A sermon for August 14, 2022: Year C Proper 15. In the news, Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage at the Chautauqua Institute; the FBI have executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago; a person attempted to breach an FBI facility in Ohio and was later killed by police during a stand-off; concerns about continuing violence remain
Let’s start with the obvious: the level of division, the kind of disillusionment, the deadly distrust and disdain with which we are tearing ourselves and one another apart lately is not Christlike, and we cannot blame it on Jesus, the Prince of Peace, because he once said something like, “I came not to bring peace but division” (Luke 12:51).
Lately, I’ve been playing with fire. I’ve been working on the pieces of dismantled and destroyed guns left over from our buyback earlier in the summer. Burning and beating and splitting and smelting, I’m trying, ironically, to embody the spirit of peace that is evoked by the prophets: beating firearms into flowers, guns into garden tools, weapons into leaves for the healing of the nations. I am trying to embody the spirit of Jesus when he tells his disciples, “Put your sword back in its sheath! Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
Then along comes Jesus, at whose birth the angels sang, “Peace on earth, and goodwill” (Luke 2:14, paraphrased). He says something like this, and we cannot make it our excuse to give up the hard labour of peace, of repentance, of reconciliation.
Ambrose of Milan, writing in the fourth century, insisted that we must read this passage through the lens of religious piety. He said, the division is within each of us. He went so far as to relate the family members enumerated, two against three, to the five senses, to insist that “if we separate the senses of sight and hearing according to what we hear or read, and exclude unnecessary pleasures of the body that derive from taste, touch, and smell, we divide two against three.”[i]
But are the pleasures of taste, touch, smell unnecessary? I doubt it. Worse, blessed Ambrose seems to assume that all that we read or hear is godly, scriptural, enlightening. I have seen Twitter. I doubt it.
Ambrose is on more solid ground, I think, when he relates the fire that Jesus says he will bring to earth to the fire that enflamed the hearts of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, the fire that opened the mouth of Jeremiah, the prophet, the fire that purifies and impassions, the living Word of God, which is described elsewhere as a sword (Hebrews 4:12).
Cyril of Alexandria, a century later, agrees. He, too, struggles with that word of un-peace that Jesus proclaims. He knows that it must, somehow, be brought into agreement, into unity with the rest of what we know of the Gospel of Christ: that God loves the world enough to live in it, to die with it, to redeem it.
“Peace is an honourable and truly excellent thing when given by God,” Cyril writes, “But not every peace necessarily is free from blame: there is sometimes, so to speak, an unsafe peace, and which separates from the love of God those who, without discretion or examination, set too high a value upon it.”[ii]
An unsafe peace … which separates.
Jeremiah decries the false prophets who cry, “Peace, peace, where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14), and who proclaim their own dreams instead of the vision of God (Jeremiah 23:25-28). “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). Here is the division.
Is it worth remembering at this point that this whole discourse, that we began reading three weeks ago, started with a man coming to demand that the Messiah arbitrate between him and his brother regarding their inheritance? And that Jesus refused to go there, but instead set off on a whole new tangent regarding the proper disposition of the heart, the true value of treasure, and the generous providence of God?
While the brothers are arguing over nickels and diamonds, the poor go hungry for lack of bread, the oppressed are incarcerated for the theft of a loaf of bread, the needful look for healing, and the hopeless for a reprieve from violence.
There is no peace in settling the will of the privileged brothers while their siblings struggle for simple human dignity beside them, or if there is, it is, as Cyril has written, an unsafe peace; that self-satisfaction that separates from the love of God those who pin their hopes upon it.
It is strange that peace should be so divisive: that putting love before enmity, generosity before gain, gentleness before vengeance, patience before pride, kindness before triumph, justice before profit should be a less popular way forward than winning at all cost. But that division has been our shadow side since Cain slew Abel out of envy and Jacob cheated Esau out of his inheritance by using his own hunger against him.
Do you remember what happened to them? God set a mark on Cain so that no one might kill him in vengeance, not because God approved of what he did, but because God still loved him, still owned him, despite his grievous sin. God stayed with Jacob through thick and thin, wrestling with him, holding onto him until daybreak, because as tricky as he was, God would not let him slip away.
Jesus plays with fire throughout his public ministry, causing division, answering arguments with piercing questions, refusing to play politics for the sake of an unsafe peace, staying true to the Spirit that conceived him in the womb, the humanity into whose image he was born, holding fast to the God whose life he brought home.
Jesus is on fire with justice, aflame with mercy, and his Passion splits the very rocks of the earth (Matthew 27:51), just as God said God’s Word would do.
And all of this, so that we might know, instead of an unsafe peace that keeps the hungry weak and the hopeless meek, the peace of God that passes understanding, that gives the poor in spirit joy and lifts up the broken-hearted in song; that transcends the divisions that we have created and continue to sustain to find the reconciliation that God has intended, and set in motion, and completed in Jesus.
That Word of God, the living, double-edged sword does divide the thoughts of the heart from the lies that we tell ourselves about where our hearts are invested, what will make us whole, what will make us free. This does not excuse us from the labour of love, the work of peace, the settling of divisions, and the forgiveness of debts; on the contrary, it requires that we set our hearts on the treasure that does not tarnish with time or revelation: the mercy of God, the Word of God that is Jesus.
The peace of God, which passes understanding, extends far beyond our surface concerns and digs beneath our petty arguments to the very heart of being, the humanity that unites us in God’s image, the baptism which we share with Christ; the union of life, death, and resurrection which no one can set asunder.
[i] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, translated by Theodosia Tomkinson (Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2003)
[ii] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke (Beloved Publishing, 2014), 276