'We are haunted by God’s large purposes.'
The Reverend Ralph Godsall Priest Vicar
Sunday, 18th August 2019 at 11.15 AM
The American Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, ‘We are a strange lot: called but cowardly, obedient but self-indulgent, devoted to God, but otherwise preoccupied.’ ‘We pray for fresh vision,’ he says, ‘for our friends, for great courage, for those in places more dangerous than our own, for deep freedom, but we are often haunted by God’s large purposes for humankind.’ The phrase, “we are haunted by God’s large purposes,” intrigues me.
With the Second Test Match between England and Australia at Lord’s tantalisingly poised, we gather on this cloudy, damp August morning in this majestic Abbey church, with gracious music, with friends and family, with the smiles and companionship of strangers and visitors to London, and with all the hospitality and warmth that we expect to find at the heart of our Christian faith. Nothing could be better.
And then this morning’s reading from St Luke’s gospel turns everything upside down. “I came to bring fire to the earth…” “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Where we expect the prince of peace, we find the prince of division. Instead of cool breezes we find promises of fire. Instead of peace at home, we hear of families broken apart. What is going on here? Why has our comfort zone been so confronted? I am not sure that I like this Gospel reading very much. Where’s the good news?
The German composer Ludwig von Beethoven sometimes played a trick on his audiences when he guessed they were sitting in their comfort zones and not paying attention to his music. While playing one of his slow and inviting movements on the piano, he would suddenly bring both hands crashing down on the keyboard and end his performance in a shocking and alarming noise. It is said that he would even chuckle aloud as he did this.
It was his way of getting his audience to step outside their comfort zone – to pay attention to the fact that not all sublime things are easy listening. Indeed, we might say that Beethoven’s music was a lesson that there is pain in the midst of beauty and possibility.
Well, the lesson from St Luke’s gospel today is the same sort of thing. It wakes us up and shakes our comfort zones to the core.
Luke is writing at a time of great turmoil in the Roman province of Judaea. A time of danger for Jew and Gentile alike. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, has violently crushed a small revolt, and the Jewish rebellion that would eventually lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans was not far off. It is a time of trouble and division – both for households and for national life.
“From now on five in one household will be divided, 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 her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
And in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus adds, “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Mt.10:36). And that is what happened.
Similarly, the background to the Letter to the Hebrews is that its hearers are suffering persecution for their faith or expect to do so. The passage we heard today as our second reading is the culmination of a lengthy argument. The letter points out that so many of the men and women of the Mosaic Covenant had suffered for their faith from the time of Moses, and through their faith had achieved amazing things. “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.” The “something better” is the way of Christ.
While the context of Jesus’s words is important to acknowledge, these are still hard words for us to hear today. We seem to be told that the decision to follow Jesus will deeply disrupt our lives and the most sacred of all human institutions: the family.
The point strikes uncomfortably close to home. Like you, I aspire to meet all my family duties and to live a life worthy of all that I have been given. So, what’s all this about division and fire? About a God who would destroy that which we most cherish.
Well, what I think Jesus is really doing here is getting our attention. He is speaking about our relationship with him. We are to make the path he trod our first loyalty. We are to watch for God’s presence in our midst. We are to stay alert to the large purposes of God in the midst of the demanding claims on our energies, our time, and our passions. And our values.
St Luke is indeed writing at a time of division and danger, of political confusion, of economic challenge, and the questioning of fundamental values and the prospects for the future. Times not unlike our own times. Times that invite us—and all of God’s people—to make a new calculation, to look beyond the present moment to the large purposes of God.
Today we hear Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
Jesus is slamming the keyboard to gain the attention of his audience. The way of Christ is a matter of life or death. His disciples are to travel the way he travelled. That way leads to the fullness of life. And what was that way? ‘For the sake of the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.’
That same Jesus, our Lord and our God, asks us the same question this morning. Called to follow the path he trod, he invites us to come to the altar and eat the bread and drink the wine, to drink of the cup of which he drank.
We are indeed to love our families and build our communities. We are to make commitments to each other that show we do indeed strive to live lives worthy of all that we have been given. The lesson today is not to give up on this life, but to live faithfully through times of trouble and division by following the way of Christ.