Sermon, Mirepoix 18th August 2019
Hebrews 11, vs 1-2, 29-40; Luke 12, vs 49-56
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Run out of patience? After doing our best to explain carefully, considerately, trying to take our audience with us each step of the way – only to be met by mystified silence or a careless falling back on past, poor behaviour.
So imagine Jesus, after weeks of preaching, presenting simply (as if to little children) how the new order must take shape, how attitudes have got to change, how old prejudices have got to be thrown away…still all he gets is thick disciples asking dumb questions.
I can imagine Jesus experiencing acute frustration and losing his cool:
“If you want ‘meek and mild’, blow that! I’ve done ‘meek and mild’! If you’re waiting for another parable about a *** mustard seed or *** fig tree, forget it. I present you with examples of faithful, resourceful servants, dutiful watchmen, wise husbandry and good Samaritans and all I get from you lot, in response, are self-satisfied smiles and smug nods. You think you can go on living your tidy little lives, all goody-goody, not troubling a soul. Well, listen to this: I’m talking about the end of things as you know it. I AM TALKING ABOUT SETTING THE WORLD ON FIRE!”
The passage we heard form Luke’s Gospel is one of the most uncomfortable. Link it to the extract from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (which is what the Church of England’s lectionary does for this Sunday) and we have some disturbing material to grapple with. I am going to have a go at unpicking it.
This outburst of Jesus’, which Luke slips into his gospel (after warnings about being prepared and avoiding the snare of materialism) at first glance, seems to be wholly at odds with the main thrust of Jesus’s preaching – that fundamental Christian message – where compassion and consideration, borne from a deeply rooted love, is the dominant theme. How can Jesus proclaim that he brings fire and division whilst preaching love?
For the Jews, any mention of fire would equate with judgement. Fire is frequently associated with purging. So there is no getting away from the fact that Jesus is reminding his original audience that, in one way or another, there is going to be a reckoning. Of course, you cannot have judgement without reaching a decision. When the time for compromise has past, there will inevitably be division. Indeed, in the Houses of Parliament, at the end of a debate, the place where the Ayes are separated physically from the Nays, is called the ‘division lobby’. As we know all too well, in these mad times, when there is profound disagreement over political questions, even members of the same family fall out. It is therefore hardly surprising, that different perspectives concerning profound moral, social and spiritual matters will also divide families.
The mistake, of course, is for a Christian, reading this passage from Luke, to see it as a licence to behave savagely towards those who think differently. Sadly, a quick glance through history shows us numerous examples of zealous Christians who think that, on the back of these words and other similar passages, they can launch Holy Wars and commit atrocious acts of persecution.
The Jews knew, all too well, what it was like to endure protracted strife and suffering.
In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul gives some examples of the patriarchs triumphing, against the odds, over their enemies but he also describes a people coping with extreme brutality and hardship. It was only through faith, Paul argues, that the Jews were able to endure the ordeal they were subjected to.
Were Paul writing now, he would have been able to add the persecutions of the thirteenth century, the pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis to the list of the Jews’ suffering.
Paul had a specific message for the Hebrews, of course. He wanted to acknowledge the power of the Faith, held by God’s chosen race, but he also wanted to argue that this only took them so far – and not far enough for them to receive what had been promised; that could only come with a recognition of Jesus as the Messiah.
We can understand what Paul was trying to do.
And we can take his catalogue of the persecutions endured by the Jews and set it in parallel to similar persecution experienced by Christians over the past two thousand years or so. Bizarrely, this was often at the hands of other Christians.
France had its own vicious Wars of Religion, Catholics set against Protestants, with probably more Protestants massacred over twenty-four hours in Paris on St Bartholomew’s Day, 23rd to 24th August 1572, than the number of Christians who died in the whole of the Roman persecutions. Great Britain had its own phase of acute religious intolerance during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary 1. During the reigns of the Stuart monarchs, Puritans preferred exile in the Americas to living in England. Roman Catholics in England were only granted equality under the law in 1832. Though the Cathars were technically heretics, unorthodox in their beliefs, they probably lived lives far closer to that of the early Christians than the fat abbots in their monasteries or the papal legates and officers of the Holy Inquisition. Nevertheless, as we who live in the shadow of Bram and Albi and Montsegur know, they were rooted out with great cruelty. Today, in many parts of the world, the ferocious self-righteousness of some Christian sects still leads to bigotry, open hostility and persecution.
So we know that widespread conversion to Christianity did indeed bring fire and division.
However, I cannot see that brutal persecution or negative discrimination can ever be justified by Jesus’ statement that he would bring fire and division. Rather, this type of extreme behaviour and the hatred that spawns it, is a symptom of human failing. It stems not from fundamental Christian principles but, in my opinion, from human weakness.
Extreme fervour – the sort that refuses to see anything from another’s point of view – that arrogant refusal to step into anyone else’s shoes and walk around in them – often arises from a craving for simplicity. Such people are desperate for a simple solution to life’s complexities. In their inadequacy, they snatch at anything which reduces human behaviour to black and white ‘dos and don’ts’, Us and Them. Problems will be solved as soon as a scapegoat is found. Sadly, it is a mindset which currently seems to be finding favour. The resurgence of nationalism, which we are seeing around the world, is a symptom of widespread confusion and perplexity seeking a simplistic and often cruel solution.
Extreme fervour supports tribalism. There is no nuance. There is little individuality. Questioning, exploration or searching is tantamount to betrayal. It’s ‘believe what the tribe believes’ or risk expulsion or worse. And then, of course, it’s a very small step from disagreement to condemnation. It’s not just ‘you’re out’, it’s ‘you’re damned’ and, if you’re damned you are damnable and, so our persecuting forebears argued, you have to pay the price not just in the next life but in this one too because if we, the self-appointed guardians of God’s truth ignore your heretical beliefs, we risk being damned too. It’s easy to see how rapidly the hatred boils up. And, as we know, it’s not just Christians who take this stance. Islamists do and, as the tension in Kashmir illustrates, some Hindus do too.
Extreme fervour comes from a belief that it is we who should judge. We decide who is Protestant and who is Catholic, who is Aryan and who is Jew, who is Hutu and who is Tutsi, who is Sunni and who is Shiite, who is to be saved and who exterminated. Homo sapiens’ capacity for perpetrating genocide is extraordinary.
But when we appropriate to ourselves the role of judge, we are usurping the role of God. Even Jesus chose to write in the sand rather than to condemn, in strident tones, the woman caught in adultery. He ignored the ranting of her accusers and, in silence, wrote in the sand. (Perhaps wondering why the man – who, presumably, had been caught with her – had not also been condemned.)
It is for God to judge. It is for us to follow Jesus’ example.
Jesus knew that the example he was setting was enough to turn the world upside down. Authority, hierarchies, the established social order, the relations between men and women, slaves and the free, between Jews and gentiles – all these would be thoroughly shaken by his new theology. It was inevitable that such turbulence was going to meet with anger, resentment and serious (often violent) resistance. He was not telling his followers that they should instigate division. Rather, he was saying that division but was the likely reaction to his followers from those whose attitudes were challenged.
When existing power-bases are threatened, expect trouble. That was Jesus’ message. He understood human nature in 1st century Palestine. And nothing has changed since that time.
Jesus finished his outburst, according to Luke, by telling his followers to read the signs. Just as they could look at the sky to tell how the weather might change, so they should read those other indicators, which revealed the state of society, the state of the world. Having read the signs, the implication, of course, is: be ready. None of us can sit back in ignorance any longer.
Many theologians call this current period of human history, ‘The Last Days’. We, like the recipients of Paul’s letters, have been born during that period of global history which follows Christ’s life on earth. These are the last days because the human race can no longer expect any other divine visitation. The Son of God has redeemed humankind. Job done. The influence of The Holy Spirit is active and will now remain so. For the human race, this is the final straight. How long that straight will be is not for us to know. It’s the time remaining, given to us to put Jesus’ commands into action and translate them into behaviours fit for our time.
My formative years were spent under the shadow of the Cold War. (It will have been the same for many of you.) In our family the threat of some nuclear holocaust was given an extra tweak by the fact that, as a Jehovah’s Witness, my mother firmly believed in an imminent Armageddon. It was due in 1975, the year I sat my A-levels. I wondered if there was any point. As a result of living with my mother expecting imminent devastation, I know that I find it difficult to shake off a tendency to think apocalyptical thoughts. It’s a legacy I have to cope with. And I distrust it.
I do not, however, think it too fanciful to ‘interpret these times’, watching the cloud loom up from the west and the wind from the south, and reckon that we are about to hit a really dangerous epoch. Is the world in as serious a position as it faced during the 1930s? Probably not. The threat is not that there will be widespread conventional warfare, with millions mobilised. But the threat to social stability, and environmental sustainability and what used to pass for moral certainty is immense.
There is division and the divide is widening. Will there be fire too? I hope not.
Surely, as Christians, our message to the world – however wide the world each of us inhabits – must be to proclaim God’s love even to those with whom we profoundly disagree, from whom we are divided. We have to find that fine and difficult balance between the condemnation of a course of action and a willingness to rehabilitate its perpetrator. We must keep pointing to Christ’s example while leaving the judgement of another’s soul to God.
It is for God alone to ignite the fire.
It is my prayer that, though the decade ahead is likely to be riven with turbulence and division, we shall be spared the fire, and that humankind will be granted more time, within these last days, to turn God’s world aright.
These words are attributed to Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel at all time and if necessary, use words.
That is what we, as ambassadors for Christ, are obliged to do – to demonstrate that there is a higher, gentler, more deeply compassionate way of living, which means fewer and fewer people having to endure hardship and suffering, brought on by others’ greed and malice. This demands faith more potent than that which the Hebrews of old believed in. For me, it’s faith that, by promoting Jesus’ example, the flames of resentment, violence and hatred will be suffocated for want of any fuel. And then, when the fire of God’s judgement comes, there will be nothing combustible to burn.
And God will see that, at last, it is good.
It’s never easy hearing a passage like this from Hebrews. It forces us to remember that life for millions of people continues to be brutal and dangerous. I was reading an article in ‘The Economist’ last week. It was talking about the resurgence of Ebola in the Republic of Congo but mentioned, in passing that, whilst under 2,000 had died from this virus in the latest ourbreak, between and million had been killed since in the on-going conflicts between various warlords all grappling for power and the appropriation of personal wealth. And we hardly ever hear about it.
I am not sure that the curse of living in some of these benighted places is lightened by the message that, with faith, endurance is possible. It’s a grim message, however you look at it. It makes us confront the fact that living a good life, being was faithful to God’s word as we can, offers no guarantee from suffering. There are too many parts of the world where to be alive means an existence of suffering, facing cruelty and brutality as the norm.
I like to think that the world is still a better place to live in in 2019 than it was 100 or 200 years ago. But I am not always sure. There may be material benefits to enjoy but humankind is still capable of appalling acts of brutality perpetrated against the innocent.
Endurance is one way of coping with that. And Paul is keen to explain that faith in God can help us endure, as it helped the Hebrews throughout their history. But he concludes with the stark point that the people of the Old Testament, because they lived before Jesus, could not receive whatever consolation they were hoping for. We’re into realms too mysterious for me to fully comprehend.
If what Paul is saying is that endurance is easier when you’ve got something to believe in, that is self-evident. It probably does not matter what it you believe so long as it is a deep-seated belief. Human beings’ capacity for self-delusion is extraordinary, as we know.
But if the real gist of this passage is that at last in Christ we can and should find grounds for a solid faith and not just an illusory one, and some real substance for hope then that’s what we should hold onto.