As we gather on this back-to-school Sunday, we gather to celebrate teachers and students, families, and community. It would have been nice to have almost any other gospel reading appointed for this day other than the one we just heard. I mean, let’s just be honest, Jesus doesn’t sound like he is having a very good day. You can hearthe frustration in his voice as Jesus announces his desire to bring fire to the earth. You canfeelthe tension in the air as Jesus complains to his disciples about the intensifying stress in his life. You can sensethe discomfort of the crowd as Jesus lashes out at this multitude and ridicules them as ignorant hypocrites. But if that’s not enough, perhaps what is most unsettling of all, is the moment when Jesus, in no uncertain terms, declares that he has not come to bring peace, but division. As I said, this is not exactly the inspirational and motivational message that I was going for on this back-to-school Sunday. But it seems this is indeed the Word of God for us, the people of God, here this morning!
Now to begin, let’s state the obvious. The primary reason that we find these words of Jesus to be so jarring is because the promise of peace, and the promise of reconciliation and unity,are central to the proclamation of the gospel. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus seems to embody the peace, the wholeness, the shalom of God. Jesus is consistently breaking down religious, social, and economic barriers that keep people separated and isolated from one another. The followers of Jesus who went out to form Christian communities, proclaimed a message of peace and reconciliation. The first apostolic leaders like Paul, Peter, and John, frequently reminded their congregations to be unified, to be at peace, to be of one heart and one mind and one purpose. Without question, this vision of peace and unity lies at the heart of the gospel. Now, of course, if you’re a good Episcopalian and you don’t know your Bible very well, that’s okay! All you have to do is turn to page of 855 of the Book of Common Prayerand you will find that the mission of the Church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” And so, if the mission of Jesus and the mission of the movement that bears his name are all about peace and reconciliation and unity, why does Jesus say he has come to bring division?
To answer that question, we have to step back and look at the whole mission of Jesus. We need to be reminded that Jesus came to proclaim and embody an entirely new reality. And we call that new reality thekingdomof God or thereignof God or the dreamof God. But in order for that new reality to be manifested here on earth, some things have to be dealt with. Sin and pride and arrogance have to be confronted. Injustice and intolerance have to be challenged. Systems of oppression, degradation, and shame have to be opposed. And when the powers of this world are confronted, when the dream of God comes up against the injustice and suffering of this world, conflict and division are almost inevitable. Because ultimately a decision has to be made. Will we align ourselves and our lives with the value system of the kingdom of God or will we align ourselves and our lives with the value system of the kingdom of this world? Will we say “yes” to God’s dream? And at the end of the day, saying “yes” to God’s dream of healing and reconciliation, means saying “no” the nightmare of injustice and suffering that so often characterizes our world.
My friends, Jesus said “yes” to the dream of God. And in response, the powers of this world, both physical and spiritual, rose up against him and nailed him to a cross.
And those who would take up their own cross and follow Jesus would often be called upon to follow a similar path – to forsake their families, their economic security, their social status, and, at times, their very lives. To make the decision to align our lives with the values and vision of the kingdom of God comes with a cost.
Now this is hard for us wrap our heads around, because for most of us the cost of discipleship hasn’t been that significant. I think almost all of us gathered here this morning have had the privilege of exercising our faith in a “Christian nation.” A nation in which, for most of our history, being a Christian has been equated with being a good citizen. We haven’t really had to count the cost of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. For the most part, our family connections, our financial investments, our social responsibilities are completely unaffected by the fact that we call ourselves Christians.
But that has not been the case for most of the history of the Church. And it is not the case right now in many other parts of the world. As we sit here this morning, almost 250 million Christians are currently live in places where they experience high levels of persecution.
For many of these men and women, choosing to say “yes” to God’s dream, choosing to align their lives with the values of God’s kingdom, choosing to say “yes” to Jesus, means abdicating their inheritance, walking away from educational and economic resources, facing the ridicule of their community, and, in some cases, even giving up their lives. And so, for those millions of Christians, today’s words from Jesus are not confounding or confusing but confirming – confirming of their experience and the sacrifices they have made to follow God’s dream.
But what about us gathered here at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in the Village of Tequesta, Florida on Back-to-School Sunday? How do these words speak to us?
Perhaps these are words that should challenge us to examine the ways in which we have grown too complacent, too comfortable, and too casual in our faith.
Perhaps these are words that call us to recognize the potential cost of discipleship.
But perhaps most of all, these are words that remind us that when it comes to following Jesus, a decision has to be made.
In our baptismal liturgy, there is a moment when the candidate is asked if he or she will turn to Jesus Christ. In the early days of the church, that moment of turning was an actual physical movement. Turning from west to east. From darkness to light. From the value system of this world to the value system of God’s kingdom.
But, you know, that moment of turning is not just a moment of decision, it is also a moment of division – between the old life of sin and new life of grace. And that moment of turning and reorienting our lives is not just a one-time event, it is something we choose every single day.
And so, my friends, I pray that we will have the courage to hear and heed the words of Jesus no matter the cost. To align our lives with the values and vision of God’s kingdom. To say “yes” to God’s dream. To turn and orient our lives toward justice, freedom, and love. And then I pray we will have the courage to go out those doors and set the world on fire!