Sermon for Sunday, August 14, 2016 || Proper 15C || Luke 12:49-56
Whenever we have a baptism at St. Mark’s, we also have the opportunity to reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant. This covenant includes five promises that serve as a roadmap for a life as a follower of Jesus Christ.
The last of these promises asks: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
We answer each promise with the same refrain: “I will, with God’s help.” If you’re like me, however, you might be experiencing some cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile that last promise against Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading. We promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” But Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
It probably didn’t escape your notice that Jesus is in a less than friendly mood in today’s reading. When Jesus speaks from a place of stress or exhaustion, as he does in this morning’s passage, he often slides to the strident, confrontational end of the spectrum. Sounds particularly human, doesn’t it? Sounds like me if I haven’t slept or if I’m about to board an airplane. We can use Jesus’ stress to explain away his difficult words (“He didn’t really mean that stuff about peace and division; he was just really stressed out”). Or we can acknowledge that in his stressed state, Jesus speaks some unvarnished truth, perhaps not as nuanced as he would have liked to speak it, but truth nonetheless.
To get to this unvarnished truth, we first have to imagine how people in Jesus’ time would have heard the word “peace.” One version of the word was a generous greeting and blessing: “Shalom.” Another use was for the cessation of upheaval: “Peace, be still.” But a third use was more sinister – peace as propaganda. You’ve heard of the “Pax Romana,” the “Peace of Rome.” This was the glorious gift of Rome to the peoples fortunate enough to come under the Imperial banner and Roman “protection.” Well, that’s how the Romans would have sold it. The Pax Romana actually spread by the edge of the sword, and conquered peoples lived in fear and distrust of their occupiers.
I think Jesus refers to this third kind of “peace” in today’s reading, evening using the expression “bringing peace,” which was surely a quotation of the Roman machine. This “peace” was the absence of overt conflict, yes, but also the absence of justice, of freedom. The kind of peace the Pax Romana brought was really just a thin veneer spread over a roiling mass of suppressed cultures and traditions and hopes and dreams. The thin veneer of “peace” hid the brokenness, the divisions that lay beneath.
With his words in today’s lesson, Jesus seeks to rip the cover off this false kind of peace and to expose the brokenness of society beneath. And in exposing that brokenness begin to heal it. Jesus knows human nature all too well – without exposing the brokenness, the divisions in society, we are content just to go along with the status quo, willingly ignorant to the steep costs of so-called “peace.” Indeed, Jesus’ words today could have spilled from the lips of any leader of the Civil Rights movement. Jim Crow was essentially an American version of the Pax Romana. How many decades did this country live in so-called “peace” before Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus in 1955, thus sparking years of peaceful protest matched against repressive brutality.
Jesus’ words also speak unvarnished truth when we move from the societal to the personal. Each of us has a individual Pax Romana within us — a set of assumptions about our security and wellbeing that promises peace at long last. But these assumptions are derived from our materialistic culture, from the marketing department, whose goal is for us to consume, not to find peace. When Jesus rips the cover off this false kind of peace, we find our broken selves, which have fragmented because we let ourselves be seduced by so many things. With the false peace gone, we confront the broken people we really are.
But we aren’t alone. Jesus may have come to expose the divisions hidden under the myriad Pax Romanas of society and of our souls. But this is only half the mission. He also came to put the pieces back together again. He came to show us what real peace is: peace accompanied by justice, mercy, and love; peace that nurtures the dignity of all peoples rather than suppressing it; peace that passes all understanding.
This is the kind of peace we strive for when we affirm our baptismal promises. We strive for the peace of the broken bone that grows back stronger than before. We strive for the peace of the generous heart that no longer fears scarcity. We strive for the true peace of Christ that shatters the veneer of tranquility, exposes the divisions beneath, and weaves the disparate threads of division into peace that is deep and abiding.
We need this true peace today, especially when too many things fragment us, when too many promises lie broken on the ground, when too many people can’t find a way out of the cycle of violence, poverty, and insecurity. How do we find this true peace? We start where Jesus is in today’s lesson: at the breaking point, at the divisions that seek to sunder our society and our inner selves. There is always Empire in need of revolution. We all have inner despots in need of eviction. Identifying them – seeing the so-called peace for its true fragmenting nature is the hard part, the part for which we need God’s help.
And so we cry out for that help from God. We promise to live out our Baptismal Covenant as followers of Jesus Christ. And we discover the true peace that can change the world into the Kingdom of God. The peace we promise to strive for in our baptismal promises is the true, deep, and abidingpeace of Christ. We participate in the hard work of accomplishing this peace when, with God’s help, we see past the thin veneer of so-called peace in society and in ourselves. When, with God’s help, we follow Jesus Christ to the brokenness beneath, the brokenness of the cross and the world. And when, with God’s help, we don’t stop there, but press on to the new wholeness of the empty tomb and the power of the resurrection.