"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 (NRSV, adapt.)
Many like to think of Jesus as someone who unites, who brings people together, who can heal broken relationships and reconcile estranged sisters and brothers. Given this image, many Christian leaders, particularly Bishops and other institutional figures, model their own ministries on this model. After all, as United Methodist Elder Thomas Hawkins wrote in Faithful Leadership (1999), "How we lead is how we see Jesus."
But there is another side to Jesus' ministry concerning which we don't always like to focus. Jesus didn't speak very often of uniting, but he did speak powerfully about his role as the 'Great Divider'. When it comes to Jesus, families, friends, and communities will be torn asunder, and society itself will be (at times) violently opposed to the One who is God Incarnate.
As I am someone who unapologetically supports aggressive Christian non-violence, you might think Luke 12 to be problematic for me. Far from it. My favorite image of creation in the Old Testament isn't the wonderfully majestic litany of Genesis 1, nor is it the intimate "campire tale" in Genesis 2; rather, I truly love the image of YHWH the rather violent 'Divine Warrior' subduing the monsters of chaos we find in places like Psalm 74, Psalm 89, and Isaiah 51. I (usually) don't take the warrior motif literally, of course, but I understand its great power, particularly for our ancestors in the faith. We as Jesus' disciples may be called to nonviolence, but there's no denying that violent imagery is part of who we are as fallen human beings living in a broken world.
In this vein, Jesus' talk of aggressive division speaks to me of a significant spiritual truth. According to John 15, Jesus said, "Servants are not greater than their master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." Just as Jesus divided people and suffered for it, we should expect the same. How can the Church expect to be a uniting force in a culture steeped in brokenness and sin, which is utterly opposed to Jesus and all for which he stands?
In Luke 6, we read, "Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets." This is what we should expect as the people of God, called to love our enemies, to proclaim salvation, to refuse to honor violence, to care for "the least of these", and to live for Jesus.
The Church ought to be rather stubborn when it comes to being the Church. "Open hearts, open minds, and open doors" may be a catchy advertizing slogan, but would make for a pretty faulty mission statement. We're simply far too obstinate. Pliny, a Roman governor of long ago, once wrote to Emperor Trajan upon executing some Christians who refused to worship Caesar and stop caring for the poor in ways deemed 'un-Roman', "Whatever the nature of their creed, a stubbornly disobedient and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved punishment."
Winston Churchill once said, "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something sometime in your life."
French theologian Jacques Ellul once wrote, "Christians should be troublemakers, creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension incompatible with society."
I don't often quote dispensationalists, as I find their theology to be distressingly bizarre and eisegetically unorthodox, but radio commentator J. Vernon McGee began his Bible programs with the wonderful question, "How in the world are you?" That's a question we should ask ourselves often as the Church. Are we so "in the world", so friendly with the world, so enamored with culture, that we are no longer the countercultural voice of the gospel? Jesus ate with sinners, hung out in places deemed unworthy of religious people, and did things in a way that shocked the establishment...but, at the end of the day, it was determined that he was so unfriendly toward the culture that he needed to die. Painfully.
As the Church, let's not get so comfortable with culture that we forget that we are called to be the most powerful countercultural agent on the planet, at times as divisive as our fire-bringing Lord.