The Reign of God and Responsibility - A Sermon on Luke 12:49-56 - August 14, 2022
Have no fear, little flock, for it is the Father’s greatest desire to give you the Kingdom…
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
What a contrast! From the comforting words of verse 32 to the seemingly harsh words of verse 49 and following, it feels as though Jesus has had a complete change of perspective. He has seemingly gone from words of comfort and promise, to words of rejection and judgement. And as he continues with this teaching, he only seems to makes things worse:
The household will be divided… father against son, and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
What’s up with this? What is it that Jesus is trying to say to us through this difficult and seemingly contradictory series of teachings? I would like to take a brief but careful look at this section of chapter 12, beginning with verse 32 from last week:
…for it is the Father’s greatest desire to give you the Kingdom
For it is the Father’s greatest delight…
In other words: nothing thrills God more than to give God’s children the gift of what the bible translators call “The Kingdom of God” – but which I will refer to in this sermon as the gift of the Reign of God!
The Kingdom of God - The Reign of God – God’s Realm. This is the key I believe not only for unpacking this particularly difficult passage but understanding Luke as a whole. Luke’s Gospel is all about the coming of God’s Realm into our world, now! The Reign of God – is come now! It is here! It is in our midst! God’s Reign is not off in the future; it is not some illusive and distant heaven which we might inherit sometime in the future, IF we’re worthy enough. No! There is no “off in the distance” heaven in Luke. The gift of God’s Reign is here and it is now. But, at the same time, God’s Realm is also not yet come into its fullness. And so, we can say that the Reign of God is both NOW and NOT YET!
The other main theme which impacts this entire section of Jesus’ teaching is Jesus’ impending passion and cross. Beginning in chapter 9 when Jesus descends from the Mount of Transfiguration, he has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” – that is, to the cross – to suffering, death and burial … and to resurrection.
These two themes are not only related but they are intertwined throughout the Gospel. Jesus’ impending passion defines Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Reign come now into our midst. Jesus’ impending passion gives Jesus’ ministry and teaching an intensity and a breathlessness. Jesus is anxious for his disciples (of all times) to understand that in the passion, God is entering into human suffering; God submits to the power of violence and hate. But suffering, violence and hate will ultimately be revealed as impotent as they are defeated by the resurrection on the 3rd day. But, at the same time the suffering is real, the hate is real, the violence is real and the fear which is engendered by these powers is also real and disabling. As Dennis pointed out last Sunday in his excellent sermon on the passage that begins at verse 32, when we allow fear to overwhelm us then we are stepping back and allowing the powers of this world to dominate us. It is the Father’s greatest desire to give us the Kingdom, but fear will keep the gift at arm’s length, it will keep us from accepting the gift and living into the the Reign of God come now into our midst. But this is the key - living as a citizen of God’s Reign means living our lives post-resurrection. While we cannot deny the reality of the insidious powers of this world, at the same time we must recognize and live in a way that affirms their ultimate and final powerlessness and defeat.
The advent of the Reign of God is established as foundational by Luke from the very beginning, in the prologue to the Gospel – chapters 1 and 2: After the messenger comes to Mary in chapter 1, with the news that she is to bear the Christ child, Mary responds with the first of four incredible songs which taken together lay out the theology of the Gospel: “My soul and spirit rejoices in God, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant and has done great things…” This is not a personal moment for Mary, she is singing on behalf of and with all of God’s beloved creation. She is singing about, on behalf of, and with us – you and me! In Christ, in God’s incarnation, God has destroyed the human devised social class system and all which separates and divides, and has turned over the tables of oppression and suffering and fear; In the calling of Mary, an anonymous, teenage peasant girl from a nothing little poor village in the region of the Galilee we see the first glimpse of God’s Reign come into our midst in Mary’s simple response – “Let it be…” and much like God’s work of creation in Genesis 1 - It was.
The flawed, skeptical, discouraged priest Zechariah is next up on the playlist: “Blessed be the God of Israel, who has looked with favor upon God’s people and set them free… the dawn of God’s love is breaking upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and God’s love will guide the feet of God’s beloved creation into the way of Peace – into the way of Shalom.” It is this word – this Hebrew word - that is the key word of promise – Shalom, which means unity with God and others; utter and complete well-being; living in the light of God’s love, in community! And the choir of messengers in chapter 2 who appear to those poor, fearful and confused shepherds affirm this proclamation when they burst out singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven but on earth Shalom to God’s beloved.” Shalom, the peace that passes understanding, is the gift promised to a world in need on that Holy Night of the birth of the Christ.
So then, why does Jesus say in our passage today from chapter 12: Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! Isn’t that a contradiction?
If I were to come up to you and ask you – “tell me what the word “peace” means - what would you say? I suspect you would probably tell me that it means the absence of conflict - people getting along - an end to interpersonal hostility, or at least a compromise that lets us live together with our differing attitudes and opinions. In Jesus’ day, the Romans understood the power of the promise of “peace” in much the same way. They called it "Pax Romana." “Pax” being the Latin word for “peace” – the absence of conflict. "Pax Romana" was one of the great gifts which Rome bestowed upon its vast empire. Peace, the absence of conflict, bestowed by force; peace maintained through violence, through intimidation, through fear.
By contrast the Reign of God doesn’t promise “peace” in the sense of the absence of conflict. God’s Realm is not establishing “peace” like the Romans offer, but the deeper Shalom – unity, love, grace, at-one-ness. The difference here is that Shalom is not just a papering over inequalities and injustices like Rome’s version of Pax. For unlike Roman Pax, Shalom cannot take root as long as there is suffering, hunger, hate and injustice. We may catch a glimpse, or experience a moment of Shalom as a “Foretaste of the Feast to Come.” But, the gift of Shalom is nurtured as the Reign of God begins to take root and flourish. Jesus himself proclaims what that means clearly in chapter 4, quoting Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the jubilee year… and Jesus began to say to those assembled… today this scripture is fulfilled. Today the Reign of God has come into your midst. And then we jump ahead to chapter 12 where Jesus speaks to his disciples and warns them about confusing Shalom with Pax Romana. They aren’t the same. And Jesus wants his disciples to understand that the gift of God’s Reign come now is going to bring division, because “going along to get along,” averting our eyes from injustice and hate and suffering is incompatible with Shalom and the Reign of God.
We have created our own uniquely American version of "Pax Romana" I think. And in these last several years as things have gotten more and more difficult and conflicted in our society many of us have tried harder and harder to appeal to this 21st century version of Pax Romana. Can’t we all get along and find common ground – can’t we find a way to compromise. It is a noble aim, until we recognize that at its core this kind of compromise means to simply to avert our eyes and ignore the blatant hate and injustice which are being perpetrated upon our neighbors, especially our vulnerable neighbors. And to ignore the pain and suffering of the creation and human persons who are all God’s beloved children, is simply incompatible with God’s Reign and a denial of Shalom.
We began our service this morning with a “Lament of Racism.” While many in our society want to pretend racism is no longer an issue, that it has somehow been “solved,” yet here in the early 21st century black folks are still singled out in a variety of ways, and some of these ways have led to intense suffering and death. But our contemporary American version of Pax Romana simply wants us to avert our eyes and compromise. But Shalom will not permit this, Shalom demands that we recognize and confess our white privilege and the destructive, life-denying effect it has had and continues to have on our black and brown and indigenous neighbors.
These were the words we used earlier: We are all part of one body in Christ, called to act with equity, fairness, and justice. God’s saving love creates grace-filled spaces within us and within our relationships. God’s saving love calls and leads us toward rooting out the racism that continues to infect the body.
I would humbly suggest a change in the wording just for today, in light of this Gospel text: We are all part of one body in Christ – That is, we are all part of God’s Realm – and God’s Realm, God’s “Shalom” calls us – NO, demands from us that we act with equity, fairness, and justice. God’s Realm creates grace-filled spaces within us, within our relationships. God’s Realm calls and leads us toward rooting out the racism that continues to infect our world, our nation and our communities.
Shalom demands no less.
I could go on at this point and present a long albeit incomplete list of injustices that require our immediate attention. And I encourage us all to ponder this text in relation to the many pressing needs that surround us and have caught our attention. But, remember this: Shalom does not allow us to ignore injustice or the persecution of anyone, especially those who are vulnerable. Shalom proclaims that the powerful and privileged will be cast down and the lowly be lifted up; the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty.
Baptized into Christ we are citizens of the Reign of God – called to be open vessels of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s Shalom. At the same time, being able to live in ways that reflect God’s Realm is also a gift of the Holy Spirit. I believe that Jesus in this Gospel passage is using these harsh words in order to confront and challenge his disciples of all times and move us away from our complacency, our willingness to settle, our hopelessness and our fear which inspires and enables inaction.
Before I bring this sermon to a close there is one more song from the prologue – the 4th song - Simeon’s Song: Now, you let your servant go in “peace” - in “shalom” according to your word of promise. For my eyes have seen your salvation, your grace, my eyes have seen the advent of the Reign of God into this world, this nation, this community here and now in the presence of all peoples – ALL peoples. For we are ALL citizens of the Reign of God, and as such we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to live as citizens of God’s Realm. Sometimes it will cause division, sometimes it will cause relationships to break. But still, our calling is to love and live in ways that reflect this Reign of God’s; to love and live in ways that reflect God’s grace and God’s commitment to the whole creation and all those whom God loves.
And may the Shalom of God, which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Here is the link for the worship service at Unity Lutheran Church where this sermon was preached. The reading of the Gospel and the sermon begins at 22:30
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