Isn’t it great to be here? Isn’t it a relief to be part of a new congregation with a bunch of people and a pastor who ‘get’ us? Isn’t it wonderful to be at a church that is not like the others? Here, women can claim their authority, and preach. Here, children can move around throughout the service. Here, the furniture is scuffed and wonky and nobody needs to worry about sticky fingers and sand on the floor. Here, we can ask difficult questions and not be censured. Here, people seek to integrate their lives and their faith, and we don’t have too many empty words. We’ve been listening to Jesus, we understand that his ways centre around hospitality, care for the vulnerable and peacemaking, and we’re all on board. Isn’t it great?
But into this lovely peaceful place erupt the words of Jesus: “I did not come to bring peace, but division. From now on, households will be divided, and the people you love will turn against you.” What on earth is Jesus trying to say to us here? Isn’t he supposed to be the Prince of Peace?
Well, when we think peace, we often think of comfortable agreement. In our world, the groups we belong to have clear boundaries, and these boundaries are maintained by common values and behaviours. So we are ‘Aussie battlers’ or ‘chardonnay-sipping socialists’. Citizens or asylum seekers. City or country. Queer or straight. Protestant or Catholic. WEPS kids or Jamo germs. Even our families have strong cultures: This is the way the Clark clan operates. Smiths do things this way; Jones do things that way. That this way of thinking breeds an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality is clear in our self-definitions: I’m inner urban espresso, not suburban Nescafe; I’m upper middle class, not working class; I’m public school, not private school; I’m Baptist, not Catholic; I’m Cornish, not English; and thank God I’m a Sampson!
As long as we do the right thing by our group, as long as we don’t rock the boat, then we keep the peace and everything is just fine. But Jesus explodes this way of thinking. He demands that we love beyond the boundaries—beyond our family, our village, our clan, our country. He demands that we love everyone, not just our friends and family, but everyone, like one of ‘us’.
The problem is that, when we answer this call, when we stop playing the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ game, it unleashes havoc. When we make decisions which step away from our family culture, when we challenge the boundaries of the church, when we question militarism and patriotism and capitalism and all the other -isms which shape our nation, people feel threatened; and the people who feel most deeply threatened are the ones who are closest to us. In their anger and anxiety and resentment, they lash out.
Most of us have experienced this at one time or another. Jesus describes a world in which a mother-in-law is set against her daughter-in-law, and how many women here have experienced hostility from her in-laws when her husband has stepped away from his family culture? Many of us have experienced contempt from our fellow citizens when we have challenged our nation’s unbridled pursuit of economic growth, or our brutal policies around border control. Jesus was crucified at the demand of his own religious group, and some of us have been asked to resign church membership when our questions about theology or our frustrations with church practice have become too hot to handle.
“Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” These words should not be a surprise. Because we are walking in the footsteps of the ultimate scapegoat, the one who crossed boundaries again and again; the one who ate with wicked women and traitors and foreigners; the one who told stories where the ‘right’ people exercised violence, and the ‘wrong’ people showed love; the one who freely bore on his own body the violent retaliation of the world. If we follow him, we should expect to be criticised, and excluded, and mocked, even by the people we love.
When this happens, we have a choice. We are free to retaliate and participate in the hatred of the world; we are free to capitulate, and go back to business as usual—or we are free to keep following Jesus. With him as our guide, we can try to love across boundaries, and we can graciously bear the consequences when our efforts trigger conflict.
Loving like this means no more ‘us’ and ‘them’. No more ‘real Australians’ and no more ‘urban elites’. No more rednecks and no more wogs. No more WEPS kids and no more Jamo germs; no more cootie-catchers and no more girl germs. No more adhering to destructive family cultures, and no more rejection of those who live differently. No more self-righteousness about how we do church; and no more looking at other churches, unless it be with the gentle eyes of love.
Jesus’ way isn’t easy. It goes against the human way of keeping the peace. It’s a road marked by suffering and conflict, and it leads straight to the cross. For Jesus’ way means crucifying much that we hold dear: national pride, religious rivalry, family culture, class privilege, and identity markers of every stripe.
This way is difficult; this way is painful—but on the other side of the cross we find love. And in love we encounter true peace. Not the comfortable peace of the world, which demands that we submit to group culture, and expels us when we don’t; not the peace that results from coercion, capitulation or control. Instead, we experience the peace that passes all understanding and obliterates all boundaries, found in the real and healing and liberating presence of the risen Christ, the Prince of Peace. Amen. Ω
Reflection on Luke 12:49-56. Icon from Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside, CA.