A sermon based on Luke 12:49-53
Who was Jesus and what was he really like? I fear that we have created a flannel graph Jesus. What I mean by that is that we have described Jesus in a way that is attractive to children. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” This is true and it is good that we make Jesus accessible to children. We want them to know that he is their friend.
The problem is that as we grow up, we are afraid to let that portrait of Jesus develop. He is still meek and mild, petting sheep and holding babies. This is a problem because Jesus is much more than this.
The truth is that Jesus actually did and said things that make us uncomfortable. This is why we are going through the Gospel of Luke. We want to get Jesus right, even if it shakes up our understanding of Jesus.
This passage is one of those sayings that make us uncomfortable. And there are enough connections with other things that Jesus said, that we cannot easily ignore these words.
Not Peace But Division
Especially at Christmas, we speak of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Many would identify Jesus with peace. Followers of Jesus long for peace.However, Jesus says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” (Luke 12:51)
What do we do with this? There are two tendencies. One is to simply ignore it. The other is to misinterpret it. Some during the Crusades looked at this passage as support for using the sword to spread Christianity and to kill heretics and unbelievers. That is completely taking this passage out of context.
Jesus makes it painfully clear what he is talking about. Jesus is speaking specifically within the context of family. It could easily be generalized to close friendships as the focus is on relationships.
This is what Jesus is saying. If we are serious about following Jesus, a very likely result will be conflict with those who are close to us. Basically, he is saying that there is a cost to following Jesus.
Could he really mean that? If we had any doubt, then we could fast forward a couple of chapters to this lovely verse: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) That’s worse than the verse about the sword!
In case you are wondering if you are really supposed to hate your family, Matthew provides and interpretation of this saying of Jesus. “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37) What Jesus is saying that we must love Jesus so much, in fact so much more than our natural family, that our love for family is hate by comparison.
How could Jesus really ask us to do such a thing? He can because he practiced what he preached. Jesus had a human family, including a mother and brothers and sisters. It is likely that Joseph was dead by the time of Jesus’ public ministry.
While we would like to think that his family fully supported his ministry, that was not the case. We read this: “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:20-21) John records something similar, “For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (John 7:5) Jesus knew the sting of rejection.
That is not to say that Jesus embraced isolation. Jesus was a family man, he just redefined family. Jesus made this radical statement: “ “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
What Jesus experienced, he calls us all to. What is that calling?
We are called to fully follow Jesus, no matter what the consequences. I’m thankful for the family I had, but I did experience some pushback at my own personal conversion. My mother was supportive and my father was just confused. He would sometimes challenge my beliefs, but was happy that I went into the ministry. It was rather in my extended family that I had more conflict. One relative attacked my faith regularly. I also experienced some disruptions in my friendships. It was not so much my theological beliefs as the change in my lifestyle. Some were convinced that this was just a phase I was going through like my long hair during my high school days.
I can’t say that I really suffered but there are many Christians who do. For some people, when they become a follower of Jesus, their family shuns them and completely cuts them off. In some cases, the family uses violence or even has the family member killed for their Christian faith.
Jesus tells us in this passage that following Jesus, with the radical change in values that brings, will bring conflict with those who don’t share those values. We need to be prepared for that and be willing to pay the price.
A New Peace
I hope you are feeling uncomfortable right now. If you are like me, you want both Jesus and your family. I love my wife and children and they are extremely important to me.
That is why we need to take this a bit deeper. Jesus tells us that conflict is inevitable, but conflict is not the final goal. It is not that Jesus wants our families to be fighting, what he wants is for us to put him first.
Jesus is the Prince of Peace but that peace doesn’t start with our close relationships. We begin with having peace with God and peace within ourselves. It is only once that takes place that we can begin to have healthy relationships with others. Ultimately Jesus wants to love our enemies and so of course we need to love our families and friends. However, our relationships with others cannot come at the price of compromising our relationship with Jesus.
It is helpful to look at how this played out Jesus’ own life. We saw that his family had concerns about him and Jesus was willing to embrace believing strangers as family before is own unbelieving flesh and blood. What happened after that?
Acts describes the beginning of the church, starting with the ascension of the resurrected Jesus to heaven. We are told that the disciples gathered together and then Luke includes a verse that is easily missed: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:14) Why are the mother and brothers with the disciples? Not only that, we find James, the brother of Jesus, becoming the leader of the Jerusalem church, seemingly having more authority even than Peter.
What happened? We are told that one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances was to James. The unbelieving family joined the believing family. The family was reconciled without Jesus ever having to compromise his relationship with the Father.
The point of this is that conflict is only meant to be one stage of the journey and not the final goal. What does the resolution of the conflict look like?
In some cases, others within our families will meet Jesus and come to share our kingdom values. In other cases, the family may not become believers, but will see the transformation in our lives and come to respect our faith. Unfortunately, sometimes family and friends will never let go of their disappointment or anger about our faith. In those cases, we must let go of our bitterness and love them unconditionally. But under no circumstances do we weaken our loyalty to Jesus for the sake of other relationships.
I love my family. They are an incredible blessing to me. I would do anything for them. Well, I would do almost anything for them. The one thing I would never do would be to give up on Jesus for them. Family is important but Jesus is more important.
However, loving Jesus does not diminish my love for my family. Jesus increases my capacity for love and so the closer I stay to Jesus, the better husband and father I am to my family.