I wonder what kind of family you were brought up in? In our family we very much disliked arguing or for there to be upheaval. This went right back to the roots of my father’s childhood where there was frequently conflict, and he very much didn’t want his own family to be like this.
On the one hand there were many things to be said in praise of this. We did tend to have peaceful times. But the problem was that could not have conflict when we needed to have it and that could be a problem. Conflict when it is banned tends to go underground and can make things go sour. That’s one of the themes of the reading from today’s gospel.
I want to begin though by thinking about what kind of faith Christianity is. GK Chesterton writes memorably about the faith in his book Orthodoxy. He wrote Orthodoxy while recovering from a nervous breakdown and he did it while lying on a sofa and dictating the whole thing to his secretary. This is probably why the book is a little disjointed, but it is full of gems.
I think when he really hits his stride is when he talks about Christianity as a hot country religion. He points out that it was birthed in what we now call the Middle East. This was a society that did not shy away from strong opinions and conflict. These were part of the social mix and we sometimes forget this when we try and smooth out the religion in a chillier more northern European way.
Chesterton says that the Christianity is a religion painted in bold primary colours. He argues that it has strong emotion, contradictory thoughts and is full of passion. If we try to make our Lord some kind of pale ethereal presence, we do him no service. Let’s look at the primary colours as they are painted today.
The first theme is one that we are sometimes very uncomfortable with; judgement. We have a inbuilt suspicion perhaps of the whole idea of judgement unless it’s in very specific areas like a court of law but the idea of judgement upon ourselves in our everyday lives and our relations with other people might seem harsh. But in the words of Jesus we see it often and it cannot be escaped. Yes, often that judgement is about the people of God who have gone astray and will be called back into line. But there is also a personal dimension.
The reading begins with reference to fire upon the earth – and that fire was always associated in Jewish life with the judgement of God. I take from this that one day I will be held accountable for my life. I will be asked by the source of all goodness and love and truth to explain why I lived as I lived, why I handled my money as I handled it, why I dealt with people around me as I did. The good news of course is that the judge is our greatest friend and knows us through and through; but I still think that one day we will need to explain our actions, we will all need to do that. This is helpful because it helps us to be more mindful of our impact and actions.
That’s the first primary colour, judgement.
The second primary colour is suffering. None of us enjoy suffering and yet it is part of every life; an inescapable part of the human condition. Jesus talks in this reading about having to go through something that is almost unendurable. He says that he’s going to go through something and only then will he emerge from his suffering, able to change the world and everyone in it.
Some churches I know preach what is known as a health and wealth gospel, in other words that if you believe in God, you’ll become richer and healthier. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
The gospel’s emphasis on the suffering of God was almost obscene to the people who heard it. They expected a powerful and grand warrior to sweep away the oppressors, to bring about a new golden age. But we hear in this reading, Christ explaining that is not who God is or what God is about. Jesus is not the great royal king who his people expected, he has no army that he can summon.
Instead, all he has is himself, his compassion, and his bravery to suffer all the sin that ever happened and take it upon himself so that we might be free.
This gospel shows that the Christian faith does not dodge the hard stuff. It does not dodge the difficulties of life. And the big questions that there are. Questions like, what do you do with all that is wrong with us and with our world?
Of course it is essentially extraordinarily good news because it says there is a cure for what is wrong and something that is joyous and beautiful bursts out from the cauldron of suffering. In the end all shall be well.
And so we get to the final bold and primary colour of this short reading. Jesus explains that there is something about his ministry and his message that will lead to great contention. It will create division. It will create argument it may create conflict.
On the surface this is a hard message because we don’t want conflict; we don’t want families to fracture or people to argue.
But if we take life seriously then we are going to need to have grown up discussions and there will be tensions. And there are many issues in the church today that are causing just such tensions. Jesus says that he is a disruptor, that what he says will be so counter intuitive so countercultural that some people may find it very difficult to take.
I don’t know where you are with all of this, but I think I was up for being shaken up a bit when I became a Christian.
Now back to the Morris family and when we grew up. I remember one of the charming little innovations my dad came up with. He decided to set-up a family council and we would sit down and go through all the different things that we thought were wrong and needed to be put right.
My mom would act as the secretary and she kept the notes – I found the minutes actually for it. It was quite a nice idea, but I have to say it was something of a disaster. The minutes outline my parents listing all the many things that my brother and I were doing wrong and then when it came to Andrew and I having to say something back, we couldn’t think of anything.
I don’t denigrate my parents for trying or for their desire for peace. We all want peace, but this tough reading asks us I think to consider again whether the journey of faith is going to always be smooth.
Strong primary colours; as Chesterton calls it, strong meat at the heart of the faith. I think I can live with that.