When Linda, our church administrator read this scripture as she was preparing our bulletins, she exclaimed, “That isn’t very nice.” We want nice Jesus, not fire bringing, divisive Jesus. We want the Jesus whom angels gathered around when he was born singing songs of peace. We want Jesus who told his disciples not to worry and never fear. We want Jesus who stops storms and heals the sick. We want Jesus who tells stories of remarkable love like the parable of the Prodigal Son.
You remember that story, right? A young son insists on receiving his inheritance from his wealthy father before the guy is even dead. Leaves home and spends the money on bad, bad things. Then crawls back home after he has run out of money and options to ask for forgiveness. The surprise is that the father doesn’t give him a good old fashioned parenting lecture, you made your bed now sleep in it. The surprise is the father is not smart enough to be suspicious of a son who returns only when he has no where else to go. The surprise is a spurned father who is so overwhelmed by joy when he sees his son on the road, that he runs to greet him before he ever gets to his door. Before the son asks for forgiveness, he is warmly embraced and welcomed by a party to celebrate his return.
We want that Jesus who preaches constantly of God’s great capacity to forgive and God’s longing to reconcile with each of us separated by sin. Yet, that Jesus is this Jesus who preaches stark words of division and woe. Even in a remarkable story of love, division lurks. The Prodigal Son ends not with the party, but in a focus on the older brother. He was the one who stayed on the farm, did all the right things, worked hard, listened to his father’s thousands of stories that started with when I was your age. He never insulted his father or brought shame on his family. The story ends with this good son being angry at the extravagance of his father’s love and forgiveness for his bad brother. Choosing love causes division.
Most of us hate division and avoid conflict like the plague. This is why we don’t talk about politics at our Thanksgiving Meals or in church groups. Half the people might be shouting amen but the other half are likely heading for the door. Democrats and Republicans dislike each other more than Buckeye and Wolverine fans. Not talking politics seems wise most of the time…except when we keep quiet about God’s love and God’s longing for our world. When we choose not to love, to defend, to lift up, to fight, because we don’t want that older brother to get mad at our extravagant care. When we keep quiet, because choosing love causes division.
Jesus’ preaching always revolved around one theme, in me the Kingdom of God has drawn near. This sounds good, unless you are pretty invested in the Kingdom of Man that is getting crowded out. The rules, laws, accepted practices, ways of doing things are different in the two. Choosing the Kingdom of God over the Kingdom of Man, choosing love over law, always has caused division for followers of Jesus.
For Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, it meant teaching his brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends that all would be welcome equally in the Kingdom of God, even Gentiles. There would be no special status for God’s chosen people. They would have to share what they have known, God’s passionate concern and gracious love. When the small village that Jesus was raised, heard Jesus preach this sermon, they assumed they would have the best houses in the Kingdom of God. This is how the Kingdom of Man worked. You take care of your own. They nearly killed him when Jesus said sorry, no. Choosing love causes division.
For the early disciples of Jesus, if they embraced the love of God Jesus preached, over a different sort of god their family worshipped, they were no longer welcome in their homes and even their villages. In a world where the family was the primary social unit, leaving your father’s religion for another was an abomination. Putting the needs of someone who was not of your blood above your own blood relations, was unthinkable. No one could understand that blood brothers and blood sisters in the Kingdom of God are not determined by DNA. Our brothers and sisters are all who are covered by the blood of Jesus, shed to unite us into one humanity. Choosing to love a neighbor more than your brother is a crime in the Kingdom of Man. Choosing love causes division.
There is a great Netflix movie called Come Sunday. It is the true story of Pentecostal preacher Bishop Carlton Pearson. Pearson had grown a congregation in Oklahoma into a huge mega church. Yet, he lost it all when a revelation came to him. God told him hell exists, but it is only something I use to burn off whatever needs to go before I welcome my child to heaven. Bishop Pearson preached that God revealed no appetite to eternally punish men and women made in His image. Bishop Pearson declared with joy that God revealed there was no one He couldn’t or wouldn’t forgive.
His church was horrified. The elders voted him out of leadership. He started a new church, but only a few hundred of the thousands in his congregation followed. His denomination stripped him of his ordination. Barred him from preaching in God’s name. The Christian press denounced this famous and successful pastor in countless articles. Do you think I came to bring peace on Earth? No I tell you, but rather division. Choosing love causes division.
Think about that true story. Good faithful Christians destroyed their pastor’s ministry. Why? They were invested in a god that fits into the Kingdom of Man, who punishes those who fail, break the laws, or hurt their neighbors. A God with a different sort of law, who treasures and loves every child made in His image, no matter their crime, no matter what, was threatening to how they understood the world. A party for a son who lived a horrible life, who only returned because there was nowhere else to go? The son who stayed close to his father all his life said no and refused to celebrate. The Kingdom of God will be rejected by all invested in the Kingdom of Man.
I hate division. I avoid conflict. I try to fix and make peace. This is fine, but there is no true peace possible without love. There is no peace to be found if to achieve it we are asked to accept suffering, hunger, abuse, or a simple lack of dignity. Seeking peace with our neighbor at the expense of another neighbor, is a peace God does not understand. Choosing to love will cause division and put us in conflict. But at least we can be sure we are following Jesus, someone who already knows the way.