There is a hard saying of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “Do you think I came to bring peace: NO, not peace, but division…” (Luke 12:51) Dissension. Conflict. This verse reminds us that following Jesus can often lead us into conflict and disagreement with others—painful disagreement. How do we understand this hard saying of Jesus?
One thing is certain: Jesus never advocated conflict. He taught his followers to offer no resistance or retaliation when they were attacked or ill-treated. He rebuked James and John when they wanted fire to fall upon an unwelcoming Samaritan village. He rebuked Peter when he cut off the ear of a servant who came to arrest Jesus. Jesus’ ministry reconciled people who were once at odds and in violent conflict with each other. The message that the apostles proclaimed after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is a message Paul calls the Gospel of Peace (Eph 6:15) and the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17-19). The purpose of preaching the Gospel is peace with God, but the effect of such preaching is division.
In Luke 12:51, Jesus unequivocally declares that he has come not to bring peace but division. We know that this division must be the effect of Christ’s coming, not the purpose. Yet, this purpose of reconciliation by his blood received through repentance collideswith the autonomous, self-seeking, ruined hearts in every human being.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke in the shadow of the cross:“Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the Prince of this world will be driven out” (12:31). Jesus IS the crisis of the world! His death and resurrection are facts that offend, scandalize, and disrupt the status quo. (see I Corinthians 1:18-25) Humanity’s responses to him separates those who are with God and those who are with the Prince of this world.
The Anglican Communion is divided over what God created to be good: marriage, human sexuality, and leadership in the Church. On the one hand, there are those who read the Bible in its plain and grammatical sense, in the context in which it was written, and then apply it to the context in which we live. On the other hand, there are those who reverse that process and adjust the Bible according to the context in which we live. The division is clear.
Wherever people are hardened in their hearts by sin we will find division, and there’s no way to avoid it. We can talk about the Gospel in a culturally relevant way, but whatever package is used to deliver it, the Gospel will always produce divisive results both between humans and within ourselves. We may lament it, but we cannot prevent it.
This division, while unfortunate, can be turned for good. It shows us where we stand. It defines a line that people can then choose to cross should their hearts soften. Meanwhile we preach the Gospel in season and out, praying for those who oppose it and continuing to love them. And we remember that division can be a gift, an opportunity and an invitation, to clarify our own commitment to follow Jesus.
The good news is that divisions may last for a season, but the resultant sifting brings about eternal peace and unity. There will come a time when all divisions will be put to rest. Our role is to work through the divisions towards true reconciliation and into lasting peace through the cross of Jesus Christ.
At the recent Lambeth Conference, Anglican leaders embraced division for divisions’ sake and failed to engage that which divides us. It was an exercise in maintaining the status quo of false unity. But I was encouraged by the witness of Global South/Gafcon Anglican bishops who clarified the line in the sand. They were unwilling to ignore division or wish it away. They declared their commitment to follow the Bible rather than the secularizing ideologies of the West.
That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: expecting division both in the Church and within ourselves, struggling to work through conflict for the sake of Truth and walking towards true reconciliation. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever! Therefore, we can expect him to finish the work he came to do, to bring peace by transforming ruined hearts and minds through his death on the cross, his resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We can expect him to bring the same heart and passion to transform our own ruined hearts and broken relationships. Our part is to engage our ruined hearts with his perfect heart both at the individual and communal level. Then, we can say with St. Paul that we ran the race and fought the good fight through the grace of God who is always and completely dependable (1 Thess. 5:24).
We have a Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, who came to set the earth on fire, not to destroy it but to restore it; who came to bring division, not for the sake of conflict but for the sake of real and lasting peace; who suffered not for the sake of the pain but for the joy set before Him. If we embrace this path of restoration through conflict, division, and suffering, we will see the lasting peace He promised and provides whether we are individuals struggling on the straight and narrow road, or a parish mired in conflict, or the Global South and Gafcon contending for the faith once delivered for the sake of the Anglican Communion.
It is a moment of truth and decision.Will we find our identity in Christ alone or in some other category the world offers us? Will we seek to flourish according to God’s unchanging Word? Or will we seek to flourish on the world’s terms? Will we embrace the truth of God’s good creation and receive God’s restoration of our lives? Or will we surrender to the Prince of this world and his narrative that there is no overarching truth, no story, no final meaning other than that which we make for ourselves? How we answer these questions will determine which side of the divide we find ourselves on.
(Adapted from the sermon on Luke 12:49-56 which you can hear at www.stsimonsanglicanmission.com)