Among the texts in Scripture that I’d most like to avoid as a preacher, I think this one tops the list. This alarming talk of fire, and division within families; the confrontational language coming out of Jesus’ mouth as he bluntly calls people hypocrites – it’s all just a little hard to hear. Passages like this tend to broadside us a little – and I have to wonder why we have that kind of reaction, because it’s certainly not the only recorded instance of Jesus getting a little testy; so, I suspect we shut this kind of passage down because it undermines our dearly held vision of Jesus as a nice guy, a gentle person who never raised his voice or spoke an angry word. Most of us were taught that vision as a child, and those childhood images are formative, aren’t they? And so in consequence we prefer to think of Jesus as the low-key, wise teacher, the soft-spoken enlightened one, the one who dandled children on his knee – a sweet, unassuming guy to the end. Wrong.
That’s the Jesus of legend – an unfairly one-dimensional picture of a person of great depth and complexity. That’s the Jesus that we can easily ignore, the Jesus we fit into our lives around our schedules and plans, and just call upon when we need a favour. That’s the version of a Saviour who demands nothing of us, who did his work for us on the cross and there’s nothing more we need do now but call him Lord. But a passage like today’s reminds us, and rather bluntly, that Jesus didn’t come to be nice; he came to be honest. Jesus came to change lives, to change the lives of his disciples, to change the lives of those who heard his voice; your life, and mine….and so to relegate him simply to ‘nice guy’ status is to do both him and us a great disservice, because, frankly, sometimes we need to be brought up short and challenged.
The truth of today’s gospel is that the real Jesus is both uncomfortable and more than a little inconvenient: he didn’t come that so that our lives could remain the same – safe and predictable – but rather, that our lives would be changed into his likeness as part of God’s larger purpose to love, bless and change the world. According to today’s reading, Jesus himself felt considerable urgency about this: he pointed to the condition of the world of his time and saw more than enough injustice and discrimination and exclusion and inequality and misogyny and despair and untold other problems that dehumanized and diminished God’s people. And so he ignited a vision that included a commitment to truth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice – embodied by people who understood the potential to witness to God’s love, care, and compassion through their very lives, by people who were even prepared to risk division within families to set things right. What was so in Jesus’ time is equally so now – the need to bring the transforming love of God to bear on personal, Church and societal relationships is just as urgent now as it ever has been – but like the people then, perhaps we also fall into the trap and cling to the idea that it’s better to be nice than to be honest; better to be safe than sorry; easier by far to choose avoidance over the prospect of reconciliation and healing.
The gospel as Jesus imagines it and lives it is so radical a vision of a changed humanity that he sees division – even among family members – as inevitable. As I read it, though, I don’t hear his words as a threat, but rather as a comment on how very life-changing the gospel could be if everyone embraced it. Here is something so very revolutionary, he seems to be saying, that it could change the world if it really took hold. Paradoxically, though, that risky road-less-taken is also a path of joy, hope, peace and life…. not a life without struggle or discomfort, but a life in tune with the God who stopped at nothing to love and bless the world; who came to make the rough places smooth – not by concealing the truth, but rather by revealing it.
Fine and dandy, you might say – we’ve got the ‘why’ but what about the ‘how’? Well, I daresay, sometimes it all starts with perception; changing the way we see and understand people and events.
A few years ago I worked as a volunteer for three months in the Iona Community in Scotland, and over tea and dessert one evening, a pilgrim to the island asked those of us at the table if anyone had ever had what they would call a vision – a divine message or inspiration of some kind. And then she proceeded to tell us something she experienced while riding a bus going through inner-city Glasgow, through one of the poorest, desperate, and most dangerous areas of the city. The bus had stopped and three very scruffy, heavily tattooed, obnoxiously loud young people boarded and sat directly opposite her. Immediately, she said, she felt herself tighten up as she felt fear and revulsion washing over her, and she looked down to avoid making eye contact. She fully expected to be mugged. But, as the bus moved along she eventually glanced over their way (with no small amount of trepidation), and suddenly, she said, they changed before her eyes: their aloof and angry faces suddenly became peaceful; an aura of calmness settled around them; and their whole being began to glow with unearthly light and beauty – and she said she knew in that split second, and knew with absolute clarity, that she was seeing them the way God sees them: as whole, perfect, and beloved. She said it changed her. And it changed me, simply hearing that story. What an amazing gift.
Today’s gospel, I think, calls us beyond the temptation to simply be nice and expect that God will be happy with that. What we’re called to do, in fact, is to check our perceptions: to stop at nothing to recognize Jesus present among us, to be a force for change and compassion, and to embody God’s love in our personal relationships, in the Church and in the world as boldly and as creatively as we possibly can….even if the path calls for a level of honesty or struggle that is foreign or unfamiliar to us. For the clarity and challenge issued by today’s gospel we give thanks to God and together say:
The Venerable Nancy Adams