Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! Luke 12:51
Why can’t everyone just get along? That would be nice but, unfortunately, getting along doesn’t seem to be in the nature of people. We disagree and even fight over opinions and ideas as well as power, place and stuff. When we want to view it in a positive light we call it competition and convince ourselves that it brings out the best in us. At its worst our divisions lead us to armed conflict and gives people motivation to do cruel and horrible things to one another. There are those who do long for peace and seek to find the path to unity. But while some societies may praise the peaceful visionary if we take the broad view human history is a long and bloody tale of human conflict.
When Jesus told his followers that he had not come to bring peace but rather division he was not advocating for conflict. He was predicting the inevitable effects of his message and the religious movements it would inspire. Christians have been in conflict about pretty much all aspects of the faith from the very beginning. Whether it was heated arguments over the nature of Jesus himself and his relationship with the Father or disagreements on how Jesus’ Gospel message was to be manifested in one’s day to day life we have never been able to agree…not on theology or praxis.
Some of the most violent actions of Christians against others have arisen from misguided attempts to evangelize…although this seems too civilized a term for forced conversions and the slaughter of those who worshipped in a different way or had a different understanding of God.
Even now when most of us would be horrified at the idea of using violence as a means to spread the faith we still damage one another with our words and the power of social media to cause chaos and to destroy reputations and lives is becoming more evident every day. Religion can be an effective means to control people of faith and many who seek power become very adept at using it to divide and to unify, depending on the situation. People of faith have historically been easily manipulated and all of us must be careful that we do not follow after leaders who tell us what we want to hear and then use our religious passions to control us.
Jesus knew that his message of love…of a personal relationship with God that did not require the actions of a mediating religious leader would be controversial. He advocated a way of life that set the believer apart from the larger society. His was a path of love and forgiveness. Those first followers were encouraged to give up their possessions and their ambitions…to seek to serve one another…to love unconditionally… even loving their enemies and seeking reconciliation wherever it was needed. The Kingdom that Jesus envisioned had no place for power for greed. Everyone was welcome without regard for nationality, ethnicity, social status, intelligence, ability or any of the various factors we use as rationalization for treating some as better than others. There are no borders to protect for the gate to the kingdom is always open.
Despite the simplicity of Jesus message he knew that there would be those who would distort the truth and use what was intended to create peace and unity as a means to divide and control. As with any new idea there would be those who could not give up the old ways or would attempt to bring their old attitudes and ideas into the new kingdom. Families would be divided as some believed and followed and others did not. Jesus’ radical Gospel of sacrificial love would set neighbor agains neighbor and even nation against nation.
In the first days of the Church when there were those still living who had known Jesus personally and the believers were anticipating Jesus immediate return the message of the Gospel seemed very clear. The faithful were willing to die in service to Christ and for the sake of this Gospel. They went to their deaths singing hymns and declaring forgiveness for their murderers. The people were hungry for doctrine and were alight with a spiritual fire. They gave up their jobs, their resources, their social status and even risked their very lives to follow the way of Jesus.
As time passed and it was evident that Jesus was not coming back soon it became more difficult to maintain that unadulterated faith. The values of the surrounding society began to creep in and when it finally became legal to practice the Christian faith the government coopted the Church as a means to control the people and Christianity became the status quo. What had begun as a means to intimate relationship with God became just another social system of rules and regulations for behavior and a means to determine who among the people is worthy of notice and who is not. The Church began to be too much in the world and Jesus’ message of love was distorted and even lost.
Of course the leaders and people gave lip service to the idea of loving one’s neighbor but added qualifiers to validate excluding some folks and even mistreating others.
As with the development of any movement there have been periods throughout history where spirit-filled people attempted to revive the original message…to lead the Church back to the Gospel. With each movement of reform come conflict and divisions as some begin to see with new ideas and others hold tight to the way things have been. This is the way it has ever been and in all likelihood will continue to be the way things are until our Lord actually does come again.
But we must not lose hope or become complacent in our own faith walk. We must at all times strive to see clearly the Gospel message as Jesus gave it to us…a message of love and reconciliation ….of forgiveness and restoration. If we keep our eyes and our minds focused on God and seek the counsel of the Holy Spirit we can overcome the need to be part of the societal groupthink. We can throw off the bondage of the status quo and seek after the things of God rather than the approval of other people.
But we must lose our taste for manufactured drama and the need to meddle in the lives of others trying to make them believe as we do…to act as we do. If we seek to follow in the way of Jesus in our own lives we will become living witnesses to the power of love. Others will see the joy and peace in our lives and will desire it for themselves. This is the best form of evangelism.
Jesus warned his followers that there would be those who would disagree and even persecute them because of their faith. This is a strong possibility, even now but we must not be afraid to speak and to act on the Gospel message of love. The world needs visions of hope in these days of chaos. We must not hide our faith from the world but rather become comfortable telling our own stories of Jesus saving love in our lives. We are all called to bear the good news to others in our actions first and in our words when given the opportunity.
Do not be ashamed of your faith. I know that in this day and age when the term “Christian” seems to be have been co-opted by those who seem very far from the path of Jesus it can be tempting to keep one’s faith a secret. But there are hurting, lost people out there who have been abused and oppressed by those claiming to be Christian and these folks need to see that there are followers of Jesus who love and do not condemn… who are kind and generous without judgment and who, if asked tell them of a Jesus who welcomes all strangers as friends.
Brothers and sisters let us not be afraid to become active members of that “great cloud of witnesses”…the Communion of Saints who are all around us. We have a witness to give…a story to tell…a Gospel message of love and forgiveness to share. Let us speak the truth in love while we live out our faith in love being Christ to the world.