Holding The Line

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  (Luke 12:50)

Last week the BBC showed the last ever episode of The Musketeers. I really enjoyed the series and I was talking to Sue about why. Partly the scriptwriting was really good. You never got a line said by Porthos where you thought, “that sounds like it should have been said by Aramis”. Good scriptwriting is like that: you shouldn’t get a point where a character says something and you think, “Woah! Did he just say that? That doesn’t sound like him”. Good scriptwriting shouldn’t put lines in a character’s mouth that jars with what we know about the character. Which is one reason why the way the Gospel’s are written tells us that the writer is not putting words into the mouth of an imaginary character. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” says Jesus. “No, I tell you, but rather division!” Am I the only one who reads those words and thinks, “Woah! Did he just say that? That doesn’t sound like him”?

It doesn’t sound very ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ does it? At a time when violence associated with religion is a very real issue you might think this is a very awkward passage. So I’ll start with what I don’t think. I don’t think that Jesus is making it OK to kill people or to strap suicide belts to yourself and blow up those who are on the other side of the divisions that Jesus speaks about. I don’t even think Jesus is making it OK to hate those who are on the other side of the divisions he speaks about. I don’t think that, however much these words might take us aback, that they are actually at odds with the rest of his teachings like loving your enemy and praying for those who hurt you. And if what he says here pulls us up short because it doesn’t sound very “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, maybe that’s because, if that’s the way we think of Jesus, we’ve got his character very wrong.

Jesus was a strong-willed, courageous man. He taught in public things that were bound to get him into trouble. He crossed barriers of race and religion and broke taboos in ways that were bound to get him into trouble. He spoke of the people who held power in his country - people like Herod - in ways that were always going to get him into trouble. He did these things because he believed they were right. He held the line. When he saw the moneychangers in the Temple profiteering at the expense of the poor he picked up a knotted cord and drove them from its courts. When he was arrested and condemned to death he took the most appalling beatings and walked the road to Calvary without begging for mercy or recanting anything of what he had said. He held the line. And as they nailed him to the Cross, rather than bark out hatred and bile, he cried “Father! Forgive them!”. And so the Son of God went to his death for you and for me; for all humanity. Meek? Mild?

“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division”. Does that sound odd? That depends on what you mean by “peace”. The thing is, you can live a really peaceful life by adopting a mentality I came across on Facebook the other day: “Learn not to give a Scooby, you’ll be happier”. You can live that way - a way in which nothing really matters. I’m sure it would be very peaceful - no one’s going to argue with you. No one’s going to oppress you or make life difficult for you. You can get on with buying stuff and eating, drinking and being merry. No need to stand up for anything. 

We could do that. But we are called to follow Jesus. Jesus knew that in the days to come there would be divisions. There would be sons and daughters who would upset their fathers and mothers by following him rather than their family’s faith. He knew that there would be arguments - perhaps fierce recriminations - but that there would be those who would face down those arguments and those recriminations and would proclaim themselves as his followers come what may, because it mattered to them. They would hold the line. In times of Roman persecution of Christians there were those who would not deny their beliefs and went to the lions for them. They held the line. In times of persecution over the last hundred years - in Russia or China or in the Middle East - there were those who would not deny their beliefs and faced terrible reprisals. They held the line. And what of us? In our society there are those who mock us and make fun of our beliefs. There are those who want any witness to religious belief banned outside houses and churches. What do we do? When we are offered the chance to say, “Yes! I am a Christian” do we take that chance, or do we stay schtum? Do we hold the line?

Divisions exist. There are political divisions and cultural divisions and social divisions. No amount of not giving a Scooby will change that. The only question is how we respond to that. Do we stand by what we say we believe or do we not? A week or so ago I was challenged on Facebook by an atheist friend as to why I preach. Another friend posted this: “while I don't know whether I believe in God or not, I totally respect your beliefs and think that you are fantastic for standing true to your beliefs.… The world needs more people like you ”. 

You can go through life trying not to be “divisive” by not giving a Scooby or by not standing true to what you believe. But that’s no life for a Christian - for a follower of the Son of God who went to the Cross for humanity. Not when there are still causes and values to be stood for.

Right now, after the Brexit referendum, there are those who have taken its result - and I’m sure there are millions who voted Yes who never intended it - to spread racism and bigotry. Do we challenge it if we encounter it? Do we live by the message of the Gospel that all humanity are the children of God regardless of the colour of their skin or the language they speak? Do we hold the line?

Right now there are people going hungry in a country that claims to be one of the richest on the face of the planet. There are folk flocking to food banks in ever increasing numbers while the wealthiest members of our society exploit tax loopholes. What do you think Jesus would have said about that? Do we live by Christ’s teaching that when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked we do as much for him. Do we reflect the words of the psalm, “Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked”? Do we hold the line?

Christian theology sometimes calls the world we live in “fallen Creation”. I don’t know about that. I do know that there are temptations in this world. Perhaps one of the most seductive is to think that division is a bad thing that can be countered by not giving a Scooby and not standing up for anything. No hungry mouth was ever filled that way. No homeless head was sheltered that way. No wrong was ever righted that way. No heart was ever warmed that way, no soul ever inspired. You know that. The very fact you’re here, in this public building, shows that you’re willing to bear witness and stand up for what you believe. That you hold the line.

Lord may we hold the line. May we speak boldly of our faith in you and our belief that everyone matters in your eyes because all are your children

Preached at Annan Old and at Dornock