Following Jesus, according to Jesus himself, according to our forebears in faith, according to the reality of life in this world, is fraught with challenges, divisions, pain and suffering at times; yet we follow Jesus who walked it himself, and will bring all to completion and heal all the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 20, year C; texts: Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Note to the reader:
This sermon begins with a retelling of a story first told by Jack Hitt, on This American Life, National Public Radio. I read it from a transcript of the 500th episode, which was a compendium of previous shows, and which aired July 12, 2013. It is truly an oral story, and will likely have more impact if heard first and not read. At the transcript on the show’s website, http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/500/transcript, there is also a link to the audio of the whole show: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/500/500. This segment begins at 35:35, a little over halfway through the show.
Listen to him tell it. You’ll be glad you did. – Pr. Crippen
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I heard a story on the National Public Radio program This American Life a month ago and I’d like to share it with you. I’m going to read the actual transcript since it isn’t my story, and since I also couldn’t retell it any better than the speaker. It’s a story by a man named Jack Hitt, and he tells it about his four year old daughter. 
“It all began at Christmas two years ago, when my daughter was four years old. And it was the first time that she had ever asked about what did this holiday mean? And so I explained to her that this was celebrating the birth of Jesus. And she wanted to know more about that. And we went out and bought a kid’s Bible and had these readings at night. She loved them. Wanted to know everything about Jesus. So we read a lot about his birth and about his teaching.
“And she would ask constantly what that phrase was. And I would explain to her that it was ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Then we would talk about those old words and what that all meant.
“And then one day, we were driving past a big church, and out front was an enormous crucifix. She said, ‘Who is that?’ And I guess I’d never really told that part of the story. So I had to sort of – ‘Yeah, oh, well, that’s Jesus. And I forgot to tell you the ending, yeah. Well, you know, he ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the prevailing authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.’
“It was about a month later after that Christmas we’d gone through the whole story of what Christmas meant. And it was mid-January, and her preschool celebrates the same holidays as the local schools. So Martin Luther King Day was off. And so I knocked off work that day and I decided we’d play, and I’d take her out to lunch.
“And we were sitting in there, and right on the table where we happened to plop down, was the Arts section of the local newspaper. And there, big as life, was a huge drawing by, like, a 10-year-old kid from the local schools, of Martin Luther King. And she said, ‘Who’s that?’ And I said, ‘Well, as it happens, that’s Martin Luther King. And he’s why you’re not in school today, because we’re celebrating his birthday. This is the day we celebrate his life.’
“And she said, ‘So who was he?’ I said, ‘Well, he was a preacher.’ And she looks up at me and goes, (excitedly) ‘For Jesus?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, actually he was. But there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.’ And you’re trying to say this to a four-year-old. It’s very – this is the first time they ever hear anything, so you’re just very careful about how you phrase everything.
“So I said, ‘Well, yeah, he was a preacher, and he had a message.’ And she said, ‘What was his message?’ And I said, ‘Well, he said that you should treat everybody the same, no matter what they look like.’ And she thought about that for a minute. And she said, ‘Well, that’s what Jesus said.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I guess it is. I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And that is sort of like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”’
And she thought for a minute and looked up at me and said, ‘Did they kill him too?’”
Jesus said, “Do you think that I have 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; they will be divided.”
We have so much difficulty hearing these words. Too often we inwardly wish that we could skip them and read past them. We’d like to dodge any suggestion that Jesus asks something of people that doesn’t unite but divides, that might even break up families.
Yet this little girl, who apparently from the story at any rate had little religious upbringing, this four year old child heard of Jesus and what he taught and what happened to him and knew two things intuitively and definitively about Martin Luther King, Jr.: One, what Dr. King said was the same as what Jesus said. And two, it wouldn’t be surprising if he was killed for it just like Jesus was.
Why is it so hard for us to take Jesus seriously here? Why do we pretend he was this innocuous, easy-going person? He was killed for what he taught: does that tell us nothing?
Do we want to forget that the reason he’s so anxious and even angry in this story is that he knows he’s heading toward his death, something that will be brutal and horrifying, something that he wishes could be over and done with?
We are too often like Simon Peter, who prompted this whole little tirade by his oblivious and blind question a few verses earlier. After the parable we heard last Sunday, about being good slaves who are always ready for the master to return, even as a thief in the night, Peter asks, “Are you telling this parable for us, or for everyone else?”
In other words, “you’re really worried about all those other people not being ready, right Lord, not your beloved inner circle of disciples?” The verses between last week’s Gospel and today’s are Jesus’ blistering response to Peter.
He tells another parable about slaves being ready, but with a twist. In this parable, there are some slaves who know their master is returning, but when he’s delayed they decide to party, eating and drinking until they’re drunk, beating their fellow slaves. When the master returns, they are horribly punished.
But the punch line is that because they ought to have known better, they are worse off than those who ignorantly aren’t doing the work of the master. “To whom much is given, much is required” comes at this point. And what Jesus would have us and Peter know is this: for those who know what discipleship is, who know what the master would have us do, and choose not to do it, for those it will be far worse than for those who never heard.
It’s likely that if we do fail at our service, our discipleship, our faithfulness, it is because we’d rather avoid the consequences Jesus speaks of for those who follow, consequences even a four year old child can grasp.
The letter to the Hebrews is no less honest or difficult than Jesus today. Same with Jeremiah. In that amazing laundry list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews the terrible things that happened to those who were faithful is astonishing. I’m no expert in advertising, but if you’re trying to attract believers, talking about tortures, being sawn in two, and living in holes in the ground is not likely to win converts any more than promises of division within families.
And the LORD says through Jeremiah that prophets who talk dreamily to people might win the favor of the people but not of God. Yet speaking the word of God is always going to get the prophet in hot water with everyone else.
Gideon, on the Hebrews list, was a hero of mine as a child, but there’s a part of the story we often forget. Right after he is called by God to lead the Israelites against the oppression of the Midianites, the first thing he is asked to do is tear down his father’s altar to Baal, and the sacred pole next to it, using his father’s second best ox. Then he’s to chop up the altar and the pole, and burn that second best ox on the wood as a purifying sacrifice to the LORD.
It turns out his father defends his actions to the enraged townspeople, but how do you think Gideon initially felt about that request? To follow the LORD is to potentially stand against even your closest family.
We cannot pretend either that these are ancient anomalies or that they are not so. The history of the Church, the history of our own lives, is riddled with divisions and pain caused by people seeking faithfully to serve their Lord and Master Christ Jesus.
The whole church on earth is split into two parts, and a thousand years later we’re still divided. The western part of that church is split into hundreds of pieces and five hundred years later we’re still divided. Congregations kick people out for professing their understanding of the Gospel, congregations split, denominations sever ties with other denominations and self-implode over questions of true discipleship.
We don’t need Jeremiah, Hebrews, and Jesus to tell us this is so. There is a harsh reality that following the way of Christ is not only hard, individually and collectively, but that it leads to divisions, pain, suffering and all sorts of difficulty.
So what are we supposed to do? Three things seem to rise before us.
First, we might wish to learn that avoiding division is not a worthy goal as we seek to be faithful. Jesus and the others aren’t being prescriptive here, saying that the hope of following Christ is that divisions occur.
At the same time, what is clear is that if we are making our decisions so that no one is offended, so that all are always unified, we’re probably not being faithful servants of Christ. We may not want to disagree with each other, or other Christians, and we certainly don’t try to do things that cause division.
But if Jesus is describing reality here, which all evidence says he is, we also cannot let our fear of division or setback or suffering keep us from doing what we believe our Lord and Master is calling us to do.
Second, this means, obviously, that we are better off when we follow where our discernment tells us God is leading, regardless of consequences. This means that we need to learn how to discern faithfully the calling of the Triune God.
We need to learn how to understand when we are at a crossroads, where to look for guidance and advice, how to listen to other believers and each other and to the Church, and how our Lord Christ speaks to us.
But when we have done that to the best of our ability, and when we feel we know where the Spirit is leading, we’d best do it, rather than play the part of Peter and say, “this is really for others to do, right? We’ll play it safe, if you don’t mind.”
And this applies individually and collectively, to our own personal faith journeys and spiritual lives, to the life and journey of this and every congregation, and to the life and journey of all the ways we are joined to other believers in this world.
Third, when we look back at what Hebrews says, we find that division and pain are not the end, that there is something more. “Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” Hebrews writes, “let us look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”.
Both words are critical. Jesus is the pioneer, we see that in today’s Gospel. He goes before us into the world, facing what is often a hard road, with people seeking to destroy him because he embodies the love and grace of God for all. He is our pioneer, today rather frustratedly and urgently calling to us, but always calling us to follow, even though the road is likely to be hard.
This is a great promise: whatever we might face in being faithful, our Lord has faced worse, and so walks with us. Even to death, so there is nothing anyone can do to us that is worse than what the One who leads us experienced.
But Jesus is also the “perfecter,” which literally means the “completer,” of our faith. Hebrews says that the faith journey of those heroes listed was not perfected, that is, completed, without the current generation. Therefore, says Hebrews, salvation is never completed until all are brought together as one by the Christ who on the cross draws all people to himself.
Whatever divisions we have, whatever pain we suffer, whatever problems come from our faithful discipleship, they are never the end, never the final word. The final word is always that through the cross and resurrection Jesus has in fact brought peace, not division, and has perfected, completed the salvation God has begun in him.
Make no mistake, the life of discipleship Jesus envisions requires courage of us.
We know that we will receive that courage as a gift of the Spirit when we pray, and so it is meet and right that we so pray. Let us do that.
But let us also resolve that we face Jesus and his call honestly and openly, without dodging or ignoring, without seeking an easy way around. It will not be easy for us. It never is. Even a child can tell us that.
But we have our Pioneer who goes before us and who in his death and resurrection completes the plan of God which will bring all into the life and grace of the Triune God.
“Yes, Peter; yes, all of you at Mount Olive; yes, all my children,” Christ says, “this parable is for you, not just everyone else. But be not afraid, for I have overcome the world. Come, follow me.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen