Jesus had been preparing for three years. From the time he was baptized by John in the Jordan he knew what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. That confrontation with Pilate, the cross on Calvary, the grave, Easter – those three days would be the culmination of everything he had done. And he wanted to get to it. “What stress I am under until it is completed!” he told his disciples. Think of a football player lined up on the 40-yard line, waiting for the kickoff of the championship game. Think of a student sitting at her desk ready for the teacher to pass out the final exam. Think of a soldier prepped for battle waiting for the order to advance. That’s how Jesus felt as he made his way toward Jerusalem.
Jesus’ crucifixion would be the cataclysmic moment of all creation. Everything he had taught was in anticipation of what was going to happen once he got to Jerusalem. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Turn the other cheek. Return no one evil for evil. Those weren’t just wise suggestions for living a happy life. They were directions for living in the new creation that would begin on Easter day.
Before that new creation could begin, the old creation had to be uprooted. The old reality where we look out for number one, where we ignore the poor and oppressed, where we get ahead by forcing our will on others, where we are paralyzed by fear of death, that old reality has to be removed to make room for the kingdom of God. It’s like that hedge that was in the parking lot, in front of the church office. It got to be so overgrown and infested with poison ivy that the Facilities and Maintenance Committee took it all out and replaced it with a split rail fence. The old had to go to make room for the new.
Unfortunately, the old creation doesn’t give way as easily as an old hedge. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asked his disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division!”
When is the last time you heard that verse quoted at Christmas? Do you think Mary and Joseph forgot to tell Jesus about those angels who sang “Peace on earth, good will to all,” the night he was born?
Well, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, but his is the peace of life and vibrancy and joy, not the kind of peace that is passive and sullen, not the peace of those who have been defeated and given up hope, not the peace of the graveyard. I suppose that God could have forced his hand and made us all into zombies who blindly and unquestioningly do God’s will, but that’s not what God has done. Jesus’ victory on the cross over sin and death was like the victory on D-Day in 1944 that established the beachhead on Normandy. There was still a lot of struggle before the Third Reich was defeated, but the victory was assured. Jesus invites us to share his struggle against the powers of sin and evil.
That peace doesn’t come without a cost. It’s not cheap. I know I’d like to have it both ways, to have all the glory and peace and goodwill of Christ’s kingdom without the division and the conflict. Being part of the new creation that Jesus begins means we have to leave behind what is old, and sometimes that means leaving behind those who are closest to us. We’ve heard stories of people who were raised in strict fundamentalist Muslim or Hasidic cultures whose families cut them off when they became followers of Jesus. This summer Carol and I visited the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi in Italy. Francis was from a wealthy family and had a promising career as a soldier, but after encountering Jesus he gave away his armor and all of his possessions to follow a life of poverty and service. His father had other plans for him, and was furious. Most of us haven’t been ostracized by our families for following Jesus. Many of us were brought up in the church and following Jesus is what our family expected of us. But that division between the old creation that Jesus uproots and the new creation that he begins shows itself in all kinds of ways.
When someone’s life is torn up by addiction, they won’t find peace until they break off their relationships with their drinking buddies and form new friendships in their 12 step meetings. One reason it’s hard for someone to leave an abusive relationship is that it means breaking away from her abuser, who at one level she still loves.
Today Martin Luther King is revered by people of all political stripes as a hero of reconciliation. But many of us remember that in the 1960s he was denounced as a divider. One of King’s most famous works is “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King had been arrested for taking part in an unauthorized march against racial segregation. In the wake of all the unrest caused by the civil rights movement, eight of Birmingham’s white Protestant pastors, who were sympathetic with King’s goals of racial harmony, wrote an editorial in the local paper entitled, “A Call for Unity.” They criticized King and the other civil rights leaders for being divisive and urged him to tone things down and wait patiently for the white community to come along rather than causing such division in their community.
King used his time sitting in his jail cell to write a response. He explained that the marches and sit-ins were drawing attention to injustices that had been tolerated for too long. Without the demonstrations, and the freedom riders, and the lunch counter sit-ins, and the other forms of civil disobedience, those injustices would still be hidden. He was exposing those deep divisions so they could be brought into the open and healed.
We had thought those divisions were healed, but in recent years we’ve seen that they’re deeper and more pervasive than many of us thought. Back in 2008 America elected a black president, and people said that we had entered the post-racial society. His election was held up as proof that racism was a thing of the past. Since then, however, white supremacist groups have grown; it’s not Islamic fundamentalists who are terrorizing us now but white nationalists. We’re seeing divisions that we had thought were eradicated coming painfully to the surface. Our divisions are deeper than many of us thought.
Jesus exposes our divisions because he came to upend the old order of things and turn creation upside down. If your main goal in life is to be rich, you’re not going to warm up to the news that kingdom of God belongs to the poor. If you find your self-worth in boasting about how great you are and reveling in the belief that you’re so much better than others, then you don’t want to hear that it’s the meek who will inherit the earth. If you gain power by waging war, it’s not good news to you that blessed are the peacemakers. What is good news to some is bad news to others. If someone is held hostage, then the news that someone has come to set them free is good news for the hostage, but it’s bad news for the hostage taker.
Now, one institution that’s known for its divisions is the church. It’s tempting to think that those divisions are a sign that we’re doing the right thing. Not long ago I preached a sermon about Christian unity and told a story about how a congregation in our area had avoided a divisive conflict when its music director wanted to marry his male partner in the church sanctuary. The pastor didn’t want to do it, so the session worked out a compromise where the associate pastor officiated and everyone was satisfied. After the service a retired pastor spoke to me, thanked me for the sermon, but said that church should not have allowed something to take place that is so clearly against the teachings of the Bible. He reminded me, “Jesus also said he came to bring division.” And I want to thank him for that reminder, because he really got me thinking about all this talk I do about our unity in Christ.
Our challenge is that as human beings with limited understanding of God’s ways, we don’t always know just where that dividing line that Jesus makes lies. A lot of our divisions, rather than being signs that we’re on the right side with God are signs of our brokenness and sinfulness. My friendly critic and I read the Bible differently when it comes to what Jesus thinks about same sex marriage, but I think those are divisions within the body of Christ, not divisions that put one side or the other outside the household of faith.
There are those who would disagree, but I think there are some divisions within the church family that are like the divisions between my parents and me. On the very first election day that I was eligible to vote, I spent the day working the polls for one of the candidates. Meanwhile, my mother was at home making phone calls for his opponent. When our home phone went dead around noon, she was very suspicious of me, but I promise I was innocent. In the years that followed, I don’t think we ever voted for the same candidate, but we still loved each other and enjoyed being together. We were both involved in politics because we loved our country, and we believed that Christians who live in a democracy have a responsibility to make it a better place. We had different ideas about how to do that, but we were still citizens of the same country, followers of the same Lord, and members of the same family.
I think many church divisions are like that. I’ve served two churches that divided in the mid-nineteenth century because one side wanted to glorify God by using an organ in worship and the other side thought the organ is the instrument of the devil. All four of those churches now have organs.
When Jesus said he came to bring division, he was talking about cataclysmic change. He was talking about tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days. He was talking about the division between what gives life and what saps the life out of us, between the old way of life that is driven by fear and scarcity and suspicion and the new way of life that is driven by love and generosity and hope. Those who belong to that new creation can welcome those whose skin is a different color from theirs, whose customs differ, whose ancestors came from a different place. That’s what happened last Sunday when the New Generation Hispanic congregation that worships in Fellowship Hall welcomed us to their worship service and gave us a new experience of praising the glory of the Lord. Those who belong to that new creation aren’t afraid to be generous with the poor because they know that in the new creation God provides all we need. Those who live in the new creation forgive those who have done them wrong because they know that holding a grudge and seeking revenge are what you do in the old creation. Those who live in the new creation face their death with courage and hope because they know that the Lord is on the other side of that greatest divide of all, the divide between life and death. He has already crossed over that, and he is there, welcoming them into the heavenly kingdom.