40C Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Do You Love Me?
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Luke 12:49-56
Imagine this moment. Someone you love, someone you love dearly, your lover, your spouse, your child, your grandchild, your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your most cherished friend, comes to you and asks, “Do you love God more than me?”
The question is invasive. It penetrates to the very core. It is unsettling. It threatens the stability of the relationship. It is disruptive. It has potential for engendering division.
And so understandably you hesitate in your response. But then you take a deep breath and answer, “Yes, my dear, I do. I do love God more than you.”
It is to this difficult, challenging, and defining place that Jesus invites us this morning when He says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided; father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
If you dare to answer the question in the affirmative there is now division between you and the other you love. The other would most likely experience this division as one of diminishment and maybe even rejection. But hopefully you might understand it quite differently.
You might know that the fullness of your life and who you are, including your identity as lover, spouse, father, mother, son, daughter, grandfather, grandmother, brother, sister, or friend, has to find its primary identity, its ground and its meaning in God and not in the other whom you love. You might know that you are only able to fully love the other and be the one he or she needs you to be and the one you want to be from this particular self-defining place.
Our distinct identity as persons is given by our various relationships: biological, natural, social. and political. These include our relationships with family and friends, the natural environment, our work, our country, our beliefs, and the things we possess.
Some of these relationships are tangible and associated with people, places, and objects. Some are not so tangible, but no less real: our spiritual relationships, our beliefs, and our attitudes. Think of all the relationships each of us has. Regardless of whether we judge them as good or bad, healthy, or unhealthy, taken together this vast complex of relationships makes you and me the persons we are.
Ultimately, however, only one of these relationships can finally be the most significant and decisive one for us. This one relationship makes us uniquely who we are and not someone else.
For example, if I decide that my relationship with my parents is the definitive one, then all other relationships will be seen and lived out through this one relationship with my parents. I will try to live their lives through mine. Their lives will be the lens through which I see and relate to others, the world and myself. That one relationship will be decisive for who I am. It will become the criterion for determining and incorporating all other relationships that contribute to who I am as a person. The one relationship that ultimately determines our identity is the one to whom we give our existence and our life.
Jesus’ relationship with the Father is what ultimately determines His identity and His being. He freely chooses that one relationship above and before all others. That does not mean He rejects all others. Rather all His other relationships are mediated through His relationship with the Father. Jesus’ choice brought about division with the religious leaders, the political leaders, the world, and all who chose differently. All who chose not to have their relationship with the Father be the first claim upon their hearts, minds and wills.
That is the choice Jesus sets before us today. Who or what is the determining relationship that gives you your identity and your being? What relationship matters so much that you allow it to shape your life and your identity? Maybe it is your kids, your spouse, or your work. Maybe it is your parents, your church, your tribe, or your country. Maybe it is God. It is a choice that we make over and over, day after day as we respond to, and enter into relationships. It is a choice that always brings division. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Now this is not the Jesus we are used to and probably not the Jesus we want. Where is the water-walking, miracle-working, dying-for-me Jesus? What happened to sweet baby Jesus asleep on the hay no crying He made? This fire bringing, family-dividing Jesus makes us uncomfortable.
God knows, we already have more than enough division in the world and in this nation. The shadow of the past administration foments division as a strategy to distract, destroy and advance an agenda of self-interest and greed, both nationally and internationally, which will never serve the common good and the deepest needs of the human family.
Do we really need any more division? We are already so divided socially, racially, economically, politically, and religiously both in this country and also throughout the world. This social division and the more personal divisions in marriages and families are emblematic of our intrinsic brokenness and our propensity to make choices predicated on misguided and inappropriate relational priorities. The right’s exploiting the evil that is already present, in order to expand the dominion of darkness as cover for its malevolence, is the devil’s gambit.
This division borne of fear, tribalism, self-interest, and greed is not the division that Jesus would bring. The division that we read about in the paper and watch on the news is not God’ doing, even though the immoral majority would have us believe it to be so.
We broken and flawed human beings have caused destructive division by our misguided and poorly prioritized choice of relationships and even, at times, our choice of relationships with evil. These have come to determine who too many of us are and how too many of us act. If we have made bad choices, getting our life turned around means learning “How to interpret the present time” and choose again and choose differently.
It means choosing the Father as the one primary relationship that finally determines who we are and what we do. If we choose the Father as that one relationship, then it means our parents, children, spouses, or friends do not determine who we are. It means that our jobs, our country, our politics, our possessions do not create our identity. God does. Those other relationships do not have to end. Rather they exist and can even flower within the context of our relationship with the Father. There will be new dynamics, new priorities, and new divisions. It is not, however a division that kills, oppresses, or separates.
It is not a division that arms ordinary citizens with military style weapons, advances a fascist ideology, or constrains our welcome of immigrants to white Europeans and Asians of means and victimizes and exploits immigrants and refugees.
The division that Jesus offers is about growth. He is growing us up into the fullness of life and holiness. Regardless of our age we are always in the process of growing up. Growing up is difficult and often painful work. Division is a way of life and growth.
Look at the miracle of physical life and our bodies. Watch a child grow up. This, science has revealed, is a result of division at the cellular level. Growth and our physical bodies are a result of division. Go into a home where a teenager lives. On the surface you may see conflict between parent and child. At a deeper level it is about division. A young person is discovering his or her life and identity apart from the parent. It may not be fun, but it is absolutely necessary for life, the child’s and the parent’s.
Just as division offers physical and emotional growth so it offers spiritual growth. Jesus is calling us to grow up and brings the division that makes growth possible. It is for us to examine our relationships and the priority we have given them. Will we choose our relationship with the Father, to the exclusion of other people, places and objects as the one relationship that finally gives us our truest and most authentic identity? This is the division that loses nothing but gains everything. This division does not diminish or reject others. Instead it offers wholeness and perfection. It is the division that transforms our lives, makes sacred all our other relationships, and heals the world.
After His resurrection Jesus poses the vital question to Peter. “Peter, do you love me more than these?” He asks the invasive, unsettling, disruptive question three times. The same risen Lord, present with us today, asks the very same question of each of us. “Do you love me, more than these?” Dare we answer in the affirmative and risk the division that is borne of the response, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you more than these, more than anyone or anything else.” If we dare answer this way, then He says to us, “ Feed me when I am hungry, give me drink when I am thirsty, shelter me when I am homeless, welcome me when I appear among you as a stranger.” If we love God first, then we love best in all other relationships.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
August 14, 2022