Luke 12:49-56 -- Prince of Peace?
Today’s Gospel Lesson is deeply unsettling. Our understanding of the work of Christ centers on peace. Isn’t He the prophesied “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6)? Did He not “break down the middle wall of separation...so making peace” (Eph. 2:14-15)? Did His Apostle not command us “as much as possible, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18)? What can He mean when He says “I came to send fire on the earth” and “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you not at all, but rather division”? Doesn’t this go against His first acclamation as King by the heavenly armies of angels, who announced: “Glory to God in the highest/and on earth peace/goodwill toward men” (Lk. 2:14)?
We want our Lord Jesus to be about peace. In our fractured and fracturing world, we desire peace, but all we see is division: republican and democrat, liberal and conservative, white and black, female and male. We wonder, sometimes quite vocally, where God is in all of this. We long for utopia, for a comfortable middle-class existence, a world in which we don’t see all the injustices that our way of life entails. We forget that Christ has not called us to comfort, or to wealth, or to ease: He has called us to faith. The passages directly before this one tell us this. He starts this particular discourse by warning of hypocrisy, of play-acting, of the act that is the essence of unbelief. Then He counsels us to fear only God, who values us more than “many sparrows.” He calls on us to honor Him and the Holy Spirit before men. The parable of the rich fool drives the point of faithfulness to God home. When the rich man dies, it is said to him, “‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you: then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God” (v. 21). God knows, He continues, that we need the things of the body: we have children to feed and clothe and educate; we have a God-given desire for beauty; we need some measure of security. “For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows you need these things. But seek the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys” (vv. 30-33). He then concludes with many parables about being ready, by which He means being active in faith. Here we see the fire that our Lord is kindling! Our Faith, which calls us to integrity, to fear only God in trust, to give up our desires for advancement, for wealth, for ease of life, and urges us to be ready in action, is a fire the burns hotly. It is a fire that brings great division. It strikes like a sword, “piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
St Paul knew this reality of the Faith well. He says in Romans 7: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Here is the soul divided by the call of Christ, the soul that can only call out “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death!” But St Paul knows, for he has been baptized into Christ and so has died with Him (Rom. 6:3), that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The Faith which is a fire is a baptism, just as our Lord said (Lk. 12:50), it is a summons to our death in Adam, that we might live in Christ. This new Life, this eternal Life of knowing and so participating in God Himself, makes all things new, including our family life. We do not see this as much in our context, so a little history might be revelatory for us.
In the first-century Jewish world, family mattered a great deal. From your family came your status, your identity, and your inheritance of the land which God had given to father Abraham. To be divided against them was a great evil. In the Roman world, which would have received St Luke’s account of the Gospel, the father was supreme in all things, including life and death, as the pater familias. To be divided from a father was a great evil. To lose your family, especially your father, in the ancient world was to lose everything. For Jesus to suggest that He is bringing division into the tight world of family would have been shocking and distressing to His followers. Yet, this is exactly what God has always done. Let us remember the story of Abram’s calling in the early chapters of Genesis: “Get out of your country/from your family/and from your father’s house/to a land that I will show you” (12:1). Here Abram is being separated from all the social support networks that were established through the ancient world, which is why God promises him land, descendents, and a great name.
God has set up fatherhood, and families, to be a reflection of the care and generosity and protection that He offers us; we, however, often turn this created reality into something that precludes God. It does not stop with the family, though; we do the same thing with our work, with our hobbies, our political inclinations, and our country. Christ brings division, brings the fire of His Faith, into all these human relationships, not because they are bad or unnecessary, but because they need healing. They have been broken, warped, twisted by sin and by death: they must be set right, but that can only happen as God destroys death by death, rising from the grave. All our marriages, our parenting, our politics, our work, must go through the crucible -- the purgation -- of the Cross; they must be baptized and, in so doing, be released from bondage to sin, death, and Satan, so that they might be avenues of Christ’s Spirit here and now. There is no utopia, but there is the Kingdom. There is the life of repentance in all things, of putting all things to death so that they might be received in new life with thankfulness, that transcends any earthly peace: it is a peace that conquers divisions, in which there is no longer “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This peace, though, does not come without divisions: for all that is in Adam must be put to death -- all things must go through the Cross.
Consider our Lord’s words when He speaks about discipleship: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Lk. 9:23-24). Or consider the words of St Paul, “Now if we died with Christ...reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness of God” (Rom. 6:8a, 11-13). Our whole life, with all its attendant bonds, is to be considered crucified with Christ, freed from sin, so that we might live resurrected lives in the here-and-now.
This brings us to Christ’s words to the multitudes, where He chastises them for not knowing what time it is. While He stood in front of them, about to divide the world “in Adam” or “in Christ” by His Cross and resurrection, He asked them if they knew the time. We live after this event of salvation, but do we know the time? St Paul says, “And do this” that is, fulfilling the Law through loving another, “knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom. 13:11-14). Now is the day to seek after Christ, now is the day for the fire of His Spirit to descend upon us, now is the day, as the Prophet Elijah said, to cast off trying to serve two masters, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Ba’al, follow him” (1 Kgs. 18:21). For the fire is kindled, the waters of baptism are prepared, and the judgment of God which leads to salvation has appeared to all men. Amen.