Sunday, March 24, 2019

Not Peace, But Division

Sometimes I am amused by commercials and radio spots for religion. Especially in places like the American South—from Tennessee to Texas. Sometimes I wonder what kind of message we’re sending about Christianity. Suppose there was a person who arrived that had never heard of Christianity or Church or Jesus. If all they had as an orientation to our God were the radio spots and TV commercials that are around us, what picture would they have of God?

There is a radio spot that I heard quite often in Lubbock. It seems like I heard it once a day. I can’t even tell you the name of the congregation for which it advertises (effective advertising!) But I do remember many aspects of the message:

Services offered at a wide-range of times.
A place that gets past “religious pretense.”
“You will not be judged here.”
“You can wear what you want here.”

Look, I understand why a congregation would offer such a message. In fact, I agree with most of the message myself. We do need to be more inviting to outsiders. We do need to be less judgmental. But sometimes I wonder if—in our 21st century, American, Christian context—we are not overly concerned with making Christianity attractive and comfortable. I wonder if, in our quest to take the “pretense” out of religion, we have not begun the process of diluting the confrontational message of Jesus.

As Jesus continued His journey toward Jerusalem, He offered some words that would not exactly make a great radio spot.

“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! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 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.”

Luke 12:49-53 (NRSV)

Now, wouldn’t that make a great commercial! I can see it now…We could have a really nice-looking member of Glenwood Church of Christ in front of the camera...maybe one of our cute children. The name of our congregation comes across the screen and then this verse is read. And then the final words: Glenwood Church of Christ—Come join our family!

Now that would work, wouldn’t it? I have to imagine that a commercial like that would not attract many new family members. But you know, maybe that’s not what all of “this” is about anyway!

If Jesus’ ministry is intended to provide a map to us for our own journeys, maybe we need to consult the directions and get back on course. The images of fire and kindling do not seem consistent with our contemporary images of the cute, cuddly shepherd or the Precious Moments figurines that fill the shelves of most Christian bookstores.

What then, is the substance to Jesus’ message here in Luke’s gospel?

To begin with, let’s talk about this image of “fire.” What kind of fire does He hope to bring down upon the earth? This is more difficult than we might first think, because in the ancient near eastern context, “fire” could mean a number of things.

Sometimes it has been linked to purification (as in Lev. 13 & Num. 31). Other times it has had the connotation of judgment (as in Gen. 19 & Ex. 9 & Ps 66). The best place to look, however, is earlier in Luke’s gospel. In that passage, like this one, fire and baptism are linked.

Luke is recording the events surrounding the ministry of John the Baptist. Speaking about John the Baptist’s ministry, Luke writes:

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.  John answered them all, "I baptize you with water.  But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."  And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
—John 3:15–18

Undoubtedly, in Luke 12, fire has some connotation of purification and judgment.
Something about this fire will purify the world. Something about this fire will judge the righteous from the wicked. But what I think Jesus ultimately means here by “fire” is the Spirit of God.

“I have come to bring “the Spirit of God” on the earth, and I wish it were already here…

The fact is the Spirit of God often acts like fire, doesn’t it? Purifying, judging, even dividing. Jesus desires for the Spirit to come now, but there is something standing in its way.

“But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed.”

 I really hate this NIV translation of this verse. A better way to say this would be:

“But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am totally governed by this until it is accomplished.”

Jesus longed to bring the Spirit, but first He had to endure His baptism.

Church, this passage is rich with meaning. Most of us want to jump immediately to an argument that many within our Movement have made for so long: You can’t have the Spirit until you have the baptism.

I have to tell you, that is a legitimate reading of this text. In fact, I think that is exactly what Jesus is saying. But don’t overlook the rest of His message—or rather what this message implies! His baptism must precede the Spirit, but what exactly is this baptism to which he is referring?  He’s already gone down into the water—he must be talking about something else.

Jesus cannot bring the Spirit until he undergoes a different kind of baptism. The baptism of suffering! The baptism of betrayal! The baptism of death! Jesus cannot bring the Spirit until He dies. You see—and this is key—life in the Spirit must follow death.

Oh church, how we often miss this part of the story! We want the comfort of the Spirit but we forget to die first. We want to share in Jesus’ Resurrection, but somehow, we forget that He first went into the grave. I think there is a reason we forget this part of the story. The fact is, a life that is governed by continually dying has the tendency to create division.

Church, we have often been so consumed by our theology of baptism.

What does baptism mean?
What words must be said at baptism?
What is the result of baptism?
What happens if one is not baptized at all?
What happens if they are not baptized in the right way?

Perhaps there is a time and place for such discussions, but in the same breath, maybe such conversations have consumed us to the point that we have not had time to consider what living a baptismal life is all about.

In reality, baptism is not something that happens to you at one moment in your lifetime. If you are serious about following Jesus, you will, in fact, live in a constant state of baptism. Constantly following Jesus into the grave. Continually surrendering your personal agendas. Dying daily until you are raised with Christ. Church, death must precede Resurrection!

What does “death” look like in our lives?  It begins with sacrifice! I am going to make a statement that will sound a bit strange. I believe it is very possible to become the “model Christian” in our culture and not even begin to understand what it means to follow Christ.

For many around us being a “Christian” means certain things:

It means you are a respected person in your community.
It means you wear nice clothes on Sundays.
It means you have the right connections in a place like Tyler, TX to be successful in your                    business.
It means you meet weekly in a multi-million-dollar facility to gather with other “Christians”.

I believe it is very possible to spend a lifetime in this routine that we have labeled “Christianity” and never see the footsteps of Jesus that led first to a cross. Church, it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to follow the steps of those around us into cultural Christianity, because another path has already been marked. We can follow Jesus toward the cross.

What does a life leading to the cross look like?

One of the most important things we’ve done as a church in the last couple of years is to meet at Rice Elementary and pray. Many of you joined us there in the hallway of that school. We did only two simple things: walked and prayed.

We prayed for students and teachers and administrators and parents. We didn’t pray that they would fill our building, but that they would instead come in contact somehow with the Kingdom of God.

I have been so encouraged during my 8 years here in Tyler when I’ve attended gatherings of city leaders. Inevitably, during those meetings, someone will mention how this church has touched his or her life. Little People’s School…The Gathering…Christian Homes and Family Services…PATH. This church has been on the front lines for many decades—feeding the hungry and helping people who really need it!

A few months ago, we learned the tragic news that the Burton’s home was destroyed in a fire. We announced that on Sunday morning, and by the next day, we had a room filled with things for that family: Clothes, gift cards, household items, toys for their children. That is the Spirit of God working in this community!

What if those around us recognized us for who we are based on these things:
Our prayer lives.
Our concern for the hungry around us.
Our concern for our own brothers and sisters.

I believe Jesus said it best: “They’ll know you are my disciples by your love.”

Church, these things are so abnormal in our society—even in our “Christian society”—that to do them sets us apart from the world around us. Some might even say they divide us from the world.

We have spent our time this morning in Luke’s Gospel, but as we close, I want to draw your attention to Mark. In that Gospel, Jesus is having an interesting conversation with His apostles. James and John (again) are arguing about who is the greatest. But in the midst of that conversation, Jesus called His disciples’ attention once again to the baptismal life. I want to leave you this morning with this statement of Jesus:

“Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”  “We can,” they answered.  Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with…” (Mark 10:38b-39)

James and John did not fully understand what Jesus meant that day. They did not have the benefit of seeing the cross or the empty tomb. But you and I have seen both! You and I have been blessed with the “rest of the story.”

Now, let’s live baptismal lives…following in the footsteps of Jesus. The road to Jerusalem is paved with sacrifice, but I’ve been told that once we arrive, there is a great reward waiting for us!

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