Several months ago, back in May, I gathered with some of my colleagues from around the synod for our First Call Theological Education conference, up at the St. Benedict retreat center. One of the things we did together that was really helpful was that we went through almost all the gospel texts for the entire season after Pentecost, which is like half the church year. Our presenter, Dr. Rick Carlson, was a professor out at the Gettysburg Lutheran seminary before accepting a call at First Lutheran out in Kearney – so he really knows his stuff. He had some really great advice for how to preach on our gospel text for this morning; he told us: “This is a great Sunday… to be on vacation.”
Reading through this gospel text, it’s pretty hard to disagree with him! The Jesus that we encounter in this passage from Luke does not sound like the Jesus that most of us come to worship expecting to meet. We come expecting the Good Shepherd, the Wonderful Counselor, the freaking Prince of Peace! When Jesus asks a question like, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” I think most of us would respond: “Well… yeah! Yeah Jesus, we do!”
Instead, Jesus tells us no. “Not peace, I tell you, but rather division.” And not just division among the general population, but division even among families – dividing mothers and fathers from daughters and sons.
This is a hard message for us to hear. If you watch the news or read Twitter, you know that our world is already plenty divided enough – it’s not like we need any help causing more division among ourselves. Our country is torn by political division that goes way beyond disagreement about policies – sometimes it’s like we forget to even see the people who disagree with us as human. In the midst of all this, I know I find myself longing for Jesus to bring us peace, not more division.
To understand why Jesus says what he does here, it helps to look at the historical context that he and his followers lived in. “Peace” in Jesus’ time was kind of a politically charged term. They lived under the pax romana – a Latin term meaning “Roman peace” or the “peace of Rome.” The pax romana was a period of time in which there were relatively few wars or open conflicts. But it’s important to note that it wasn’t because people were just getting along really well, sitting around a campfire singing Kum-ba-yah. The “peace” was enforced by the heavy hand of Rome. None of the many peoples that the Romans had conquered were strong enough to stand up to them. And that’s why, looking back over history, the pax romana looked like such a peaceful time: its history was written by the Romans, not so much by the people they oppressed.
This is the kind of peace that Jesus has come to disrupt. The “peace” of Rome depended on the silence and obedience of people who were marginalized and suffering. It was a peace that expected people not to rock the boat, even if it meant that they had to suck it up and suffer. It’s the kind of peace in which the people in power care more about keeping order than they do about ensuring justice for all their people.
In contrast, Jesus comes to champion the cause of the widow and the orphan and the stranger; he comes to fight for justice for “the least of these” – and that fight for justice will always disrupt the peace of the status quo. It will always go against the pax romana, the peace of Rome. Jesus means what he says in our gospel reading – he has come to bring not peace, but division.
This gospel text always makes me think of some of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most powerful writing. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King talks about peace, and he draws a contrast between what he calls “negative peace” and what he calls “positive peace.” He writes that a “negative peace… is the absence of tension,” while a “positive peace… is the presence of justice.” With his words and actions, Dr. King disrupted the peace of the status quo of his day. But of course, instead of the pax romana, he was disturbing the pax americana to fight for equal rights for people of color.
There were plenty of people at the time who wished he would shut up and go away. Slavery had ended a hundred years earlier; Black people could own property and vote and be their own masters – wasn’t that good enough? The country had already survived a civil war and they wanted to maintain the peace, even if it meant that Americans of African descent continued to live as second class citizens. In fact, King was prompted to write his Letter from a Birmingham Jail as a response to a group of white clergymen who had written an open letter titled “A Call for Unity” that basically told King and his fellow protesters to stop rocking the boat.
It’s painful to know that other white, mainline Protestant clergyfolk – like what I am – stood up against Dr. King, ending up on the very wrong side of history. But it’s a legacy I have to acknowledge – that we have to acknowledge. In fact, at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly just over a week ago, they did exactly that. They wrestled with this painful history and the part the church has played in it. In the document Declaration to People of African Descent, the Assembly acknowledged that the church has been complicit in oppression and racism against people of African descent, and they apologized for it.
This was an important step toward enacting peace – the kind of “positive peace” that Dr. King wrote about. But it also created a lot of division, just like Jesus talks about in our gospel reading. I’m sure that even in this room, there are a lot of mixed feelings and mixed opinions about the fact that the ELCA took this step.
It is fearsomely difficult and incredibly uncomfortable to have to reckon with this history of racism and inequality. I think it’s safe to say that most of us would rather avoid it if we can. For the most part, we’re fine with the peace of the status quo – we’re fine with the pax americana. We would rather that no one rock the boat too much, for fear that someone might fall out. But we still can’t escape Jesus’ words. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you. Not peace, but division.”
The good news is that division and discomfort are most definitely not the ultimate goal – not at all. None of Jesus’ actions or Dr. King’s actions or the Churchwide Assembly’s actions were meant just to leave us feeling sinful or angry or ashamed. The goal of all of this is to enact justice that creates real peace, peace for all people – the peace of the kingdom of God. Instead of the pax romana or the pax americana, our true goal is the pax Christi: the peace of Christ. That’s the peace that we bless each other with every single Sunday that we gather for worship: the peace of Christ.
And that is a peace that is truly meant for all people. As much as it may cause division or make us uncomfortable, at the end of the day, it is such good news to know that God’s justice and God’s peace are so much greater than our limited human ideas of what is just or peaceful. God’s vision is so much more. And it’s a blessing to know that God wants for every single one of us to be fully part of that vision of peace.
So please allow me to close by praying, from the bottom of my heart: may the peace of Christ be with you. Always.