Dear Working Preacher,
Let’s face it. This is one of those weeks when the Gospel reading makes you want to turn to one of the other texts appointed for this Sunday. It is harsh, more than a little threatening, and rather uncomfortable to hear. But here’s the question: Is that the passage’s fault or ours?
Here’s what I’m getting at. Reading and preaching biblical texts always involves bridging the distinct contexts of the biblical story and today’s world, and some weeks the chasm between those two is both deep and wide. This week is a good example. By and large, we avoid conflict and division in our congregations at all costs, yet here Jesus is talking about bringing just that. We want peace, and moreover call Jesus the prince of peace, yet just now Jesus says that’s not what he came to bring. We are, by and large, focused on the present or at least certainly not looking for the end of the world, and yet in this passage Jesus seems to look to the future and it is, to say the least, foreboding.
Do you see what I mean? We are firmly rooted in a world that seems so different than the one Jesus lives in that it makes it hard for us to relate and even, perhaps, to hear. And that’s what’s challenging about today’s passage: When we read it primarily in light of our context, it seems remarkably out of place. But looking more closely at the context of the passage itself and suspending our judgments may help us find a way to read and preach it.
I said “context,” but there is more than one. The first is the narrative context. At this point in the story, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where the conflicts he has been experiencing will boil over into a plot to take his life. And Jesus knows this. He knows, that is, that he will soon be baptized not by water but by the fire kindled with nails and wood, and just now he feels the weight and pressure of what is to come. He is, to use a word with which we are very familiar, stressed, stretched to the point of breaking.
And here, at least, is one point of entry. Stress is one of the watchwords of our age, as we also often feel pulled by schedules and responsibilities and pressures beyond what we can endure. And Jesus knows this. We confess that God became human in Jesus precisely to know and redeem our condition. Might the Jesus who is stressed by what is to come have something to say to Christians today? No, we are not facing crucifixion. But many of us are facing terminal illness, or a loss of job or wages, or deep loneliness, or mental illness, or … the list goes on. We at times feel pulled beyond what we can endure and Jesus has been there.
The other context is historical. Luke writes of these events about 40 years after they’ve happened, and with all the Gospel writers, he shapes his account to address the situation and questions of his community. And so we can guess with some confidence that the division Jesus speaks of has manifested itself in spades in Christian communities by the time Luke writes.
This will be more foreign to most of us. Christianity has long been not just acceptable, but almost expected in North America. Even in what many call a post-Christian era, going to church occasions no controversy. This isn’t true in all lands, of course, and we would do well to remember—and pray for—those Christians in various parts of the world for whom the confession of Jesus brings division, strife and danger.
But all of this occasions a question that may be worth pursuing: Is the relative ease of the Christian life in this land entirely the result of cultural acceptance or is it because we fail to live into the gospel Jesus announced? Throughout Luke’s account, Jesus announces a new community—he calls it the kingdom of God—that is governed not by power but by equity, where all those in need are cared for, where forgiveness is the norm, where the poor are privileged, where wealth is shared rather than hoarded, and where the weak and lonely are honored.