Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture: Luke 12:49-56
At Washington City Church of the Brethren, we understand the ministry of peacemaking as an important, integral part of Jesus’ gospel. The teaching and actions of Jesus speak in Scripture to God’s peace and reconciliation: they lift up the poor and marginalized, they call for love of enemies, and they value transformed relationships over ritual worship. Peace isn’t a niche pet project we stumbled onto—it’s a consistent ethic of Jesus. Yet sometimes, we have passages like this, when it appears that Jesus is not a peacemaker.
Instead of Jesus talking about peace, wholeness, or love, instead of Jesus being kind to those who cause scandals or who are societal rejects, Jesus’ words are harsh. It feels like hellfire and brimstone. “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!” Really, Jesus? Today’s passage feels very abrasive at the first glance (maybe even at the second and third glances, too). It’s tempting to see this and want to gloss over Jesus’ words—maybe even pretend they’re not there, since they don’t seem to fit with the Jesus we see elsewhere. What do we do with this passage where Jesus is not a peacemaker?
Interpreting Texts with Other Texts
To understand this passage and to learn about if, when, or how Jesus is a peacemaker, we need to interpret this text alongside other biblical texts. One of the main guidelines of biblical interpretation is to read scripture in context with other scripture. Find something confusing or appalling that sounds not quite consistent with what you’ve read other places? Read those other places. Read the context around a passage, the chapters immediately around it, or even the whole book. Take a look at the genre and context of the book. What recurring themes are in the book? Who was the audience? How has the church (our specific denomination and churches throughout history) understood this? Working through these guidelines for interpretation help us bring clarity and consistency to the Bible’s message. There are still tricky and difficult parts but having a rigorous hermeneutical approach (the science and art of biblical interpretation) gives us guidance.
For context and to understand what Jesus is doing here, we’re going to walk through a few parts of Luke’s gospel. To start, going back to the Luke chapter 1, we see that Jesus birth ushers in a mix of social upheaval, peace, and also division.
A Gospel of Social Upheaval, Peace, and Division?
Right now, I’m reading a library book about Nirvana, written by their former manager. I stumbled upon it on the library app and I think it caught my eye because it is called “Serving the Servant.” I’m still a little unsure, halfway through the book, why it has that title (post-script: there’s a Nirvana song called Serving the Servants, I didn’t know about). But it’s caught my interest, detailing how Nirvana emerged from the Seattle Punk scene, transcended genres and audiences, and became a global sensation almost overnight.
Whether influenced by the book or also by my own high school affinity for punk, an interesting thought crossed my mind while writing this sermon: I’d like to write a song called, the Virgin Mary was a Punk Rocker (maybe a Jenn/Jacob collab?). We get this societal image of meek teenage Mary who didn’t know what was happening, but that is far from biblical. For one thing, Mary sang a radical song about Yahweh and the status quo. In Luke 1, the Angel Gabriel reveals to Mary that Yahweh has chosen her to be part of the incarnation of Jesus. Mary says yes to God and goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant through another miracle.
While she’s with Elizabeth, Mary sings (what I think of as) her punk rock song, which our call to worship was based on: “God is the mighty One who scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.” Mary knows that the God of the incarnation turns the world as we know it upside-down. The gospel of Luke has this expectation of social upheaval from the beginning.
At the same time, there is a gospel message of peace: Mary’s cousin Elizabeth gives birth to a baby named John (who will be John the Baptizer some day). Her husband Zechariah sings his own song. Maybe it’s a ballad, I’m not sure, but the song is about how God will bring light to those in darkness and guide the people’s feet into the way of peace. This “peace” we can understand as the Hebrew word shalom, which means wholeness, completeness, the presence of justice, and right relationships. Light and peace. Zechariah knows that Yahweh is doing something good—bringing wholeness to a world struggling with darkness, with occupation, with ethnic divisions, and more.
Later in chapter 2, when Jesus is born, there is a cosmic, angelic concert to welcome the God-incarnate baby. I’m not sure what genre these songs should be—maybe Icelandic electronic or West African funk? Anyways, a group of angels rock out rejoicing, terrifying some shepherds, lighting up the night sky, and singing about peace on earth for those whom God favors. Jesus’ entry into our world is described as bringing peace: the angels say that those who follow the way of God will experience this shalom.
In Luke, themes of peace cycle back and forth with themes of division or upheaval. Just a few weeks later, when newborn Jesus is brought to the temple to be dedicated to God as his family’s firstborn, the message is again of social upheaval and division. After seeing tiny Jesus, a man named Simeon declares, “I can die in peace, since I have seen God’s salvation, which will be a light to the Gentiles and glory to the people of Israel!” Simeon blesses Mary, Joseph, and roughly six-week-old baby Jesus, and then whispers to Mary, “This baby is going to cause the rising and falling of many, will reveal the hearts of many, and will even pierce your own soul with a sword.” I think that would be unsettling news at a baby dedication.
Re-reading Luke chapters 1 and 2, we see that Jesus’ birth will disrupt and divide and transform and reconcile and make whole. Try putting that on a Christmas card.
Later on, when we look to Jesus’ ministry, we continue to see a mix of upheaval, peace, and division. Jesus’ ministry involves preaching the wholeness and justice that characterize God’s shalom, doing this brings division and death threats from the beginning. In Luke 4, after being tempted in the wilderness, Jesus starts his ministry in Galilee. He goes to his home synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the Isaiah scroll, saying, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, healing for the blind, freedom for the oppressed—the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The people are all amazed at first, and they’re like, “is this Joseph’s son?” Then Jesus continues, reminding the people that Yahweh’s acts throughout history were not just for the Israelites—God has also done miracles for outsiders. Jesus’ words fill the people with murderous rage, and they try to push him off of a cliff.
Jesus is able to walk away unharmed and goes about his ministry: healing the sick (even on the sabbath), socializing with the outcast, proclaiming woe to the rich and blessings to the poor, and teaching love for enemies. Jesus has harsh words for religious leaders and for people who like their religious social status more than they like caring for the sick, the weak, the poor, the sinner.
This context of social upheaval, peace, and division runs throughout Luke. In Chapter 12, as Jesus heads towards Jerusalem (and eventually the Cross), things are escalating in his ministry. Powerful people are not happy about the ways that Jesus has been healing or socializing or the things that he’s been preaching about. Knowing what is ahead for him and his disciples, Jesus spends Luke 12 preaching against hypocrisy, about persecution, about not storing up riches, not worrying, and about being ready to do God’s work.
Fire, Division, and Wind
Knowing all this context, I think our passage doesn’t feel quite so abrupt. Luke knows that his readers would have all of this in mind, but the way we break up scripture in the lectionary can cause us to lose the sense of the book. Let’s go back to Jesus’ blunt and somewhat confusing words, which I will paraphrase. Jesus says, “I’ve come to bring fire. I’m about to undergo a baptism and I wish it was already complete. Do you think I came to bring peace? Nope—I’m bringing division. Households and families will all be divided by me, parents and children against one another. You all claim to understand the weather. The signs of the times are right in front of you, but you can’t comprehend what is going on.”
Now that we know more about the context of Luke, let’s unpack this. Jesus first speaks of fire. It’s not, however, some type of hellfire and brimstone speech. What does the fire mean? Just as John the Baptizer called the people of Israel to repentance in baptism at the Jordan River, Jesus is also keen to see God’s people transformed. Through Luke, Jesus’ declares that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and this is a reformation of sorts—a time for the people to be renewed and reoriented into God’s full vision of shalom.
When Jesus says he’s come to bring fire, the sense here is a fire of purification. I think that Jesus is tired of seeing the rich take advantage of the poor and the religious leaders dictate who can or cannot come before God’s presence. Jesus is yearning that the people be transformed—and even that his mission was already complete. Jesus knows about the suffering he will undergo (the “baptism” that he speaks of) and he wishes it was finished. I see this as an example like Gethsemane, that Jesus sometimes found his burden heavy, hard, and painful. Jesus has come to purify God’s people and part of that road ahead involves suffering.
Next, Jesus says, “I didn’t come to bring peace on earth.” Really? Luke 2 has angels singing, “peace on earth for those on whom God’s favor rests,” so it’s not that Jesus didn’t come to bring peace. He just didn’t come to keep things as they were (peace as status quo). Jesus came to bring God’s shalom, which involves disrupting the status quo—I think that is what he means here.
Jesus then talks about division—something prophesied by Simeon earlier in Luke. Three against two, two against three, families divided against each other: Jesus is trying to communicate to the disciples that people will be upset about the things that Jesus teaches and does. His followers need to be prepared: continuing the work of Jesus will not always help you win friends and influence people. It might make some enemies, tear your family apart, or get you locked up or killed.
Our passage ends with some cryptic statements about interpreting times. Apparently, it was common knowledge within Jesus’ audience that wind directions brought certain weather. You didn’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blew. The weather indicates that it might be a rocky ride. It should be obvious to Jesus’ listeners that the Kingdom of God is turning everything upside down.
When Jesus Wasn’t a Peacemaker
Was Jesus a peacemaker in this text? You could say yes and no, depending on your definition. Jesus was causing division, sure, so he was disrupting the “peace.” But Jesus caused division in order implement the healing, wholeness, justice, righteousness, mercy, and extravagant love that characterized his ministry. Jesus disturbed the “peace” in order to proclaim the kingdom of God in this world, reconciling humanity to God through his death and resurrection.
What does it mean to be a peacemaker? When Washington City COB was trying to define ourselves, we knew we were a peace church. But what described that more fully? We ended up saying that we are “seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.” We recognize that peace is not achieved by avoiding conflict, but by doing the hard (and even abrasive) work of being transformed in how we communicate or how we understand ourselves, our neighbors, and our enemies. Peace is embodying God’s presence in this world: to walk with the sick, neglected, oppressed, and more. Peace is speaking the truth to the powers, speaking truth to our fellow Christians, speaking truth to ourselves (interrogating our own hearts, actions, and intentions). From the gospel of Luke, we see that commitment to this peace can cause divisions.
The gospel of Jesus involves social upheaval and division, even as it encompasses proclaiming God’s peace, or shalom. The work of Jesus does not let the status quo remain. Our speech, our relationships, our economics, our social interactions and identities, our politics, our engagements with our neighbors and enemies: all of these are to be disrupted and transformed by the gospel of Jesus.
There is a lot that we can meditate on from this passage, but the questions that I’m pondering are these: Are we speaking and acting in all the ways that Jesus calls us to, even if it causes division (or awkwardness, or conflict)? Jesus is trying to emphasize the social risks his followers will face. What do we risk following the way of Jesus? Are we following in a way that involves risk? If not, should we be? AMEN.