Sabbath Day Thoughts — “When Faith Divides” Luke 12:49-56
Our faith may put us at odds with others. Take my family for example. My grandparents were all Presbyterians. But that homogeneity of belief is a thing of the past. My sister is a Methodist lay pastor. My brother is a born-again southern Baptist. I have an uncle who converted to Judaism. A bevy of cousins are fundamentalists, an equal number are nominally Catholic, some are completely unchurched. I imagine that if we were to break into small groups and share a little about the religious context of our families and friends, we would hear similar stories of conflicting beliefs and convictions. We have probably learned through bitter experience that conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table should never turn to matters of faith unless we want to risk a food fight.
Jesus warned his followers that his life and ministry would bring conflict and bitter division to their lives. I bet the disciples didn’t like to hear those words of warning any more than we do. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” This is no warm and fuzzy lesson. As Jesus spoke, he and his friends were on their way to Jerusalem. We can hear in his words the stress and tension that he must have felt. His mission was nearing fulfillment in his death and resurrection in a holy city rocked between the joyous welcome of “Hosanna!” and the murderous shouts of “Crucify him!” There would be no peace in Jerusalem that Passover.
Jesus knew from personal experience that pursuing God’s purpose would cause family trouble. Remember the day that Mother Mary and Jesus’s brothers showed up at the house where he was teaching (Matthew 12:46-49)? Fearing for Jesus’ mental and physical well-being, they sought to forcibly take him home to Nazareth. Jesus refused them an audience, turning instead his followers and said, “Here are my mother, brothers, and sisters. Whoever does the will of the Father is my kin.” Think of the sorrow and worry with which Jesus’s family turned around and went home.
Jesus’s followers knew that discipleship would bring trouble from the moment that fishermen James and John left their father Zebedee behind in the boat and answered Jesus’s call. When Luke recorded his gospel (about the year 75), the early church was plagued by division. Traditional synagogues had driven out Christians as heretics. Many fled Israel to live in exile across the Roman Empire, from North Africa to Greece to Rome. We admire the Acts of the Apostles with its vivid stories: Philip teaching Samaritans and Ethiopians, Peter preaching to Roman soldiers, and Paul witnessing to the Gentiles. Yet, we fail to recognize that behind those bold and risky triumphs there were scandalized parents, alienated siblings, lost loves, and outraged neighbors. Discipleship brought days of triumph, but it also brought sorrow, pain, and oh yes, plenty of division.
There are places in this world where being a Christian remains a recipe for conflict, rejection, and even death. 245 million Christians in 150 countries experience high levels of persecution for their choice to follow Christ. That works out to about 1 in 9 Christians around the world who live with threat of violence right now. For the most recent year that data is available, 4,136 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons. 2,625 Christians were detained without trial, sentenced, and imprisoned. 1,266 churches or Christian buildings were attacked, many destroyed. For persecuted Christians the world over, Jesus’s scary warning about family rejection and coming persecution are an affirmation of their faithfulness in a hostile world where belief can cost you your life.
Today in Cuba, where Christians face ongoing harassment from government authorities, David Walter Fis pastors a church. State security officials demolished the church building, and when the congregation continued gathering, officials placed restraining orders on Pastor Fis and the congregation. Despite the government’s attempts to silence their witness, the church has continued meeting in the homes of church members or in fields.
In Pakistan, Sahid and his wife Memona live in a small Hindu village. In April, they were confronted by Hindu family members and neighbors about their Christian beliefs. The couple refused to renounce their faith in Christ. Around two weeks later, their home was set on fire, and their two youngest children were killed. When the couple notified the police, the authorities tried to pressure them into saying that the fire was an accident.
In Indonesia, Nia became a Christian through the influence of friends. When her Muslim family learned of her faith, they threatened to behead her. They subsequently kept her locked in her room. Although the parents eventually released her, they have forced her to take psychiatric drugs and see an Islamic leader for “healing.” Her Christian friends and church community are unsure how to help.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” It’s all so black and white in the world of Jesus and the disciples. It’s all so cut and dried in the experience of believers in those 150 countries where Christians are persecuted. Indeed, those experiences of hardship for the sake of faith make our Thanksgiving dinner family squabbles seem tepid and innocuous. Yet I believe that when we live with integrity, our calling as followers of Jesus continues to put us at odds with others, continues to invite us to speak truth and risk conflict for the sake of the gospel that we hold dear. There are moments in our lives when we will risk conflict and division if we are to keep the faith.
It may be the day that you become a whistleblower, putting your foot down over the ethical corners that your boss cuts.
It could be the time that you stop your uncle in the middle of his familiar racist or sexist jokes.
It could be your refusal to turn a blind eye to the way a family member has mistreated their spouse or children.
Perhaps it will be when you invite your non-believing spouse to stop treating your faith like an inconvenient hobby and ask them to join you in the pews.
It may be the day when you speak truth to a parent about the harm that their addiction has caused the family and insist that they get help.
It could even be when you stop a friend from spreading a malicious rumor by reminding them how hurt the target of their gossip would feel to hear those cruel words.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Christians like us, who live with tolerance and religious liberty, isn’t persecution. Instead, the challenge we face is our reluctance to make waves for the sake of our faith. When our Christian conscience is pricked by the unethical, hurtful, or harmful behavior of others, we bite our tongues or look the other way. We do not take a stand for fear of being labeled self-righteous, judgmental, or holier than thou. We don’t want to be known as one of “those Christians.”
My former colleague, the Rev. Dr. John Walton, with whom I served at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, teaches that today’s reading from Luke, with its scary warning about family conflict, is meant to be read alongside the following reading in Luke 13:6-9. That’s the equally uncomfortable parable of the unfruitful fig tree. Remember it? When a fig tree refuses to bear fruit, a land owner threatens to cut it down. Fortunately for the fig tree, a good gardener bargains for more time, promising to apply fertilizer and special care to ensure a fruitful future. It’s a parable of judgment that begs us to consider if we are fruitful fig trees. Are we bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God? If we stood in a court of judgment, would there be sufficient evidence in our daily living to convict us of being Christians? Or, have we hidden our faith and refused the risks that come when we affirm that Christ is Lord?
According to Jesus, the Kingdom, with its demand for action is always all around us. It’s as obvious as the storm clouds that bring rain or the south wind that causes a scorcher. If we are willing to truly live as a disciple of Christ, if we take the obligations of the Kingdom of God seriously, then there will be plenty of occasions for us to stand firm in the faith in ways that will place us at odds with others. Pick your battle.
Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 18, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Emerson Powery. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 18, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 15, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Statistics on Christian persecution around the world are from Open Doors. Accessed online at https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/christian-persecution-by-the-numbers/
Stories of persecuted Christians are from The Voice of the Martyrs. Accessed online at https://www.persecution.com/stories/
49 “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 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.”
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain,’ and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?