Living in the tension

Luke 12.49–56


I have often repented of judging too severely, but very seldom of being too merciful. — John Wesley, Letters to John C Brackenbury, #656


The sermon I’m about to preach had a few false starts. I started it at least four times with different ideas. That happens from time to time. Sometimes, in working out how to approach a difficult sermon, I take a personal approach. Which is what I’m doing today. 

Why was it so hard to write? I didn’t want to avoid difficult verses like this, but I didn’t know quite what to say: 

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!… 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…

Division isn’t easy. 

I’ve been divided from people because of my faith. Let me tell you about one or two times. 

I had a sudden conversion experience; I’ll tell you more about it another time. It was at a Billy Graham rally, and a couple of days afterwards I plucked up the courage to tell my dad. 

Dad was not best pleased. He told me not to post back the study material I’d been given, because all I’d get would be ‘begging letters’. He told me he’d believe what Billy Graham had to say if he rode into town on a donkey rather than flying in on a jet plane. 

That was my first taste of division, and of how complex divisions really can be. Hear again what my dad said: he’d believe what Billy Graham had to say if he rode into town on a donkey rather than flying in on a jet plane. 

Dad was saying that he was prepared to give a hearing to someone who truly followed Jesus. But he wasn’t prepared to listen to a man he believed (wrongly, in my opinion) was only in it for the money. 

This is a story of necessary division. When Jesus is there, we ultimately need to make a choice. Will we follow, or turn away? 

(By the way, my dad eventually listened to the voice of Jesus. But that’s a story for another day.)

The second division came a few years later. I was going to my best friend at school’s church. I mean, why not go to your best friend’s church, right? 

It was an Open Brethren outfit, a fundamentalist group who insisted that there were no errors or contradictions in the Bible; that the earth was 6000 years old; and only men could offer leadership in the church. What’s more, expressing any doubt or having other opinions was questionable or even sinful, and thoroughly discouraged. 

Before long the Vietnam War was getting close to home, and I was studying medicine at uni. The things I was being taught at church seemed very simplistic when I put them next to what I was learning at uni, and next to the problems we were facing as a country. The church’s teachings seemed like kindergarten stuff compared to what I was hearing and discovering elsewhere. 

To relieve the tension I felt, I read widely about the Christian faith. I realised that if I was learning Medicine at a university level I would have to educate myself as much as I could about the faith I believed. 

Problem: the more I read and learned, the more I realised that a fundamentalist way of thinking made very little sense. 

So, another division came. I left the Brethren. Eventually, I joined the House of Freedom here in West End and found broader pastures to roam around in. 

I was later told that some people in my old Brethren church had concluded that I couldn’t have been a Christian at all if I’d gone from them to a scrappy mob like the House of Freedom! They said things like He seemed like he was a Christian, but he couldn’t have been one really…

This is another kind of division. It’s not the division that Jesus Christ brings, the division between the way of the cross and the way of power over others. It’s a family division, an argument over what the way of the cross is. Here at West End Uniting Church, we are convinced that the way of the cross is an inclusive way that seeks the justice of God for all the earth. My fundamentalist friends saw it more as a way of being sure you’d go to heaven when you died. 

And there’s yet another kind of division, a third kind. I’m calling it an imposed division; we’re seeing rather a lot of it right now, and it is not Christlike. I’m talking about people who want to impose their ideas onto others as an expression of ‘religious freedom’. 

The poster boy in Australia is Israel Folau, but there are many others who want to be able to say anything they like or refuse service to anyone they want as an expression of their Christian faith. 

This isn’t the division that Jesus brings. It’s an unholy division, one that feeds off two needs: firstly, a need to be right, and secondly, a need to make others wrong. 

To repeat, there is a necessary division, one that Jesus brings. It happens when people put Jesus at the centre of life and live accordingly. This necessary division involves walking the way of the cross. It involves loving our neighbour and forgiving those who have wronged us. 

The family division is a contrived division, promoted by those who seem to need to be loudly right while everyone else is wrong. 

The imposed division is the one that exercises the minds of politicians, whether they’re professional politicians or church politicians. 

In the end, it’s a question of who do we see when we see Jesus. Some people look at Jesus and see a stern judge who will at the End separate the righteous from the sinner; others see a kind of Santa Claus who would never upset anybody; others see the fully Human One, who embodies the love and grace and holiness of God in a human life. 

Who we see when we see Jesus has a lot to do with how we live in the tension of the division he brings. For me, one of the most life-changing things was to dwell on this verse from the Gospel of Mark (10.45):

…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Living in the tension is about giving our lives to Jesus, it’s about seeking to serve others in Jesus’ name. 

So, we have three divisions:

  • A necessary division;
  • A family division;
  • An imposed division.

You may think that’s enough division. But there is a fourth division, possibly the real division that Jesus brings: the inner division deep within our own souls. Living in the tension is about knowing that the deepest division brought by Jesus isn’t between me and other people; this deep division, where the real point of tension is found, reaches right down into my heart. The Book of Hebrews puts it this way (4.12–13):

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Part of me is on the way with Jesus; part of me is still resisting him. The division runs right through me. 

This inner division is the one we need to attend to in order to grow into a mature faith. So I ask myself, What in my divided heart is not in accord with Jesus? I have to take responsibility. I need to look deep into my own heart before I worry about where others miss the mark. I have to attend to the log in my own eye before I worry about the speck in someone else’s. (Matthew 7.3–5)

I may have to face things in myself that I don’t like, and ask myself what contribution I make to destructive divisions. I may need to make reparation, and build bridges with another. 

In the end, I have to recognise that I am the only person I can change. 

I need to rely on the grace of God as I try to walk the path of discipleship, praying that my life is one that does not produce unnecessary divisions between people. And I commend that path to you. 

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