In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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There are a lot of things in the Bible that are confusing, especially when they seem to contradict other things in the Bible. Today’s gospel is a good example of that. Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” No doubt, that passage makes some of us wonder about all those other passages where Jesus talks about “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Phil 4.7). We hear that line in the Blessing at the end of Mass every week. And at Christmas we hear Isaiah’s prophecy that the newborn Savior of the world will be called the Prince of Peace (9.6). And there’s all those instances in the gospels where Jesus speaks peace into particular situations: “Peace! Be still!” he says to the storm, “And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39). And how many times does he say to various people, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace”? On the night before he was crucified he said to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). He goes around speaking peace into all sorts of situations. But then today we hear him say to his disciples, “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace into the world– not peace, but division.” So what’s up with that?
Well, for one thing, it’s really important to bear in mind that whenever Jesus speaks a word of peace, it’s in the middle of some situation. He’s healed somebody of a disease or forgiven their sins. We say that Jesus “speaks peace into” a situation, which is a strange expression, but an accurate one. God created the universe and everything in it simply by speaking. On the very first page of the Bible it says over and over, “God said let there be…” and things happened. “Let there be light,” and there was light (Gen 1.3); “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit,” and it was so (1.11); “Let the earth bring forth living creatures…” and it was so (1.24). All God has to do is speak, and things come into existence. So, since Jesus is the Word that God speaks, all he has to do is say, “Peace! Be still!” and the storm is calmed; “Go in peace. Your faith has saved you,” and people are healed, their sins are forgiven, and they’re reconciled to God. God speaks, and the universe is made. He speaks, and his Son is raised from the dead. His Son speaks, and sins are forgiven, people are raised to new life in him, and filled with a divine peace that worldly wisdom can’t figure out or imitate. This is what it means to say that Jesus speaks peace “into” a situation. By simply speaking the word, he fills it with his peace.
That’s why forgiving sins is the most important way God exercises his almighty power. It’s not nearly as spectacular as creating the universe, or calming storms, or raising the dead. But it’s the thing that opens up new life to his creatures, and that brings peace to troubled souls. When one of his ministers pronounces God’s forgiveness over people who have just confessed their sins, as we’re going to do shortly, they are forgiven, contingent of course on their willingness to forgive others, and if so, they are at peace with God. So the diseases and disasters that can happen in this life, and the things that sinful humans can do to each other are not the most important things we need to worry about. “I tell you, my friends,” Jesus says elsewhere, “don’t fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more.” (Lk 12.4). That’s the limit of their power and their reach. Worry instead, he says, about being at peace with God.
However, Jesus says that he didn’t come to bring peace, but division. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law will all be set against one another. Families will be divided. Why? Because of the truth that Jesus has come to speak to the world. This truth is that the world is full of sin, and that people need to reject all the ways that sin has enslaved and alienated them from God and from one another, to repent and be reconciled to God and one another through his Son. The problem is that we don’t all acknowledge our sinfulness, and maybe don’t even realize that we’re stuck in sin. And we’re offended by the suggestion that there’s anything in our lives that needs fixing for the sake loving God and our neighbor.
This truth has the power to divide even close-knit families when one member accepts it and another rejects it. Relationships are strained, and even permanently broken. That’s why Jesus says elsewhere that no one can truly be his disciple if they’re not willing to be devoted to him above all else, and to love him more than our parents and brothers and sisters, and even our own lives (Lk 14.26). That sounds quite harsh, but the reality is that if we don’t love God above all things, we won’t have the grace and the ability to love everybody else as much as God wants us to love them. And in the case of sin, God’s desire is that we should love our loved ones so much that we’re willing to do what we can to bring them closer to God. If we can get that door open just a little bit, then God in his love and mercy will move us all just a little closer to the healing of our divisions.
That’s what real evangelism is: not shouting at people and condemning them or telling them how they ought to live and behave—that’s moralism. Real evangelism is simply introducing people to the Man who died for them, and has the power and the desire to give them new life. Just look at what Jesus did in the gospels. He didn’t yell and scream at people and tell them they’re going to burn in hell for ever if they don’t repent, like so many billboards and bumper stickers do. He told them about a kingdom they were welcome to join and how they could become part of it, he ministered to their immediate need, and then left them to make up their own minds whether they wanted to follow him or not. “Come and see,” is all he said to his first followers.
Now some people might hear that and think, “But we’re Episcopalians, and we don’t do that.” And I would point out that that’s one of the major problems with the Episcopal Church– the fact that we don’t do that. Proactive evangelism is not something that’s peculiar to Evangelical Christians. It is a call that God has put on the life and witness of every baptized Christian. So the fact that the Episcopal Church doesn’t do that sort of thing is not something to brag about. It’s actually something to be repented of and corrected, which is what our Presiding Bishop has been trying to do with his talk of “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.”
The source of the division that the Son of God brought into the world is the truth that has been revealed in him. The worst problem the world has is sin and our unwillingness to recognize it and repent of it. The marvellous thing about it, and the thing that the unbelieving world can’t comprehend, is that we have no power of our own to free ourselves from it, but Jesus does. His grace is sufficient to meet our need. All anybody needs to do is bow down at the cross and ask. What that will cost us is the entire rest of our life reoriented on him, worshipping him and serving in his Church. The great paradox in that exchange is that when people give their life to the Lord they don’t actually lose it at all, but instead save it. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Lk 9:23-24).
Now here’s the really good part. Once we’ve been made a part of that kingdom that Jesus came to establish, we begin to find out how huge, how extensive his kingdom really is. A new person walks into a local church and sees fifty, or seventy-five, or a hundred people worshipping together, and may have some understanding of the God they worship, and know a little bit about God’s love. But that’s about the extent of that person’s vision. Then they’re persuaded that in order to become a member they’ve got to be baptized. At that point all their past sins will be washed away, and they’ll become a child of God, a member of Christ’s Body, and an inheritor of his kingdom. And God the Holy Spirit will come and make his dwelling in that person and begin to show them the truth of what they have become, and the reality of what they have become a part of. If somebody is properly formed as a disciple and continues to learn new things about their new life and their new family, they’ll find that it’s way bigger than the fifty or seventy-five or hundred people they first encountered. That little congregation, they’ll find, is surrounded by a great a cloud of witnesses, and that whenever we gather in this place we’re actually joining them in their ongoing worship that transcends time and space.
Whether we’re gathered here worshipping with them or not, we rest in the assurance that these witnesses pray for us continually. They’ve been where we are, and so they know how badly we need their prayers. So feel free to reach out to them at any time. And the letter to the Hebrews, as we read today, assures us that God hears the prayers of this great cloud of witnesses. God hears them, and stands ready to supply us with the grace we need to be his witnesses too. He’s ready to supply us with the godly courage and determination to embrace the truth that his Son has revealed, and to stand firm in it, even when some of our dearest friends and loved ones reject it, and may possibly even reject us because of it.
And just as that invisible cloud of witnesses intercedes with God on our behalf night and day, we are encouraged to intercede on behalf of the world around us, that everyone in it will come to the knowledge of the truth, that all division may be healed, and that all people everywhere will eventually look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” So while we’re surrounded by division of all sorts in the world, remember that greater cloud of witnesses that surrounds us as well. And keep in mind that it’s our job, as disciples of Jesus, to speak his peace into those divisions as we have opportunity, that the world may know something of God’s love and God’s peace. In the Name of…
Ian C. Wetmore+