"I have not come to bring peace, but division."
Dear sisters and brothers, today's Gospel text is - let us say it carefully - challenging. Harsh, hard, somehow brutal - I will try to put my first impression into words. I don't know how you felt about this text. In any case, it does not seem to match with our idea of the loving and kind Jesus.
That's where the tension lies, and that's why I'll try to address a few questions or issues that the text raises in my sermon.
First of all, there is the fire: "I have come to light a fire on the earth; I wish it were already burning."
That sounds very brutal. Fanatical, you might say. One of our first images that comes to mind when we hear of earth and fire is a burning forest or a war. It is an image of destruction. Only - is this what Jesus means?
When I look at the further course and the examples Jesus gives, another image of fire comes to my mind: burning for a cause or for something I believe in. By this we usually mean a special dedication. When I burn for something, I want to do it with a all of my heart and soul, or all of my time and with full enthusiasm.
It is of course a first interpretation but I think we can also understand the sentence in this direction: Not destruction is meant, but special commitment to a cause.
Let's move on to the second phrase: "But there is a baptism before me with which I have yet to be baptized, and how heavy is my heart until it is accomplished!" I think Jesus is addressing his own crucifixion here. That too is interpretation but that is how I would understand it.
This brings me to the crucial statement, "Do you think that I came to bring peace on earth? No, I say to you, not peace, but division!“
Here I would like to go a little bit deeper. Doesn't this statement contradict John 14:27: "What I am leaving you is peace: I give you my peace - a peace such as the world cannot give." Or, so as not to compare two different Gospels, with the first words with which the Risen Lord greets his trembling discipleship in Luke 24, Vers 36: "Peace be with you!"
Before I continue at this point, I would like to say something very personal and very fundamental about the use of Bible passages or Bible quotations. I am firmly convinced that Bible passages should not be taken out of their context. I consider a dispute over words between "It says so here" and "But it says differently here" to be completely missing the point. This, in my opinion, is not the way to work with the Bible. My intention in quoting the two biblical passages on peace is a different one. When I hear or read a text like today on peace or on division, it makes something resonate in me. That is, when I hear peace, I remember other statements about peace. And because nowadays you only need keywords to let the computer find the exact Bible passage, I can locate my memory exactly in the Bible. But what I want to say to myself and to you is, that it is not about right or wrong but that this is just localization. I don't just claim things about Jesus, but I can show myself where I have read it.
I have come to the conclusion that the Bible does not teach us in black and white. Because it says so there, therefore it is so. And only so. No.
The richness of the Bible consists, in my opinion, in its narrative power and its colorful facets. When we put together all the different pieces and images then we can create a picture that is valid in our own times. Or, to put it another way: the Bible offers us images and narratives which we try to interpret and understand with the help of the Holy Spirit.
So, to take up the image of peace or division again, I may start from different, perhaps very differently meant meanings of peace.
"Peace be with you" as a calming formula for disciples in panic may therefore differ from peace as John passes it on to us. Or from the statement we heard today, "Not peace, but division."
Even today we use the word "peace" very differently. Peace can mean putting down arms. Or the settlement of a dispute. Or an all-including reconciliation. A reconciliation with people or circumstances.
Or - and this is my interpretation of today's passage - a maintainance of the way it is. Peace, as an "everything should stay the way it is.“ In German we use the expression Peace, Joy, Pancakes, which is meant in the way that peace is almost the same as joy or a pancake
And this idea is contradicted by Jesus, "No, I say to you, not peace, but division." And to understand this statement we need to look at the roots of our faith.
What do I mean by that?
I think Jesus is addressing the question of what we stand for.
What distinguishes us as Christians from people who have a different belief? These are not neutral questions, but go as far as the question: What are you burning for? What do you stand up for with everything you have?
I am aware that it could get a bit "burning" here. Hot questions. Unpleasantly touched, one or the other might want to duck away.
Don't worry, I will not come up to you with glowing eyes and a pointed finger and ask: WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IN!
No, that's not our style in the United Methodist Church.
But you may want to reflect on this question:
What do I actually believe? What makes me a Christian? What do I trust in? And also very important: Jesus says that there will be a devision. He does not say that we have to or even should bring this to everyone's attention.
I would like to close with three examples from my own life or experience.
The other day I was walking through the forest with my uncle Ulf and we were talking about biodiversity. I told him how fascinated I am by the fact that no two species of men have ever been and that this is true for thousands of years. And that it applies to every tree, right down to every earthworm. He said in his best North German: "Jo, now the evolution has really done a fine job."
Evolution? What does evolution look like, is it big or small? Can you talk to it? Why is there no such thing on the moon? Is the evolution a force or a fate?
In my opinion one can discuss about how things came to be, but for me God stands behind my existence and the existence of his creation. Clearly this is an example of division.
Second example: Jesus, whom we have given the title Christ. I believe that Jesus died for my sins and that God saved me. God has redeemed me by grace and will restore me to my original state as a sinless person when I rise from the dead. Yes he grants me even now and today the forgiveness of my sins, of my remoteness from God, so that I can breathe freely again. It is with Jesus that I want to live a relationship. Can many people in Graz say that about themselves in this way and with this clarity? Not three against two but an estimated fifty against one, I would say today. So again: division.
Last example: And what do these numbers actually mean? I want to testify today and here in Europe that I believe in Jesus because I have experienced him. He has become a reality for me and whether this corresponds to the mainstream or not is not the criterion for my actions. People around me can say a hundred times that I am stupid if I don’t fight for my rights or don't demand everything that I am entitled to. Then I would like to say, even today, that my goal in life is to become more merciful, generous and passionate. And that I am convinced that these two approaches to life don’t go together.
Division. Division and fire.
Yes, division probably means that I have to find my position. My own position or point of view to Jesus and his coming to earth.
Division does not necessarily mean fighting with each other. You can agree to disagree or to have different beliefs. And that can be in a very friendly and loving way. Respectful and clear.
Fire to me means the consequences that my salvation by God can bring about in me. It doesn't have to be a wildfire, perhaps warming embers is a better image. God's love that burns in me and warms me even when it becomes difficult or challenging.