Sunday, August 18, 2013

"The Challenge of Christ"

Sermon Text – Luke 12: 49-56

I had a conversation earlier this week about the different versions of Jesus. I was explaining a little bit about our church and how central Jesus is to us – and how many of us find ourselves trying to follow a Jesus who looks a little different that the Jesus you might find in other churches. A lot of us around here tend to focus more on what Jesus taught and did than who he was. We don’t often have debates about whether Jesus was fully human, fully divine, or some mixture of the two. My guess is there are people here who believe all of those things and that doesn’t seem to bother us much.

We talk a lot about the world Jesus lived in – when we’re feeling fancy, we call it the “historical context” – and we don’t usually assume Jesus was talking directly to us. We figure he was talking to the people around him – to their specific context, culture, hopes, dreams, and fears.

And I rarely hear people around here spending a lot of time talking about the power of Jesus’s blood to save us from our sins. Savior? Yes, absolutely. But not usually in some sort of cosmic quid-pro-quo deal with God. I know we have people here who believe in Jesus’s physical death and resurrection, others who believe in a more metaphorical resurrection and everything in between.

Do you see where I’m going here? There are a lot of Jesuses out there to follow. I certainly don’t pretend to know which one is the “real Jesus” – nor does that bother me too much. I think people are a lot more complicated than that. Even with people we know intimately, we surely recognize there is more than one version of a person. The private self, the public self, the one who shows up during hard times, the one who surprises you in a fit of giddy joy, the versions of ourselves we tuck away for a future occasion, the selves we bury deep and hope to never see again.

I’m more intrigued than bothered by the ambiguity of different Jesuses existing out there. After all, our gospels certainly present different versions of Jesus. Mark’s Jesus is always in a hurry, never mincing words. Luke’s Jesus has an intense focus on the poor and neglected of the world. Matthew’s version is a big shot, commanding principalities and ruling the world from on high. John’s Jesus is ethereal, mysterious, cosmic. We probably all have our favorite gospel and a lot of that has to do with the version of Jesus presented to us by the authors.

I usually love Luke’s Jesus, but the Jesus we get in today’s passage is pretty hard to stomach. As I watched Cairo burning in aerial footage and saw the death toll continue to mount in that country, it was really difficult to open up my Bible, seeking a word of comfort only to hear that Jesus has not come to bring peace but division. I look around the world and I don’t see a big need for division. I think we’ve got that pretty well covered, right? Why can’t Jesus bring what we really need – peace? I mean, didn’t we just hear a few weeks ago that if you ask, it will be given to you? Didn’t we just hear that God would never give a child a snake when she asks for a fish to eat? Or a scorpion when the child asks for an egg? All day long, we cry out for peace – peace! – and then we get Jesus promising division?

Not cool, Jesus. Not cool.

It would be easy to dismiss this text. You’re a pretty open-minded group and I could probably say something like, “You know, we don’t know if Jesus even said this. It’s not consistent with the other views of Jesus presented in scripture, so it’s probably not something he really said. Let’s not worry about it.” 

The problem with that, of course, is that it isn’t true. This version of Jesus does exist other places in the Bible. Jesus who is cranky, tired, stressed out, short-tempered, angry, downright rude. Jesus who tears apart families – telling people to forget about their familial responsibilities, drop everything, and follow him. Jesus who curses and shouts at those who see things differently than him. If Jesus were faculty at IU, he would not be getting an award from the Commission on Multicultural Understanding anytime soon if they happened to overhear how he called that Syrophoenician woman a dog.

Jesus is sometimes hard to stomach.

Of course, sometimes he’s just lovely and wonderful. The type of guy you’d love to have over for dinner. Sometimes he is kind, generous, calm, engaging, plenty open to change and diversity. And you have to always give him props for being a fantastic storyteller.

He is the Son of God. He is the way many of us have come to know God most deeply and intimately. He is the way-shower, truth-teller, light-bringer, standard-bearer, pain-reliever, life-maker. He is our savior.

But that doesn’t mean he’s easy to live with 100% of the time.

When Jesus says he has come to bring division, I think we have to listen. I think it’s taking the easy way out to ignore it or write it off. Because this is not the only place we see him as a difficult personality. Jesus is divisive. He just is. Always has been. Always will be. People who have been following him have been fighting about what that means for millennia now. Christians have fought with each other and with non-Christians about what it means to follow Jesus. He has brought division. He has divided father against son, mother against daughter, and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. It is what it is. Jesus is divisive.

As I was wrestling with this passage this week, stumbling around, trying to find some good news within it, I found it really helpful when I realized that Jesus is being descriptive in this passage, not prescriptive. By that, I meant that he is not saying, “This is what I wish the world looked like.” He’s saying, “This is how things are.” I doubt that Jesus was super excited about being a person who was chosen to bring fire to the earth. He’s not saying, “I have always wanted to be the one who divided the earth and I am so pleased to be a peace-destroyer.” He’s just saying, “You know what? I cause a lot of conflict. I do. Look around? Can’t you see it?”

And when I started thinking about it this way – in a matter-of-fact, it-is-what-it-is kind of way. I found myself calming down a bit. I let go of my defensiveness – “No, you’re wrong! The Jesus I worship IS peaceful! He DOES bring about peace on the earth!” – and just sat for a few days with the reality that Jesus is difficult. Always has been. Always will be.

And then I started thinking about the other people in my life who have been incredibly difficult to be around. I will protect the innocent and won’t name any names, but I know we all have these people, right? The teacher who drove you crazy because his expectations were too high and you never thought you could reach them? The parent who forced you to try things that you weren’t interested in? The supervisor who charged you to work on a project that was way outside of your comfort zone? The young child or teenager who shares your home and knows how to push all your buttons – simultaneously?

Those people are challenging to be around. But if we stick around them long enough – usually because we have no escape route – we often discover another side to them. The teacher whose expectations are too high pulls us aside after class to say, “I know I’m hard on you sometimes, but it’s only because I think you’ve got real potential.” The parent who signs us up for soccer bites his tongue when we discover we really enjoy spending time with our friends out on the field. The supervisor who pushes us to try a new area at work that we thought we didn’t care about smiles at us and opens up opportunity after opportunity, until one day we look back and discover we’ve found a whole new professional world that excites us. Our children – God love them and their button-pushing ways – send us through the refiner’s fire time and time again. And we emerge as a new person – often a much wiser, kinder, more resilient person than we were before.

The best relationships in my life have been the ones where I have been challenged and loved at the same time. People who love me without making any demands on me are okay, I guess, but they don’t hold the same place in my heart as those more difficult relationships. A life without challenge is hardly worth living and I guess Jesus knew this. As difficult as Jesus is to be around in this passage, he is standing there, reminding us that there is much to be learned from engaging in challenging relationships.

Please hear me loud and clear – I am not glorifying dysfunctional relationships. If you are in an abusive relationship with a person who does not value you or respect you, that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about relationships that balance love, mutual respect, and kindness with a healthy dose of challenge. Every time I officiate a marriage, the blessing I give at the end includes these words “Challenge one another that you might grow.” Growth can only happen when the challenge comes in the context of a mutually respectful and loving relationship. Abusive relationships are not the kind of challenging relationship I am talking about here and if you are in one, I hope you know you can talk to Jack or me about it.

When you can find a relationship that is both challenging and supportive, you don’t want to let it go. Taking the risk and truly opening ourselves to the multifaceted reality of Jesus allows us to be in a relationship with him that challenges and supports us. Jesus is not a sticky-sweet, perfect, always giving out hugs kind of guy. He is often kind, loving, gentle, and open. And he certainly love us all, not just the little children of the world. But he also has challenging things to say. He opens up a way of living that can be exceedingly difficult.  And exceedingly rewarding.

You know, when this church was built back in 1957, the people who built it chose those pews you are sitting on because they wanted them to be uncomfortable. They could have selected pews with nice cushions, but they did not. They believed that being in church should make you a little bit uncomfortable. I can’t say that I disagree with them.

Following Jesus should make us all a big uncomfortable. If we aren’t uncomfortable, at least from time to time, we’re probably not following him closely enough. If we don’t find him to be difficult to be around, we may not be paying enough attention. I kind of wish he wasn’t this way, but he just is. Always has been. Always will be.

And yet – with all of his challenges – I keep coming back to him. Why follow this guy who is so relentless? Who causes conflicts? Who makes my life more difficult?

I follow Jesus because I have experienced salvation through him. Through the ongoing presence of Christ in the world, I have experienced liberation. Christ – that ongoing eternal essence of this difficult man from Nazareth – is a liberating event.[1] One that cannot be stopped.

When I have traveled through times of difficulty and have felt my body and soul lifted up to a new reality that I hadn’t imagined possible, Christ has been the event that made that experience possible. When I speak to people who have broken out of the bondage of addiction or a relationship filled with violence, they have found a way to that freedom through Christ. When I have witnessed people who have been able to move beyond the imprisonment of a terrible medical diagnosis, it has been the Christ event that allowed them to break free – either with body or spirit. When I have seen social movements that have found the energy and resolve to move mountains, it was because Christ journeyed alongside them. In those places where we have been saved, are saved, and will be saved, Christ is the event that saves us.

Christ is a liberating event. Always has been. Always will be.

Jesus didn’t come because he wanted to bring division. He came that we might have life and have it abundantly. He came that we might be saved. Two thousand years after he walked the streets of Jerusalem, he is still causing division. And he is still saving us.

Thanks be to God.

[1] I am indebted to James Cone for the image of Christ as a liberating event.