is what makes us “at-one.”
Our unanimity, then, isn’t coerced or resolved. Rather, we begin and originate by very definition as unanimous; again, the word literally means “one Spirit,” animated in unison. Though we may continue striving in patience to bear with one another, the one Holy Spirit that binds Jesus to his Father also binds us to them and to each other and that Spirit continues to hold us. We may explore that and live into it. We may even more fully comprehend that we can never be separate, that amid this cosmic community, all life is bound together with every breath we receive and give back. In all this, we may struggle against the outward negatives and may hope for more of the positives to highlight this union. But we can’t create it and, by the love of God, we can’t undo it and so, at our center, we proclaim that life that won’t be stopped by wrongs, evils, or even death. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Unity and Brokenness — a newsletter article

I’ve been sad because of a loss, lamenting that a friend and seminary classmate has decided to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Partly I’m sad because I’m convinced the ELCA is right. We live the liturgy, we embody our faith in loving service, we embrace Jesus.

Yet I’m not so naïve as to whine, “Can’t we all just get along?!” After all, I’m darn adamant in what I believe. Try saying that Jesus doesn’t matter, that crucifixion and resurrection aren’t important, that creation’s life is no big deal, and I’d be eager to argue. I’m disgruntled and disappointed that my friend’s decision involved homosexuality. But as much as I’d want to debate it theologically, scripturally, and socially, I couldn’t change his mind or convince him he’s wrong.

So much of my sadness is simply the brokenness. I don’t like separations, the pains and sorrows of our losses, whether like long-distance lovers yearning to be reunited or the harder grieving in death, waiting for the more consummate reunion in eternity. Some splits are stubborn disagreements that have gotten out of hand, while others for irreconcilable differences can be reasonable and necessary.

Amid such sorts of schisms, I also want you to know—for myself and for our community—that it’s a rupture or fracture in the Body when we’re not together here, even a single Sunday. Life is a busy balancing of priorities, but it still hurts to be away from you.

With all these dividings, we may wonder what we can do about it. How do we face brokenness in our relationships? If we can’t simply fix or correct what’s gone wrong, how do we move forward?

On the bright side, separations aren’t essentially the same as endings. I’m hoping my friend will remain my friend, in spite of our differences and this distancing. Transformations of the old may have good surprises. A new beginning may even be worth the steep cost.

Other times, we can only cling to hope. We heard John 17 a couple weeks ago, with Jesus’ prayer for us, that his followers would be one. Yet among both denominational and personal relationships, we’re pretty rotten at small “c” communion (being “united with” each other) or big “C” Communion (for the Lord’s Supper). We’re not unanimous (“one in spirit”).

But “uni’s” are not always desirable. We don’t believe that Jesus wanted us to be uniform, our voices in unison without harmonizing, for this to be monotonous. We’re reminded this Trinity Sunday that even God is not simply “One” but also distinguished as “Three.”

And in spite of it all, we believe and confess that we are indeed Unanimous, tied together by the one Holy Spirit, joined by God. Our fate, our hope, our existence is in God’s hands alone. Even when our divisions or barriers seem insurmountable, still we live in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are bound together in love—in a grand family and with all creation.

If that seems like an elusive wish, maybe our parting words—the terminology of going away—can be instructive and put flesh on it. The Germans say auf Wiedersehen, “upon-seeing-you-next-time,” sort of our “see ya later.” An adios or adieu commend somebody “to God!” in Spanish or French. That meaning is also hidden inside our “good-bye,” a contraction of “God-be-(with)-ye!” Our faith connects with the Hebrew shalom and Arabic salaam that say, “peace be with you.” Even the secular “farewell” bids the best, a salutation (meaning a “salve” for healing, health, wholeness).

Rifts in life are hard, but it’s not over until it’s over. When all else fails, maybe we practice prayerful separations, asking the best for the other. Ultimately God won’t fail. We can commend each other to God’s care and trust in what is to come; the finality remains with God who is all in all.

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