13th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Luke 12:49-56;
Heb 12:1-13; Jer 23:23-29
THE PEACE THAT PASSES UNDERSTANDING
Wow! With these hard words from Jesus, you almost want to respond with a question mark: “The Gospel of the Lord??” Where’s the Good News here? We are not going to be able to understand these hard words from Jesus outside the context of a story, so I’d like to begin with one.
Daniel, for most of his life, had seen himself as being from the ideal family. His father had been a doctor, and he, his two brothers and a sister were all successful professionals. Daniel himself was a well-placed executive in a thriving corporation, working many hours a week and pulling in a six-figure salary. He, his wife, and two children lived a comfortable life in the suburbs.
Family had always been an important part of Daniel’s values. He had done his part in keeping up the successful appearances for the sake of the family name. He worked hard for family. He played well with family. His mother, father, sister, brothers, and their families — they always got together for holidays and special events. They knew how to celebrate together. They had even taken vacations together.
There had been only one great tragedy to intrude on Daniel’s one big, happy family. Two years earlier his father had died suddenly of a heart attack. Since then, the family had supported one another, but neither were things the same. They sure weren’t the same for Daniel. His father’s death had caused him to take a hard look at his own life. Deep down he came to realize that he really wasn’t a happy person. He came to see the happiness in his life as mostly a surface thing. Happiness was part of the family appearances that everyone kept up. In truth he came to realize that he carried an underlying unhappiness since his childhood. Of he and his brothers and sisters, he had always been the most steady person, always doing well at whatever he did and never getting into trouble. His two brothers had both gone through a rebellious stage, during which they received a lot of attention. By contrast, he had never seemed to garnish any special attention. In the hectic pace of their home, he had been the quiet wheel who never squeaked. Rather, he came to realize, that his constant working to achieve had been his way of trying to get his parents love and attention, but it never quite seemed to work. The more he achieved, the more they seemed to expect of him. So his life had become a long string of what appeared to be successes. But he lacked the one thing that he now knew he needed the most: he needed to know deep down that he was loved.
There was now a new pain in his life, too. As he began to share some of his unhappiness with other family members, they had cut him off. They reacted as if they couldn’t handle what he had to say. Daniel wasn’t trying to blame anyone; he was simply trying to share his unhappiness. But that apparently was threatening to burst their bubble of the one big, happy family. His mother reacted most strongly. She simply wouldn’t hear of such nonsense. ‘They had always had everything they needed,’ she would say, and then change the subject. His brothers were pretty much the same way. So Daniel, in addition to feeling unhappy in his own life, was now also beginning to feel more distant from his own family. He was only trying to tell them the truth of how he felt, but that truth seemed to only bring division.
Until one day he had the chance to tell these things to his sister Cheryl. She had been the one who was a little more distant anyway. She had never been as regular at family events as the other siblings; she even lived farther away. So Daniel was surprised to find out that, when he began to share his feelings with her over the phone, he truly had a listening, sympathetic ear. As a matter of fact, Cheryl had some pain of her own that she shared with Daniel: when she had been in 6th grade, their family had hosted an exchange student for a year. During the year, this student had repeatedly raped her. She had tried to tell her mother once, but had run up against the family wall of keeping up appearances. Her mother hadn’t wanted to listen. So she had kept this terrible secret all these years, not daring to risk bursting the family happiness-bubble. And so a strange thing happened to Daniel and Cheryl: in sharing their suffering, they truly became brother and sister. In being able to tell each other their pain, they were also able to more fully share one another’s joys. The truth they had tried to share with their mother and brothers, which now divided them, was the same truth that brought the two of them great healing and brought them closer together than ever before. They could truly be family sharing both one another’s hurts and joys.
In our gospel lesson this morning, we encounter some very unexpected and troubling words from Jesus:
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…
I would like to suggest to you this morning that the way to understand these strange words is to see them in the light of Daniel’s story. Daniel, who most of his life thought himself from the ideal family, found himself divided from his mother and brothers when he tried to share his pain with them. They preferred to keep up the appearances of a happy family than to know the truth of Daniel’s pain. This is the sense, I think, in which Jesus comes not to bring peace, but to bring division. If our peace and happiness is to be bought at the price of ignoring another’s pain, then Jesus comes with a truth which will divide us. Jesus came to show us the depth of our problem with sin that infects every part of our lives, including, and perhaps especially, in our families. If we choose to remain blind to the depths of that problem, then the truth that Jesus brings will divide us before it has the chance to heal us.
What is that problem of sin? Basically, it is the one we just highlighted: we are inclined to try to win our happiness at the expense of ignoring someone else’s pain. Even worse, sometimes we try to win our happiness and peace by inflicting pain and suffering on someone else. This is the ‘sacrificial logic’ that you have heard me talk about before. In recent weeks, I have referred to it as the insider/outsider game we play. If we can count ourselves as insiders — as God-fearing, church-going people, for instance — then we can justify our letting those outsiders alone, even though they may be suffering. ‘They are outsiders, after all,’ we tell ourselves, ‘God must have some reason that they should suffer.’ We win our peace at someone else’s expense. We have to keep up our own happy appearances.
This is true not only on the level of our individual families, but it is also true on the level of the God’s family, the family made up of all our human families. Jesus came as our brother to help us see that we are all brothers and sisters. Therefore, if we try to win the peace, by ignoring anyone else’s peace, he came to show us that that is really no peace at all. It is division. It is father against son, mother against daughter, brother against sister.
Most commentators see the second part of this morning’s gospel as completely separate. I see them as very much related. If Jesus came to give us a new understanding of family, then we must learn to read the signs of the times. We must stop the hypocrisy of the insider/outsider games we play and look around us at the human family that surrounds us. How do you read the signs of our times, for instance? How do you read our current politics and economics? Do they help us to reach out to the suffering? Or do they help us to ignore those who suffer? To write them off as outsiders who must somehow deserve their fate? Are we striving after a false peace at the expense of the least of our brothers and sisters?
The good news is that Christ Jesus also came to offer us true peace, the peace that has been won for us, not by inflicting, or ignoring, someone else’s pain, but won at the cost of Jesus’ suffering pain at our hands. He became for us a victim of our own sacrificial logic. He became for us an outcast to our own insider/outsider games. But God raised him from the deathly consequences of those games to declare the real winner. And the amazing grace is that we all win! Because this Jesus came to forgive those sins of our game-playing and to lead us into a new relationship with God and with one another, a relationship not based on separating ourselves from the pain of a brother or sister.
And Jesus our brother calls us to be part of a new family, one that first shares in each other’s pain and suffering, but that also grows strong together, then, in the hope of a day when that pain and suffering will be no more. So here we are once again, ready for our family dinner. Yes, our family dinner! Rooted in the pain and suffering of the body of Christ, and growing strong toward the day of victory over sin and death, we’re here for a foretaste of the great feast to come, a foretaste to strengthen us for the service ahead. Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest…
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 2-3, 1995