By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 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:
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.’
He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
By Joe P
“…some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
When I read today’s Gospel reading again to prepare for this sermon, these words came into my mind. Given that this is a quote from one of the Batman films describing the villainous ‘Joker’, it felt rather blasphemous for me to consider Jesus’s words in the light of this statement.
Until recently I had problems with this reading. After all, I think we want to think of the coming of the Kingdom of God as an intensely joyous event. When we hear Jesus say :
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”
It’s something of an ‘Oooer’ moment – a statement that brings us up sharp. One that made the quotation above spring into my mind.
When a Gospel reading brings us up short, it’s an indication that we need to take a good look at it, as it’s often something that is speaking very personally to us, or it’s saying something that at first glance appears to go against the very nature of the teachings of Jesus.
For me, both of these statements are true; in recent years I’ve experienced the sort of division that Jesus talks about in my own life, and the fact that Jesus is saying that he will cause such division seems to be so contrary to what we might think of Christ’s teachings that we might have a ‘What the heck?’ moment.
In such moments I fall back on the basic elements of our faith. God is our loving father; Jesus is our shepherd who guides and guards all of His sheep, and who will lay down his life for all of us. Jesus also reminds us of the two essential commandments of his teachings; Love God, and love one another.
The words of today’s Gospel, when taken in the context of what we know of our faith, and of Jesus, cannot be taken as the ramblings of a narcissistic madman who is purely trying to cause trouble. There is something more.
Jesus is not out to sow discord for the sake of it.
He is simply pointing out to us what will happen when we start truly taking on His teachings, becoming more Christ-like in our own lives, and allowing Jesus’s teachings and our faith in God to shape our behaviour, character and very identity.
I call myself a ‘practising Christian’ – but occasionally – and only semi-jokingly – add the words ‘-and one day I might get it right’. And the reason I say this is that there are lots of influences in my life that distract me away from truly following Christ in everything I do. In recent weeks we’ve seen glimpses of these distractions in other Gospel readings.
Remember the visit that Jesus made to Martha and Mary? Martha was run off her feet, distracted by the business of running the house and preparing food. In other words, she was being a ‘good woman’ according to her cultural norms. Mary, on the other hand, took time out to seek God’s word by listening and spending time with Jesus – something that was rather unusual.
And the man who asked Jesus to give him time to bury his dead father? Jesus’s response – let the dead bury their own – sounds heartless until we remember that it was most likely the ‘second burial’ that took place a year after the death of the parent. In other words, Jesus is encouraging the man to make a decision between following custom or following Him.
In each case, it’s easy to see that the people making the decision to not dedicate their time at that moment to Jesus are not bad people. They’re normal folks, obeying the cultural norms and ‘family rules’ of their day. It’s also easy to imagine the ructions that would be caused within the family of the young man, for example, had he chosen not to complete the requirements of the burial rituals and had chosen to drop everything and follow Christ.
Following Jesus would indeed, for him, have placed him at odds with his family. The division of which Jesus speaks in this Gospel reading would be present.
From our perspective, we can look at this and say ‘Well, that’s just their culture getting in he way; I follow Jesus whole-heartedly.’
But do we? I know I don’t; I might justify myself by saying ‘I do the best I can.’, but that’s a lie to make me feel better. I actually follow Jesus as far as I can without it hurting my day to day life TOO much, and doing our best to abide by the commandments – sort of following the letter, but not the spirit.
I think we’re all rather like this, and I believe that this is what Jesus is warning us about in the Gospel. We have many loves in our lives, and all of them influence our behaviour and build our character and personality in various ways. We prioritise them; typically a spouse ranks higher than someone you meet once a month for a game of darts in the pub, for example. If we are to wholeheartedly follow the teachings of Jesus, then it follows that the teachings of Jesus should have the most influence on our lives. This means that the priority we give to His teachings, and hence our love for him, should be higher than the priority we give to the other influences in our lives.
And this could lead to those divisions between family members, where we find that the priorities and beliefs of our family and friends may be perfectly legal and within cultural and societal norms – but that may conflict in some way with the teachings of Christ.
Can we resolve this? The capability of human beings to love is a rather wonderful gift. We can love many people and things in our lives, and – either consciously or unconsciously – we priorities that which we love and that which matters to us. Those priorities reflect on our character.
To follow Christ – with the risk of division and dispute in our lives as part of the cost - we’re being asked to prioritise Christ’s teachings and our love for him over all our other relationships. It’s not easy.
Perhaps we can start – and make a great amount of progress towards resolving this problem – by regarding our love for Christ and his teachings as being the all-encompassing guidance within which all our other relationships can rest, and hence develop and mature. Within our love for Christ, we can bring the Gospel to those around us, and bring them in to that same relationship that we have with Jesus.
And it is hard; I know I haven’t managed it yet – but I’ll keep at it.
Prepared by Catherine
Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, material from which is used here is copyright (c) The Archbishops' Council 2000