[Texts: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 12:1-14; Luke 12:49-56]
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee. Amen.
Is it just me, or did that Gospel passage make any of you a little uncomfortable, too? All that strife and division… none of that sounds very pleasant.
And yet, what we’re looking at here is the words of Our Lord Himself, and we as Christians do not have the luxury of deciding to only listen to His words and take them seriously when they make us feel comfortable. Our uneasiness with His message does not excuse us from the task of hearing it and wrestling with it.
I’m reminded of an old saying that says something like, “Preaching, done right, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” Jesus, like all good preachers, did some of both during His ministry.
I think we can probably all agree that in today’s passage from St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t in a particularly warm and fuzzy mood. Right?
So, if He’s not trying to comfort his listeners, what is He trying to do? What do you hear Him saying here?
Before we try to answer that question, a bit of background information may be in order. If we want to understand what’s going on in any passage of scripture, it’s absolutely vital that we put it in context– that is, that we are aware of the larger narrative it is a part of, and where it fits into that narrative.
For example, in verse fifty, when He’s talking about His baptism, which hasn’t yet been completed, he’s definitely not talking about His literal baptism in the River Jordan.
That would be a good guess based just on this passage, but when we take a step back and look at the whole Gospel of Luke, we notice that there are twenty-four total chapters, and today, we’re in chapter twelve. The Baptism of Christ took place in chapter three– it already happened. So, when Jesus refers to His future baptism in this reading, He must be speaking metaphorically, since He has already been baptized. This future event of which He is speaking must be something else.
Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem, where, in a few more chapters, He will make His triumphal entry. We celebrate this event each year on Palm Sunday.
And Jesus knows where that road to Jerusalem will eventually lead: to the cross. He knows that His time on earth is limited, and that He will soon face His fate on Calvary. So He is doing His best to warn His disciples (and anyone else who will listen) that the road ahead will be a difficult one.
Jesus is preparing not to be baptized by water, but to be crucified and die and descend into Hell. He is preparing to do battle with the forces of evil.
Recently, I was asked by a friend what I thought of the term “spiritual warfare”. My first reaction was to be extremely uncomfortable– much like my first reaction to this Gospel passage. I don’t particularly like language and imagery that connects God– and especially Jesus, God the Son– with any kind of violence or war. In fact, if anything, I think I tend to go out of my way to divorce God entirely from things like that. It’s much more pleasant and comfortable to only think about Jesus as the Prince of Peace, isn’t it?
But I think that cosmic reality of the battle between good and evil is indeed very real. And there is a relationship between God and violence– they are not two unrelated forces, but rather, two diametrically opposed forces whose relationship is what we might call “spiritual warfare”.
I am reminded of my favorite Easter hymn (“The Strife is O’er”) and some of the language it uses.
The strife is o’er, the battle done,
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun.
The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions hath dispersed:
let shout of holy joy outburst.
Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about the Gerasene demoniac, and we learned that the word “legion” is a Roman military term? “Christ their legions hath dispersed” definitely sounds like a military victory. We’re talking about battles and warfare here.
But this is a very different type of warfare, because the loser of this war is war itself– and violence, greed, death, and suffering, despair, subjugation, and all the things we generally associate with warfare.
I think this hymn brings up another vital point– quite possibly the point– which is that the strife is indeed over! The battle is won!
In other words, it’s already over. The cosmic battle between good and evil, between life and death has already been fought and won. The outcome has already been determined.
So, I’m not sure I agree with the idea that we, today, participate in spiritual warfare by fighting on the side of either good or evil.
I don’t think those are the two options– not anymore, not now that Christ is risen. That battle is already over. We don’t need to participate in it.
We already know who won. Our task is to decide what we’re going to do with that information.
Our choice in the battles we fight in our own lives is not a choice between good and evil, but a choice between hope and fear.
We’re called to live our lives in a way that is in alignment with our knowledge that God has already won, that life has already won.
I think if we live in a way that is uncertain about whether or not God has already triumphed over death, and we don’t know what the outcome is going to be because it’s still up in the air at this point, that can make us very fearful. That kind of fear can lead us a lot of places and none of them are good. It’s how we end up prejudiced against others and unable to see God’s image in them—that reptilian brain that makes us act like less than children of God in response to others who are different from us. It’s how we end up looking at life as a zero-sum game where scarcity determines everything, rather than in terms of God’s abundant providence and great mercy.
Fear breeds scarcity, prejudice, violence, and anger. Hope breeds charity, love, gentleness, listening, honesty, and justice.
So, rather than our daily strife and struggles being a means of participation in the great cosmic battle between good and evil perhaps we’re to use our knowledge (not just head-knowledge but faith and trust) that Christ is risen and the war has already been won as our main “weapon” in our micro-battles. Maybe we’re supposed to conform our little daily battles to the pattern of the Big One that’s already over—ultimately, the cross. and so when we take the role of Christ rather than the role of His jailers/executioners, and live like He did (and do battle with sin and death and violence and darkness like He did), we are in that way determining the outcome of our battles, because we’re striving to have them play out like that one.
There’s no micro-level battle that’s not already in the playbook, because Christ has already demonstrated the power to conquer literally everything when He rose from the dead. So, it’s all there– we just have to decide which side we want to look more like as we fight our battles—light or darkness, scarcity or abundance, hope or fear. We must then strive to conform ourselves and the way we do battle with the darkness in the Universe to the way in which Christ lived and died.
I find that to be somewhat of a conviction: do we live life like the battle has been won, and in fact like we are able to lay claim to that ultimate victory in our lives daily, or do we live in fear and uncertainty? When we encounter these forces, do we face them the way Christ did on the cross—in meekness and humility, in submission to the will of the Father, willing to offer up His own life?
Christ commanded us to take up our crosses and follow Him— to follow Him up the hill and say, “not my will, Father, but Thine be done” even in the face of death, because we know that death can never be the end of the story, and darkness—even the worst darkness we’ll ever face—can never have the final word, because all of those things have already been defeated. The strife is o’er, the battle done. The victory of life is won.
Jesus isn’t telling us in this Gospel passage to get comfortable or pat ourselves on the back. He’s telling us to pick a side. And we are being asked to take a side in each of our micro-level daily battles. Not because the big picture outcome hasn’t been determined—it has—but because we haven’t yet decided in each little situation whether we’re going to live like we know that.
It’s time to pick a side. We who have been baptized into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ must choose how we will do battle each and every day of our lives. Will we live in fear of the cross and the grave, or in the hope of the Resurrection?