Sunday 20 • 14 Aug 2016

Isaiah 5:1-7
Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2
Luke 12:49-56

Rev. Chris Udy

I once received an email
from a preacher’s discussion group
about our Gospel from Luke for today
that read “This Gospel text
(the one about fighting families)
is not one you’ll find on greeting cards
or posted up on refrigerator doors.
It's not a passage
we’d encourage children to memorize.”
It’s an upsetting and annoying text –
and one we’d probably prefer not to read -
but we can’t ignore it,
because almost all of us live in families
where Jesus has brought division.

The passage we read is part of a longer section
where Jesus is talking
about living responsibly and carefully,
being always ready,
because - as he says
“The Son of Man comes at an unexpected hour.”
In our reading for today,
Jesus talks about bringing a fire to the earth -
and then he says
“I have a baptism with which to be baptised,
and what stress I am under
until it is completed.”

Baptism was very important for Jesus;
it was a transforming experience for him,
and one he came back to again and again.
What happened when he went out
with hundreds of other people
to be baptised by John in the Jordan River
was so significant to him
that it underpinned everything he did
from that day on.

You remember that John’s baptism
was also strange and confronting.
John had said to all Hebrew people -
“Don’t think it’s enough
to be born into Abraham’s family,
don’t think for a second
that blood lines and family connections
are all there is
to being part of God’s people
and inheriting God’s promises.
It isn’t enough
to be born into the family of Abraham,
you have to be born into his faith.”

In fact - John said to his audience -
none of you, by the way you’re living
can claim any connection with God at all.
You might as well consider yourselves gentiles -
aliens to Israel -
and you should do
what gentiles and aliens have to do
if they want to join God’s people.
That’s why John baptised the people
who came out to him,
because baptism was the ceremony
that non-Jewish people - gentiles and aliens -
went through to join the people of God.
In baptism they followed the journey of Israel
in the exodus - through the waters of the Red Sea
and through the Jordan River
and into the land of God’s promise.

So when Jesus came out to be baptised,
all those ideas and symbols were there for him -
in his baptism he was being born
into the faith of Abraham -
even though he belonged to Abraham’s family.

Then - while he was being baptised -
Luke says Jesus heard God’s voice say
“You are my much loved Son,
and I am pleased with you.” -
and in that moment
baptism became absolutely central
to the way Jesus understood his life and work.
From then on,
Jesus even described his whole life-work as baptism -
a continuing baptism
that began in the Jordan River,
continued through his death,
and was completed in his resurrection.
And that’s why - in today’s reading - Jesus says
“I have a baptism
with which to be baptised,
and what stress I am under until it is completed.”

Every day of his public ministry
was part of that baptism -
every day he lived as God’s much loved son -
and when he died,
it was like slipping
under the surface of the water in the river.
Then, when he rose again,
when he emerged beyond death,
he’d created a new Israel, a new people of God.
He’d led the way through the water of death -
the chaos and confusion of profound change -
into the new promised land -
the kingdom of heaven – the realm of God -
and he’d established a new relationship
between God and God’s people.

When we are baptised into the community of faith
the meaning we follow is the baptism of Jesus.
We are born into the people of God,
we become part of the new Israel -
we are citizens of the new promised land -
and we live in that new relationship
between God and God’s people.
Just like Jesus,
we are God’s much loved children,
and God takes delight in us.
We don’t have to do anything
or prove anything
or become anything to earn that love -
it’s ours right now - we’re part of God’s family.

And just like any daughter or son in any family
we can choose to accept that love and live in it,
or deny it and reject it,
but whatever we choose to do,
we remain in the loving grace of God.

For Jesus, knowing he was loved by God
gave him strength and wisdom and hope
to get through everything, even death on the cross.
For us there will also be suffering and sadness -
nothing that any of us can do will stop that -
but knowing we are loved by God
can also give us the strength and wisdom and hope
to get through whatever the world throws at us.

In our Gospel reading,
after he has talked about his baptism,
Jesus continues into our troublesome text:
“Do you think I’ve 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.
Father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in -law
and vice versa.”
It’s not the sort of thing we expect Jesus to say.
We associate Jesus
with families like the Brady Bunch,
not with the Simpsons,
and we really do think that being Christian
also means working at relationships in the family.
So what does he mean
by this warning about division,
and what does it mean for us
as we live in the community of faith?

It’s worth noting
that the divisions Jesus describes
are in the most significant
and powerful relationships of Jewish culture.
A father’s influence
and guidance for his son was crucial -
fathers gave their sons everything,
from land and work skills to values and religion.
Mothers were as significant
in their relationships with their daughters -
until they were married,
and then,
because a wife would usually leave her family
and join her husband’s household,
her husband’s mother
would assume that power and influence.
For a son to rebel against his father,
or a daughter to reject her mother
or her mother-in-law was very, very serious -
and could only happen
if something or someone else
was even more significant and powerful to them.

So if Jesus was going to be the cause of divisions
in the relationships he describes,
he would have to be offering
something much more significant,
much more powerful and influential
than daughters and sons could find in their families.

The warning Jesus gave his followers
2,000 years ago was right.
From that time on,
whenever people have discovered
the meaning of his baptism,
there has been conflict and division in families.

It started with Jesus himself -
there was a time when his mother and brother
came to collect him and take him home,
sure that he’d gone a bit crazy.
But Jesus refused to go with them,
because his confidence in God’s love
was greater than his family’s fear.
In the early church,
when becoming a Christian
often meant enduring
the family’s rejection and condemnation,
the Christian community
would provide a new family -
and from baptism a God-mother and a God-father
would be responsible
for the care and nurture of the new Christian.
Ever since, when people have discovered
the strength and wisdom and hope
that God gives his people,
there have been times and places
where they’ve had to make a choice
between their family’s values and power -
and the power and values of Christian life.

Over the last 25 years – so in the last generation -
most Christian congregations in Australia
have been part of a revolution
in worship and community life.
There are now few congregations
where one form of worship
satisfies all generations,
or where everyone in the congregation
comes together for any single community activity.
In some places the divisions are deep and stark.
Households are divided:
retirees against babyboomers,
babyboomers against Gen Xers
Gen Xers against Generation Y and the Millennials -
and often it's Jesus -
our different experience of
and response to Jesus -
that sets out the boundaries.
Some of the deepest and saddest divisions in families
have come when a child
who's been nurtured in the faith
has finally said ‘I don't believe the way you believe,
and I won't belong where you belong' -
and parents are left wondering
where they went wrong,
and where their kids went wrong,
and where the Church went wrong,
and everyone ends up carrying shame
and wondering what happens next.

The divisions aren't confined to generations either.
Over the last 25 years – the last generation -
there’s been an explosive discussion
on how we can and should read the Bible,
and how we can live in a world re-defined by science
and still describe ourselves as Christians.
Many people have read books
by people like Marcus Borg, or John Spong,
or Barbara Butler Bass - among many others -
who are offering new definitions of Christian faith.
There are some who welcomed John Spong
as a modern-day Martin Luther,
calling the church to a new reformation -
but others said he and his colleagues represent
everything that threatens the Church's life -
and both groups would say
that it's Jesus they're defending
against people who want
to distort and dilute his Gospel.

So - when we see ourselves as evangelical or liberal,
Jesus stands between us.
When we see ourselves
as traditional or contemporary,
Jesus stands between us.
Jesus divides us when we're party political,
he confronts us on gender,
he challenges every generation,
and he's not always safe on race -
and if we use any of those labels and definitions first,
if we choose to hold onto those identities first,
Jesus will come between us,
and is torn between us,
and is broken by our differences.

Jesus stands at our boundaries,
at the points where we divide,
and by being broken between us
he also becomes our peace.

So it's Jesus who also holds us together,
and it's Jesus who leads us into the future.
Jesus said: When you see a cloud rising in the west
you immediately say,
‘It is going to rain'; and so it happens.
And when you see the south wind blowing,
you say, ‘There will be scorching heat';
and it happens.
You know how to interpret
the appearance of earth and sky,
but why do you not know how
to interpret the present time?

As you’d expect, there are many
who are trying to describe
what the Church might look like
in generations to come –
trying to see the features
of an emerging culture of Church,
and what names and ideas about God
it might find helpful.
Ideas are diverse and often contradictory,
but some of the characteristics
of this emerging culture seem to be:
  • juxtaposition, holding things together
    that seem to be in conflict;
  • relationality - a hunger
    for friendship and community;
  • participation - a need to have our gifts encouraged;
  • spirituality - knowing that life
    can't be lived in one dimension -
    that there are deeper things and higher things
    than those we can touch and see;
  • holism - a recognition that everything's connected;
  • romanticism - a willingness to live in hope,
    a life that treasures and honours tenderness;
  • play - a tendency to joy; and
  • immediacy - a life lived with passion.

As you hear that list,
perhaps you find
that these characteristics are somehow familiar -
that these features belong to someone recognisable;
Who do you know who loves with passion,
surrenders to joy,
lives in hope,
moves with the Spirit,
calls us to use our gifts,
welcomes us into community,
and holds all things together
in sacrificial grace?
If the world of the future
is looking for these features
then Jesus has something to offer -
and the work of God's people
is not to reclaim what we had before
or defend what we have in the present,
but to interpret the signs –
to recognise and welcome this new face of God
as Jesus rises out of our past
and emerges into our future. Amen