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“Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth?”


Luke 12:51


I: — “War is hell”, said General Sherman, a USA Civil War commander. It is. The material losses are staggering. It was Sherman himself who set fire to the city of Atlanta , Georgia , and burnt it to the ground. Worse than the material losses, however, are the physical pain and dismemberment and disability — too horrible to dwell on. Beyond the physical distresses are the psychiatric horrors. We hear less about the psychiatric horrors of war, if only because they are less visible to the public. For all that, however, they are no less horrible. After all, in World War II psychiatric breakdown was the single largest reason for honourable discharge from the armed forces. Any combatant’s chances of psychiatric collapse (from the American Civil War right up to Israel ‘s invasion of Lebanon in 1982) are three times greater than his likelihood of being killed. When the U.S. army landed in Sicily in the 1940s there were platoons where the psychiatric breakdown was 100%. Military psychiatrists have found that the only combatant who doesn’t collapse however long he is under fire is the full-blown psychopath. War is dreadful.

Then what does Jesus have in mind when he says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? I haven’t come to bring peace, but a sword, division”? It’s all the more startling in view of the fact that the apostles speak of our Lord as the prince of peace. Indeed, the announcement made to the shepherds at his birth was “peace on earth.” And then a few years later he is telling us that he hasn’t come to bring peace on earth? Then what does he mean when he insists that he’s come to bring strife?


II: — We begin to understand our Lord as we remember that he stood in the line of Israel ‘s prophets. Certainly the prophets longed for shalom, God’s definitive peace, nothing less than the entire creation healed. Yet just as surely the prophets knew that there can never be peace without justice. Any attempt at promoting peace without first doing justice is fraudulent.

For years we engaged in polite conversations that discussed the situation in South Africa . “Why can’t black people and white people simply get along together? Why can’t they live at peace?” But there can be no real peace without justice. Peter Botha, the former prime minister, maintained that his people, white people, would never dismantle apartheid willingly. Apartheid began to crumble only when the economic gun was held to the head of white South Africa . Yet holding a gun of any sort to someone’s head is scarcely evidence of peace.

A common misunderstanding always lurking in the church is that Jesus is always and everywhere the great “smoother-over”. Whenever he found antagonistic people or tense situations he smoothed things over. The written gospels, however, paint a very different picture. According to the gospels wherever Jesus went there was a disruption.

Jesus comes upon some orthodox folk who care more for their religious reputations and their supposed religious superiority than they will ever care for personal integrity and transparency before God. To them Jesus says, “You people go halfway around the world to lasso one convert, and when you finally get him you make him twice as much a child of hell as you are yourselves.” Disruption. Next day Jesus comes upon some people who think they have preferential status before God just because they are Israelites. “There were many widows in Israel in the days when Jezebel, wicked woman, was seeking the prophet Elijah in order to kill him”, says Jesus. “But who took Elijah , Israel ‘s greatest prophet, into her home and provided sanctuary for him at terrible risk to herself? A widow from a nation you Israelites pronounce ‘godless.'” Another disruption.


III: — The truth is, wherever Jesus went there was conflict. Yet Jesus never caused trouble for the sake of causing trouble. He didn’t have a personality disorder that gloated over being a disturber. He caused a disruption only in order that his hearers might finally hear and heed and do the truth of God, therein finding the profoundest peace of God. Whenever our Lord caused pain he did so only in order that the people whom he plunged into greater pain might submit themselves to the great physician himself. Whenever God’s truth is held up in a world of falsehood there is going to be disruption. There has to be disruption if the shalom of God is going to appear.

Surely this isn’t difficult to understand. We know that the person whose medical condition is making her uncomfortable must undergo treatment that will make her even more uncomfortable — at least for a while — if she is ever going to get better. It’s the same with psychotherapy. If we are distressed by the emotional distortions that haunt us, we have to own the distortions with their attendant pain, and finding ourselves feeling worse — at least for a while — before we find relief.


IV: — Let us make no mistake. Jesus insists we own him our ultimate love and loyalty. He, his word, his kingdom, his way, and his truth: this must take first place in our lives. As we honour our Lord’s pre-eminent claim upon our life, love, and loyalty, other loves and loyalties will have to take second place. Some of them won’t like this. Jesus warns us of this and leaves us with a reminder so stark we can’t forget it: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me; whoever loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me.” Our own family members may resent him and us when they see that they don’t have first claim on us and aren’t going to have.

When Father Damien announced that he was leaving his home in Belgium to work with lepers on the island of Molokai , dot in middle of the Pacific Ocean , do you think that his mother leapt for joy? I am sure she reminded him tartly that he should be a little more considerate of her widowhood. After all, if he wanted to be a priest he could be a priest just as readily in Belgium as he could in the Hawaiian Islands , couldn’t he? Sinners are sinners, after all, so why bother abandoning her and endangering himself to work with leper-sinners? Furthermore, if he wanted to work with despised people, outcasts, there was certainly no shortage of such people in Europe . What’s more, why not let a priest who was already leprosy-riddled minister to the men on Molokai ? Yet the voice of Jesus reverberated in Damien’s heart: “He who loves father or mother more than me isn’t worthy of me. A man’s foes will be those of his own household. Whoever doesn’t take up his cross and obey me can’t be my disciple.” Damien knew he had to go to Molokai . And if some members of his family couldn’t understand why and faulted him for going, that wasn’t his problem.

My own mother and father knew that parents can get in the way of that discipleship to which God has called their son or daughter; they can unwittingly deflect their child’s first love and loyalty away from Jesus Christ. Parents have plans for their children, haven’t they? Grand plans, more often than not. Parents can wish for their child a life of greater ease, greater comfort, greater remuneration, less renunciation than God ordains for their child in view of the service to which God is calling their child. Knowing this, my parents made a public declaration, concerning me, in a service of public worship when I was only six weeks old. They declared that as far as they were able they would never deflect me from any obedience and service to Jesus Christ and to his kingdom that my vocation might entail. Once in a while I read over the words that were read aloud to my parents and to which my parents replied, “We promise.” Here they are. “You must be willing that Victor Allan should spend all his life for God wherever God should choose to send him, and not withhold him at any time from such hardship, suffering, want or sacrifice as true devotion to the service of Christ may entail.” My parents knew that if they nurtured me to be a disciple of Jesus Christ; that is, if they nurtured me give him my ultimate love and loyalty yet subtly, even unknowingly, wanted my final allegiance to be to them and their plans for me, then they would find that Jesus hadn’t brought peace to the Shepherd household but rather a sword.

We shouldn’t assume that our Lord can cause a disruption only in families; he causes disruptions in any social grouping: friends, colleagues, club mates, workmates. One of my friends, a schoolteacher, was admitted to the principal-track. The board of education sent him on a principal’s summer course in Peterborough . Virtually everyone on the course was married; virtually no one behaved this way. There were pairings-off and six-week liaisons and experiments in group-this and group-that, as well as visits to a nightclub whose chief entertainment was tableside nude dancers. My friend excused himself from all of this as gently and quietly as he could. He tried extra-hard not to point the finger at anyone. Nastily he was queried as to why he wasn’t participating. He said simply that what he was asked to do he believed to contradict his Christian profession; which profession, he added, he wasn’t expecting anyone else to make. Immediately the other principal-trainees on the course fell on him. He was told he was a self-righteous prig, a do-gooder, a “brown-noser.” It was suggested he was trying to accumulate merit points that he could cash in for Board of Education promotion. He was resented inasmuch as others felt he now had information on them that was scarcely going to improve their reputations or enhance their marriages. He was threatened that he had better be wise enough to know when to keep his mouth shut. The mood on the summer course had become sheer hostility. Jesus Christ had brought a sword. And the discomfort my friend had to endure for the remainder of the course was the cross he had to take up.


V: — Yet I mustn’t leave you with the impression that discipleship is onerous or chafing. The opposite is the case. Jesus promised he would reward — hugely — anyone who cherished him and stood with him in all circumstances at whatever cost. He promised that such people are going to “find” their life. Even crossbearing, a necessary part of intimacy with Jesus, will become not a living death (as so many expect) but the infusion of life that makes life life. Our Lord keeps his promises. Whoever follows him and stands with him and endures whatever unpopularity or abuse all of this might entail, this person he will hold up and honour and bless; this person he will never abandon or let down or betray.

We hear a great deal today about people who decided it’s time they “found” themselves. The have never found themselves, they feel, and time is slipping away on them. Usually they assume that the root to finding themselves is to veer suddenly in a startlingly new direction. Too often they veer impulsively into a poorly thought-out career change or spouse change. They do something quixotic, bizarre. They may even do something that they think will prove unusually titillating. At the end of it all they are jaded, and are no closer to finding themselves.

Today in worship we read our Lord’s piercing question as recorded in Luke’s gospel. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus follows his question with his ringing declaration losing one’s life and finding it. There he insists that there’s only one way we are ever going to find ourselves: we have to forget ourselves. Yet we are to forget ourselves not in an attitude or self-belittlement or self-contempt; we are to “forget” ourselves only because we have become preoccupied with him and his kingdom and all we must be about now that his kingdom has been superimposed on the kingdoms of his world.

If we are sceptical of this, if it sounds too slick for us, then we should immerse ourselves in Christian biography. (Reading the biographies of Christ’s people remains my favourite form of leisure activity; and more than “leisure”, since I have found there to be no comparable spiritual tonic.) As we steep ourselves in Christian biography we find that it becomes a means of grace for us, a vehicle that carries us away from ourselves and into the service of God. There we find ourselves losing ourselves for the kingdom of God , and discovering that in “losing” ourselves we are never lost to God. Instead, we know indubitably now that we’ve been found of God and are cherished by him and will be satisfied in him for as long as breath remains in us. In short, we shall have verified our Lord’s promise: “Whoever keeps her life will lose it, and whoever loses her life for my sake will find it.”


Jesus came not to bring peace, he tells us, but a sword, division, strife, trouble and turbulence. He means that the disruption he causes is surgery necessary to re-set what’s fractured, put right what’s dislocated, cleanse what’s infected. In short, the pain he causes is curative in that it’s the beginning of the shalom of God. Even though he brings a sword; even as he brings a sword and causes division, he is and remains first and finally the bringer of peace, for he is the prince of peace, and was given us to bring peace to the earth.

To be possessed of this conviction is to give ourselves up to him, and in doing this discover that we have found life.


                                                                                                 Victor Shepherd                

 January 2003