Not Peace but Division
49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in- law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Interpreting the Times
54 He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
I love so many aspects of being a pastor, baptizing folks is certainly one of them. Our reformed heritage is built upon a premise of Christ’s actions happening on our behalf and Jesus is baptized for all of humanity, and that our baptism is a symbol of our participating in what Christ has participated in. It doesn’t give us salvation, God has saved us from the beginning and, as Paul reminds us, we are all working out that salvation. Baptism is symbolic of God’s action…that we are marked by God’s grace.
This morning’s gospel lesson has a lot to say about God’s actions through Jesus. It’s also a stark reminder that being a follower of Jesus, being wrapped in God’s actions on our behalf through Jesus, is not always understood.
When we hear Jesus say that he didn’t come to bring peace, but division, it’s a bit disorienting. Isn’t this the same Jesus who is always preaching unity, peace on earth and in us, and to work together, to be connected?
But, when this passage is read in context, Jesus is saying that following him has consequences, we are operating under a different understanding than what is evident in the world. The old ways of doing things are behind us, a new way of being, of loving, of including and even a changing worldview is required.
The world, the systems that dominate our thinking…what we see and is fed to us on social media and the news cycle at times…tell us to live and think a certain way. But, following Jesus requires a different depth, a change of course, a deeper inner peace that is not understood in a world dominated by transactional thinking.
So, even as we are called to love the world, to build bridges and not walls, we are living countercultural and that causes division, and sometimes even violence and persecution… it certainly did for Jesus and the early disciples. It cost them their lives.
Many of you know my friend Daniel Hughes. He’s one of my best friends. He’s a black Methodist pastor on the west side of Cincinnati in Price Hill. A few years ago, we had an incredibly deep conversation in light of some of the social upheaval at the time around racism, which has been a part of this country since before the Revolution, and the world since the beginning of time.
One of the things that came out of that conversation has changed our friendship in the years since. I realized during that conversation my love for my friend and what he’s had to deal with as a black man. Would I be willing to follow Jesus’ words and actions and lay down my life for him? In that moment, and since then, I have said yes to that.
It may not be a physical death, but it’s certainly been a death of some of my opinions, the way that that I think at times, and how I relate to the world that I’ve been brought up in. It’s been a constant flow of death and resurrection in our friendship that has produced growth. At times, it has not been peaceful, actually hard and divisive. Yet, it’s been good, a deep good. And I’m grateful for it.
I’m living into my baptism with Daniel, and with you, our church, as well. The relationships in my life, in our lives, remind us that our old lives are buried in the water, and new life springs out as we are washed in the waters! But, that’s a hard process at times, we may embrace it out of God’s love, but it has a cost doesn’t it? Love is free, love wins, but the growth that love brings can be hard to navigate at times.
But, baptism gives us hope. We are not alone. God is with us and has given us Jesus. And, as our passage in Hebrews reminds us, we have a great cloud of witnesses that have gone before and after us, cheering us on to the finish line.
When Jesus was baptized, it was dramatic. He comes to the river Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John. As we’ve said in the past, John came preaching a message of repentance, of a change of heart and mind to a new way of living. Baptism symbolized that dying of the old and living into a new life. That baptism, for all of humanity, eventually cost Jesus is his life. That baptism, also symbolized Jesus rising up in the resurrection as well…and we, because of our shared baptism in Christ, also die and rise up.
As followers of Christ, we need to recognize this need in our lives daily. It is tempting to be in a church setting and in our lives outside of this church building to live as we always have, which oftentimes looks much like how everyone else in this world lives. We settle into old patterns that bring only death and decay over time, rather than living into a new life of being present with God’s imagination and creative spirit. This is a life that God doesn’t promise will be one without suffering, but one that God promises to be with us in and as we cultivate a sense of God’s Presence in our lives, one filled with live giving and growing relationship with God and with others.
Yet, it is so hard to break free of those old patterns, isn’t it? Often, in church world, those patterns are reinforced in the way that we do church. Too often we let how the world operates in a negative way determine how we operate in our lives together in the church. We fall into patterns of negative thinking, of gossiping, scapegoating others, control, etc. Whereas God calls us towards freedom, positive engagement with others, honoring others when they are around us and when they are not (which, by the way, political correctness or “saying it like it is” are not excuses for being mean spirited in front of others or behind their back), and of self-awareness to where we ask ourselves how can we serve others rather than blame others.
We cannot live in the way of Jesus without help. We cannot love others, God, or even ourselves until we’ve learned to receive love. That’s why we have to live in recognition of Christ’s baptism for us and to understand the cost of what that means.
This is Jesus’ example to us in his baptism. When he came to John, John didn’t think he should baptize Jesus, that Jesus should baptize him. Yet, Jesus says no, that in order for righteousness to be demonstrated, that Jesus should be baptized by John. Jesus knew who he was, that he was representing all of humanity and that he was God’s son, God’s human representation on earth. He was connected to the flow of God that created, saved, and sustains all of life. Yet, he also knew that to be righteous, or right in relationship, means to submit to someone else, to live in humility. So, he submits to John’s baptism.
His dying to self on our behalf cuts to the core of who we are, tells us that we too are a part of the flow of God that changes everything. The question for us this morning: are we willing to let go of those old ways of thinking and being and live into the new reality that Christ’s baptism represents?
Do we recognize as this story points out that we can’t hide from the present times that we live in? WE, Jesus’ followers, are being reminded that we do have eyes to see and that the times are changing, just as we recognize that weather is changing. We may not want to recognize that culture is changing and that gives us opportunities for imagination and growth…Jesus is saying that we are called to adapt and to grow with him.
When Jesus is baptized, we read that the Spirit of God descends on Jesus life a dove. God’s Spirit is always with Jesus, even before this, and also with us. In the story of Noah, when the floods recede, there is a dove flying over the chaos, reminding us of the hope of new life, and, out of chaos, comes new life and stability.
Friends, the same spirit of God is descending upon us even now, are we willing to receive God’s Presence in our lives and live fully in this new reality? If we are, then we will see evidence of changed behavior on our part, we will see our lives change and this church become all that God intends.