Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?
Proper 15, Year C
Sometimes I think the Bible would be better if I’d been there. I feel that I could have made clarifying contributions, asked the right questions. You know, I could have helped Jesus explain things.
For example, in our reading this morning Jesus asked, “Do you think I came to bring peace?” And, had I been there, I would have said, “Well, yes, Jesus. I did think you came to bring peace.” And, to bolster my case, I would have pointed out that both the beginning and end of Luke talk about Jesus bringing peace. The angels who announced Jesus’s birth said, “Peace on earth,” and after his resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” So, yes, Jesus. I did think you came to bring peace. But, today’s reading makes me wonder.
In our reading today, Jesus gave a flat-out no to the issue of peace:
No, I tell you, but [I come to bring] division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, 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 daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
That is not a peaceful message. I won’t try to convince you that it is. It is, however, good news; Very good news, in fact. To get to the good news, though, we have to admit that there are two kinds of peace: There is the peace that the world gives and the peace that God gives.
Sometimes, during a time of trouble a well-meaning Christian may say something like, “May the peace of God keep you,” or, they’ll say, “May the peace that passes all understanding keep your heart,” and I call a red flag on that. Here’s why: during times of trouble I don’t need a peace I can’t understand. I want the kind of peace I can understand, something that will make it all easier. God’s peace is hard. I don’t always want it. But, it’s God’s hard peace that is on offer today and it looks a lot like fire, division, and, well… not the kind of peace we can understand.
When Jesus spoke these words, people were longing for some peace that they could understand. Rome made hard demands and the people were looking for a way out, someone who would deliver them from their oppressor. Who could blame them? As Christians, we believe that Jesus was the savior that they were looking for, the messiah, and that by his life, death, and resurrection he has saved all of us too. The reality on-the-ground, though, was that Jesus’s presence was creating division. For once, Jesus was telling it like it was. His presence was separating families, causing arguments, and creating unrest. It had kindled a fire and things were burning.
This is not a passage we should read too literally because literal fire neither brings peace nor destroys it. Fire itself is neutral. So, what could Jesus have been talking about? Well, he was talking about families. Families were the basic tribal unit, the first line of authority in an authoritarian system, and that is what Jesus came to kindle a fire against. The system.
The authoritarian system of the ancient near east was based on sacrificial violence as the mechanism of ensuring peace. Jesus’s followers would have been well-versed in the necessity of having a scapegoat onto which they’d place their sins, something to carry their blame, shame, and impurity. Two thousand years later we are equally well-acquainted with this system. We don’t use goats anymore. We are too sophisticated for that. We blame one another. We blame immigrants, gays, liberals, foreigners, the poor, people of color because we are not living in a peaceful world either and it couldn’t possibly be our own fault. It must be someone else, the others, those who are not like us. Perhaps we are not so sophisticated after all.
By undertaking his own baptism of fire, Jesus is burning down the need for scapegoats and blaming. It forms the basis of his prayer that “they may all be one” because it obliterates the false idea that there are others.
By speaking of families, though, Jesus brings it closer to home. This is not really a statement about the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God, it is a statement about relationships and how even our most intimate relationships can be destructive. If Jesus really came to set us free, then that means being free from the family patterns that still trip us up, the secret desire to please a long-dead parent, or the old messages that play over and over singing dirges of unworthiness and hopelessness. You’ll never measure up. You’re such a disappointment. Why can’t you be more like your brother? It’s not about a real goat, but it might be about the family scapegoat.
The good news is that whatever your assigned role in the family system is, you don’t have to be a slave to it. Jesus is burning it down.
I know that it seems easier to just get along, and go along, and maintain your role. That seems like peace. We call that the peace of the world. But, if you can let the authoritarian structures of your family, and church, and everything else burn down, then on the other side of the fire you will find a different kind of peace. It is beyond the understanding of most, but it is God’s peace. In the Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical book, Jesus said, “He who is near me is near the fire, and he who is far from me is far from the kingdom.” Remember, the Holy Spirit first appeared as fire. To dare seek this kind of peace is dangerous.
It might be instructive to take a look at the Hebrew word most often translated peace: Shalom. Like most Hebrew root words, it has three letters. They are: Shin, Mem, and Lamed. The Lamed is in the middle. Lamed is the largest Hebrew letter. Its noble head extends above the top line and its tail drapes gracefully across the bottom line. In Kaballah thinking we recognize this letter as a broad and safe place. It will prod you onward toward the peace of God. Interestingly, it is also the centermost letter in Torah. Very stable. The Shin represents fire, and the Mem represents water. They are destructive in this case, trials. But, if you can make it through the fire, and if you can stay afloat when the deep waters come upon you, then you will find yourself in the safety of the Lamed, the love and protection of God.
It is easy enough to glance at the newspaper and see that things are burning down. The old systems are not holding. That’s good news. But, what does that have to do with us? Well, what’s burning in your heart? Where is it coming apart at the seams? Look for the division and you may find old entanglements burning and the peace of God emerging. Then, at last, God’s peace will be a peace that we can understand.
Blessings as you dodge the flames.
Linda McMillan is a free-range monotheist rejoicing in the flames and looking for a new world to emerge.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Luke 2:13,14… Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Luke 24:36… While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
John 14:27… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Philippians 4:7… And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Leviticus 16:21… And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat,…
You can read the whole atonement liturgy in Leviticus 16.
John 17:21… That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee,…
Jesus prayed that we might all be one with God just like he was in his final prayer before ascending to Heaven.
Gospel of Thomas, Saying 82… Jesus said: He who is near to me is near the fire, and he who is far from me is far from the kingdom.
Exodus 3:2-4… And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.
Acts 2:3… And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
Here is a kind-of good article about the Hebrew letters Shin, Mem, and Lamed. Also Vuv because that is part of Shin. Mainly I am just recounting a lesson from Rabbi Monty. A lot of my Hebrew stuff just comes from him and he’s brilliant. Seriously. Brilliant.