It is good to be back! I had a wonderful time away in Quebec and the Maritimes, but the day after I got back to Toronto I was knocked off my feet by COVID. Totally flattened. I want to thank Marguerite for her willingness to step in and cover for me last Sunday. It gave me an additional week to think about the readings for today. They are not easy readings to deal with.
Today’s Gospel belongs to what the late Scottish biblical scholar F. F. Bruce called “the hard sayings of Jesus.” If you read through the four Gospels carefully, you will encounter statements attributed to Jesus that seem out of place, confusing, difficult, even offensive. Today is a case in point. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks. “No,” he answers, “I have come to bring division.” Jesus goes on to say that households will be divided: father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law.
Isn’t the Way of Jesus about radical love of neighbor and loving our enemies? And yet today we hear Jesus saying that he is bringing division and conflict. What’s more perplexing is that the Gospel of Luke, where this statement is found, begins with the birth of John the Baptist. John’s father Zechariah then utters prophetic words about the coming birth of the Messiah (Jesus), saying that he will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” Near the end of Luke’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus appears before his followers and says, “Peace be with you.” Luke’s overarching focus, from start to finish, is a messianic vision of peace. Yet here in the midst of it all we encounter Jesus seemingly going off course. There’s nothing about peace in his words today. What gives?
One thing we can’t afford to do is ignore Jesus’ words, or pretend that they don’t matter, or dismiss them as though Jesus was just being human and having a bad day. Luke’s Gospel is a carefully crafted narrative, and the sayings attributed to Jesus are carefully arranged and formulated. Jesus’ words today have a place in the structure of Luke’s Gospel; they are there for a reason. Our three-year cycle of readings has not overlooked this fact. That’s why, every three years in August, we are compelled to think through what Jesus was getting at when he said, “I have come to bring division.” What was his point? How do we square these words with what Jesus says elsewhere so insistently about loving our neighbors, living simply and caring for one another?
I think a possible way forward is to hear Jesus not as intending division and conflict, but rather as describing the potential consequences of following his life path. In other words, today’s Gospel is not prescriptive, but descriptive. Jesus is not prescribing animosity and hostility, but he is describing what can happen when people go all-in and follow him. The way of peace is so disruptive and upending that it overturns the status quo, even treasured institutions like family.
Have you considered how your own Christian identity, your commitment to Jesus’ Good News, might have a polarizing impact on your own relationships? I think the COVID pandemic has drawn back the curtain on the social convictions of everyone. What we think about our neighbors, those on the margins, and the state of planet earth as a whole is encapsulated in how we’ve responded to the global threat of COVID. When the pandemic was at its height, there was no small number of those, especially in Western countries, who questioned whether the pandemic was real, refusing to wear masks and rejecting public health measures that were mandated to protect vulnerable people from contracting a potentially life-threatening virus.
This summer I’ve been reading a new book titled Rehearsals for Living. It’s a record of extensive pandemic letter correspondence between Robyn Maynard (a Toronto-based Black activist and author of the important book Policing Black Lives) and Leanne Simpson (an Anishinaabe scholar, writer and artist residing in Peterborough). In one of her letters, Robyn Maynard calls out those who have refused to make small sacrifices for the good of all because this interrupts their own comforts. In her words, “They are drunk on this society’s individualism.” She then goes on to argue that the pandemic has revealed two conflicting visions of freedom: “One is the freedom to evade, to deny one’s responsibility to a collective social body.” The other is a relational freedom that upholds “collective safety.”
I don’t know if Maynard self-identifies as a Christian, but she has put her finger on how today’s Gospel is playing out in our present moment. Jesus’ call to love our neighbors as ourselves means that everything we do must be done for the good and safety of all those around us, including those whose names we don’t even know. Relational freedom. Throughout the worst of the pandemic, that has meant wearing a mask and maintaining physical distance. But we all know someone who has dismissed this approach to the common good—a coworker, a friend, a family member. Freedom to evade. The pandemic has, to use the words of Jesus, divided “father against son” and “daughter against mother.” It has also divided Christian against Christian. Some of the the most ardent opponents of health and safety measures are people who defend their views on the basis of religious freedom.
How do we respond to those who are captive to the individualism that tempts us all at every turn? In one of her letters to Robyn Maynard, Leanne Simpson says that “it is never enough to just critique the system and name our oppression. We also have to create the alternative, on the ground and in real time.” Our hope lies in the life together that Jesus calls us to. It’s a life of mutual aid, of care and empathy. It’s a life of love. We are called to be a community of love—the kind of love that overflows even to those we find troublesome.
St. Aidan’s can be that sort of community. In fact, I can see it happening here already. Let’s continue to practice love of neighbor in our own lives and as a congregation. In doing that, we may not overcome the divisions that Jesus describes in today’s Gospel. But we can enter the future with confidence and hope.