Following Christ is painful and hard, but it’s the path to life, and Jesus and the saints surround and encourage you every step of the way, filling your life with abundance even in the challenge.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 20 C
Texts: Luke 12:49-56 (adding back in 39-48); Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”
Peter has a hopeful thought. Maybe last week’s parable about alert servants doing their absent master’s work is meant for other people. Others might not be alertly doing God’s work, but surely not our faithful little inside group?
We read the verses between last week’s Gospel and today’s because Peter’s question and Jesus’ blistering reply help explain Jesus’ words today. Peter seems to want a free pass from being ready at all times, and because Jesus is nearing his death, and anxious the disciples aren’t understanding, Jesus blurts out a horrible story of drunken slaves beating others and being terribly punished.
Yes, Peter, it’s for you, Jesus says. You’re all the insiders. And to whom much is given, much is required.
Which gets us to today’s Gospel. We’ve heard a series of lessons and parables about God’s reign for some weeks. Now Jesus, the Prince of Peace, says division and family infighting among those who wish to follow him are inevitable results of living in God’s reign.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus says.
“No, I bring division! From now on even families will be divided.” We so wish we could skip these words.
But we can’t. We pretend he was this innocuous, easy-going person, but Jesus was killed for what he taught and lived. The reason he’s so anxious and even angry in this episode is that he’s under tremendous stress, knowing he’s heading toward his death, something that will be brutal and horrifying, something he wishes could be over and done with.
Don’t make fun of Peter. We also hope that maybe Jesus is talking about someone else, not you, not me. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
That’s because we’re called to follow Jesus, and we know where he went.
Jesus will be killed for what he embodied and taught. He asks us to follow him in the same vulnerable, self-giving love, embodying God’s love and grace for the world, risking whatever we need to to share that love in our own bodies and lives.
The letter to the Hebrews says the same. In this amazing laundry list of heroes of the faith, the hardships that the faithful endured for serving God are astonishing. They witness to the challenge of following Christ.
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’s called by God to lead the Israelites against the oppression of the Midianites, the first thing he’s asked to do is tear down his father’s public 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 God.
The townspeople are predictably enraged, and though his father defended him, how do you think Gideon initially felt about that request? To follow God is to potentially stand against even your closest family.
So, what are we supposed to do?
First, realize Jesus didn’t come intending to cause division.
Jesus’ very presence, the Good News he proclaims and embodies, is what will split his followers apart from each other, and from those who don’t follow. Following the way of Christ is not only hard, individually and collectively, it can lead to divisions, pain, and suffering. The history of the Church, the history of our own lives, is riddled with divisions caused by people seeking faithfully to serve Christ, and suffering incurred by people following faithfully.
Today’s witnesses tell us if we’re making our decisions in hopes that no one is offended, or acting only when it doesn’t inconvenience us or hurt us, we’re not being faithful servants of Christ. Unity and comfort are not the goal of faithfulness.
Faithfulness is to follow where our discernment tells us God is leading, regardless of consequences.
We can’t let our fear of division or setback or even suffering keep us from doing what we believe our Lord and Master is calling us to do.
This means we need to learn how to faithfully discern the calling of the Triune God. Learn to understand when we are at a crossroads, where to look for guidance and advice, how to listen to other believers and to each other and to the Church, and to how Christ speaks to us.
But when we’ve done that to the best of our ability, and when we feel we know where the Spirit is leading, we’d best do what we know is our path, no matter how hard. Whether it’s speaking out on our nation’s abuse and destruction of families at the border, to risking your own well-being to help someone in poverty, or standing up to violence and hatred with resistant, persistent love, this path of Christ isn’t easy. But it’s also the path of God’s life.
That’s the gift Hebrews reveals today.
Division and pain aren’t the goal or the end, there’s something more. We are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” Hebrews writes, “let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
These faithful ones of the last two millennia stand in the stadium around you, encouraging you in your fear and worry, cheering you on in your faithful discipleship. All the saints of old and those you knew are your models in discipleship. They witness that ordinary people like you can be faithful, even in the face of threats and suffering. They tell you, “all will be well.”
All will be well, because Jesus is ahead of you on the journey, even facing death to bring you life. Your cloud of witnesses surrounds you in joy, pointing your eyes to the One who has faced worse than you will, and who loves you beyond life itself.
And all will be well because the cross-shaped path is the one where true abundant life is found, true love, true grace, true wholeness. As Jesus modeled and taught, losing for the sake of unconditional love is actually winning, and the costs are nothing compared to the peace of a life centered in Christ.
Elsewhere, Jesus says to the disciples, “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”
That is your word of hope, and ours together, as we seek to be faithful followers. We will need courage, and the one who overcame the world will give that. Courage to follow Christ’s call honestly and openly, without dodging or ignoring, without seeking an easy way around.
It won’t be easy. It never is. But you are always with Christ in all this cross-shaped journey of God’s abundant life, and you have these witnesses at your side. You are never alone.
Yes, it’s for you, Jesus says. It’s for me. It’s for all. Thank God for that.
In the name of Jesus. Amen