I have said a few times in my last few sermons that we are in a season of teaching as we hear again the parables and stories of Jesus’ life and ministry.
This was all well and good with me until I read this week’s readings. All this talk of fire, hammers, torture, unfulfilled promises, division, superficiality, uncertainty! It’s August, it’s supposed to be summertime and living is easy!
Fortunately I came across a story about the great composer Beethoven and a trick he used to sometimes play on polite salon audiences that weren’t really interested in serious music. Beethoven would perform one of his pieces on the piano, usually a slow movement which would be so gentle and beautiful that everyone would be lulled into thinking that the world was a soft, cosy place, where the audience would relax into semi-slumber and think beautiful thoughts.
Then, just as the final notes were dying away, Beethoven would bring his whole forearm down with a crash across the keyboard and laugh at the shock he gave to the assembled company. I think that we have something of the shock of the crash in the readings this morning.
“Many great heroes of the faith,” writes the author of Hebrews, died gruesome deaths, but “did not receive what was promised.” “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I came to bring division!” Jesus cries as he makes his way towards Jerusalem and death.
Maybe we need a reminder in this summer season that a real Christian faith is not one that is soft or easy, without cost. Maybe a reminder that peace comes with a price and how easily we can misread the signs.
There are a few phrases that I want to highlight from the readings this week and what they might have to say to us:
Run with perseverance the race that is set before us
Hebrews chapter eleven is often called the “Faith Hall of Fame,” since it highlights the remarkable lives and achievements of those who lived “by faith” in the Old Testament. Indeed, the achievements of these faith-filled men and women are awe-inspiring.
During their lifetimes, they “administered justice,” “shut the mouths of lions,” “quenched raging fire,” “won strength out of weakness,” and “received their dead by resurrection.” How much more impressive can you get? Yet maybe they feel distant, the persecution they faced as unrealistic to us now and their actions are ancient history; not practical to today. The lions we face are likely to be metaphorical and the foreign armies are over there, somewhere.
There are other things on the list, administration of justice and obtaining promises. If you caught any news this week, maybe you saw 7 year old Tony Hudgell at Downing Street to receive his Shining Light award. Tony was abused by his birth parents, resulting in the amputation of both his legs as an infant. His adoptive parents have fought for Tony’s Law to increase the length of sentences on those who abuse children. They fought for justice and obtained promises with perseverance and love for Tony. Heroic.
What is the race set before us? Whatever it is – physical, social, psychological or spiritual, look to Jesus. The author and perfecter of our faith. We do not have to have a photo finish, Jesus will meet us where we are.
“Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.”
The “Hall of Fame” has a dark side to triumph and victory. Many of God’s faithful were tortured, flogged, mocked, and stoned to death. Many went about “destitute, persecuted, and tormented.”
Many spent their lives wandering in deserts and mountains, in caves and holes in the ground. And all of them — all of them – died without receiving what was promised to them.
What does this mean? Well, among other things, it means that God’s timing doesn’t always align with ours. It means that crises of absurdity, meaninglessness, pain, and horror are part and parcel of human existence, regardless of whether we profess faith in God or not.
It means that we Christians need to be clear and honest about the faith we profess. Yes, there is joy in the Christian life. Yes, there is beauty. Yes, there is the promise of love, wholeness, healing, and grace. But the life of faith is also hard and risky. The life of faith does not ever guarantee us health, wealth, prosperity, or safety. To suggest otherwise is to lie, and to make a mockery of the Gospel.
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? NO, I tell you, but rather division!’
The Gospel of Luke begins with the proclamation that Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” At Jesus’s birth, an angelic choir sings “Peace on earth!” On numerous occasions during his ministry, Jesus offers men and women words of peace: “Go in peace and sin no more.” “Peace I leave with you.” “My peace I give you.” “I have told you these things, so that in me you might have peace.”
Many of us, following Jesus’s example, “share the peace” with each other every Sunday morning: “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” “And also with you.” We assume — the vast majority of us, anyway — that ours is a religion of peace. Of peace-making, peace-loving, and peacekeeping.
It’s not Jesus’s desire or purpose to set fathers against sons or mothers against daughters. It’s certainly not his will that we stir up conflict for conflict’s sake or use his words to justify violence or war. Yet his words are a necessary reminder that the peace Jesus offers us is not the fake peace of denial, dishonesty, and harmful accommodation.
His is a kind of deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to break in order to mend and cut in order to heal. Jesus will name realities we don’t want named.
He will expose the lies we tell ourselves out of cowardice, laziness, or stubbornness. He will disrupt all dynamics in our relationships with ourselves and with each other that keep us from wholeness and holiness.
This is not because Jesus wants us to suffer. It’s because he knows that real peace is worth fighting for.
In the gospel Jesus forced choices from just about everyone he met during his years of ministry. No one met him without feeling compelled to change. He consistently brought people to the point of crisis, tension, movement, or transformation. He consistently led people to decisions their families and communities didn’t understand. And he still does. When Jesus speaks of divisions in households, he is talking about the division that his message will bring. Families will split up over it, the OT prophets spoke about this happening too.
Jesus did come to bring peace and wants everyone to put their faith in him. The reminder is that this is not easy or to be undertaken lightly. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on so we can run with perseverance. We have been set examples in the heroes of the faith and our modern heroes like the Hudgell family.
Like Beethoven’s arm coming down on the keyboard and shocking his polite audience, let’s let the words of the readings this morning grab our attention again.