Calling for a Division of the House
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 12:49-53.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I know for most of you “parliamentary procedure” is a dirty word. But I must confess I am a fan of Robert’s Rules of Order. I’ve actually taught courses for Jaycees and judged state FFA parli pro contests. Well done parliamentary procedure really does make for shorter, more orderly meetings, assuring that while the majority opinion prevails, the rights of the minority are also protected.
One of the more interesting parliamentary procedures originated in the Roman Senate. Ordinarily, the Romans used voice vote. But if there was a vote that was disputed or considered too close to call, one of the members might rise and call for a division of the house. Those who were voting divided themselves up—the “ayes” on one side of the house and the “nays” on the other side.
The call for a “division of the house” is still useful for verifying the results of a voice vote. It can also be a method of putting pressure on people and calling them to account. Voice votes are comfortably anonymous. But a call for a division of the house forces you to take a public stand, and likely, to take the heat or consequences for your stand.
That’s the kind of division our Lord speaks about in our text. The kind of division where people must take a stand for or against, where there is no neutral territory, no safe ground. In fact, Jesus talks about a literal division of the house: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on in one house there will be five 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” (vv 52-53).
Wow, Jesus! As if family life weren’t already difficult enough! Families divided? Not peace, but division? Perhaps most unsettling about this is that Jesus is the cause of this division. Actually, He is the point of division. He is the reason for the division. And nothing is more important than on which side of this division you stand: on the side with Jesus Christ and His Word or on the side apart from—and that means against—Jesus Christ and His Holy Word.
Where people stand on Christ divides families, and in fact, it divides the whole Church, into true and false, committed and uncommitted, true believers and hypocrites. It can cause anguish and suffering. It can cause embarrassment by exposing your hypocrisies and inconsistencies. It can even cause division and strife between your Old Adam and your new man, so that, even inside you there is division. Jesus comes to bring division. Not peace, but division. That statement in itself is troubling. How do you square this passage with the Gospel’s message of peace and love and forgiveness? It sounds terribly out of step with the Gospel. A strong dose of the Law at best. Contradictory and antithetical to the Gospel at its worst. But it is not. It is really a blessed division, one for which to give thanks.
Let me explain how. Consider the world apart from Jesus. How could it best be described? Sinful. Unrighteous. Dead. Enslaved to sin. Evil. Damned. Make no mistake, those who are dead in sin are hostile to God. And because of that sin, we all faced God’s judgment. In other words, we were all united, together—it’s just that we were united in sin, death, and condemnation.
Jesus came to save us from sin. That is to say, Christ came to divide us from sin, hostility, and God’s wrath. That’s why He became flesh. That’s why He lived a perfectly holy life. That’s why He submitted Himself to endure death on the cross. That’s why He rose again three days later and ascended into heaven. All of this was for you and for all the world—to open the gates of heaven once more, that “whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus came to restore communion with God, to bring you back into the presence of your Creator. This is entirely a gift of His grace. He offers it to all by means of His Word, but He forces it upon nobody. Not everyone will hold onto His gift of life: many in their sinfulness will reject it, throw it away. There will be those who repent and those who do not. There will be believers and unbelievers. There will be the living dead and those who live as though they have died. That is the division that Christ brings, that Jesus gives. But it is a blessed division. You see, apart from Christ, all would be lost. Because of Christ, many are saved.
Think of it this way: We are rightly troubled at the news of a disaster, such as a plane crash or a terrorist attack where many are killed. We mourn their death. But we also give thanks for those who survive, for those who are divided from the dead by still being alive. We give thanks for the work of medics and the triage nurses who go to disaster areas; for even though they cannot save all who are injured, they do save some.
Likewise, we give thanks for this division Jesus brings: we rejoice that while not all are saved, many are—solely by the grace of God. Furthermore, we rejoice that the Lord doesn’t limit His atoning grace. He does not divide out some for salvation and say to the rest, “I desire that you be divided and lost. I want you to be separated from Me in hell forever.” No, the Lord desires all to be saved. He delights in the death of no one. He wants all to be united in Him! Those who remain divided from Him do so by their own sinful rejection of His grace.
To read Jesus’ words about bringing division and determine Jesus to be spiteful or mean is completely to miss the point of this text. In fact, we must read it in the context of the verses which precede it. Jesus says, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is My distress until it is accomplished!”
Fire destroys whatever it can burn away. It also purifies what remains. Jesus says that He has come to destroy all that would divide you from the Lord and the life that He has for you. But because the Holy Spirit has worked faith in you, His fire does not destroy you. It purifies you. It purifies you by removing all of your sins that would divide you from God.
And how does Jesus cast this fire on the earth? It is by His baptism that He must undergo. Jesus is not referring to His watery baptism in the Jordan River, but His fiery baptism on the cross, although the two are actually closely connected.
At His baptism in the Jordan, the sinless, pure Son of God takes His place among sinners. He declares that He has come to bear all of our sins, and He will take all of our impurities, all of our unrighteousness to the cross. With every sickness Jesus heals, every sin He forgives, every dead person He raises, Jesus is both releasing creation from its bondage and absorbing into His body all the fallen world’s sickness, sin, and death in order to take it to the cross. There, on the cross, Jesus takes our place and suffers God’s fire. Jesus satisfies God’s wrath for sins. That’s the baptism of fire that He speaks about. And that’s a blessed division.
See, if you faced God’s fiery wrath for sin on your own, it would destroy and purify—but there would be nothing left of you, because there is nothing pure in you. So Christ has faced that fire in your place. He has been destroyed in your place. He suffered hell in your place before His death and resurrection. Because the fire destroyed Him on the cross, now He purifies you. He divides you away from sin and death, and sets you apart as a holy child of God.
So let no one read Jesus’ words that He has come to give division and conclude that He is gleefully causing problems. The division Jesus brings is really only a revealing of our true standing before God—as believers or unbelievers. And the stakes are high. Jesus is dividing people from death to life at the cost of His own blood, at the price of His own life.
Today’s Epistle describes the hostility our Lord Himself experienced and tells us that we can expect hostility too: “Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Jesus said that anyone who would be His disciple “must take up his own cross and follow Me.” Therefore we are being foolish and naive if we think that there will be no difficulties in our lives. Actually, every Christian can expect trials. Every Christian should expect trials. But we don’t, do we? It’s ironic, really. We confess every week that we deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment. But let a little trouble come our way, and we think we’re getting a raw deal, that God has forsaken us. Actually, we’re only experiencing a small portion of the temporal punishment we deserve—and God is using even that for our good, to discipline us, to purify our hearts, to test the genuineness of our faith.
Just remember, when things get hot, it is the Lord’s purifying fire, refining your gold from the dross, even as He separates you from an unbelieving world. Trials are a normal part of life for God’s children. Division is inevitable. Christ is calling for a division of the house, but He does not leave you to stand on your own. By the hostility He Himself endured, He enables you to stand on His side.
So let’s make some applications to your Christian life. For these divisions are often presented as “evidence” that the Christian faith is untrue, wrong, hypocritical, or possibly even immoral. When division arises, it’s the Gospel that often gets the blame. But it doesn’t make sense to blame the Gospel.
Picture the aftermath of a shipwreck with survivors flailing around in the water trying to escape drowning. A rescue ship arrives on the scene, with rescuers pulling survivors aboard, dividing the drowning from death to life. But instead of joining those on board ship, imagine that some refuse, insisting that they be saved by another way. Imagine that they would say that the rescue ship should not take anyone in until it is ready to accommodate everyone’s preferred method of rescue.
That’s the position in which the Church finds itself today in the world. We proclaim that there’s plenty of room on board; but the world will declare that we are divisive for proclaiming life in Christ alone. So there will always be pressure exerted to change our confession to something like “Jesus is one way to heaven.” But that says that every false god is as worthy of honor as Jesus. That leaves everyone without hope, united in hopelessness: everyone’s sinking, and there’s no true Savior to rescue. No, it is far better to rejoice in the dividing Savior, to declare, “Jesus is the one true Lord and Savior—and He has died to save you, too!”
A worship service creates division, too. Everyone is invited and all are welcome to attend, but a worship service is designed foremost as a family meal, where the Lord feeds His beloved children. Some will visit a worship service and not like what they hear—I’m not so much speaking of style as I am of content. The fact is, apart from faith, people will not like the Gospel. To Old Adam, the Gospel is as threatening as fire to Frankenstein’s monster, or daylight to Dracula.
Now, a lot of “worship theory” these days says that a worship service is primarily to attract unbelievers who may or may not come, not the family of God in that place. And those who hold to this view say that the proclamation of the Gospel should be minimized so as to not offend. But if we take such a view, we are saying that the Gospel is the problem, not the false beliefs that others hold. We are saying that we would rather settle for a superficial peace rather than boldly proclaim the crucified Christ who seeks to divide sinners from death.
So we do well to examine ourselves: if visitors find us distasteful because we are unfriendly, that is our problem and a reason for repentance. But if they do not like the Gospel that they hear, we do not blame Jesus or the message. Instead, we give thanks that they were here to hear that Word, and pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to work by that Word they’ve heard to bring them to saving faith; in other words, to divide them from death to life.
As long as sinners remain, the division Jesus brings will be apparent. This is an important truth to accept, because many will argue that division is proof that Jesus isn’t there. Many will argue that peace and quiet is the proof of God’s presence. This isn’t really new. Look at the Old Testament lesson for today. God complains about the false prophets whom He hasn’t sent, but who claim to have gone out in His name. And what do they proclaim? They proclaim that “all is well” when it is not, that “no disaster will come upon you” when disaster is going to destroy the city. They proclaim “peace, peace” where there is no peace. This is the very sort of “peace” that Jesus comes to destroy, because it’s a false peace. So it’s left to Jeremiah to declare that God’s judgment is about to fall. Then, who gets the blame for causing division? Jeremiah—for telling the truth. But while he received the blame of men, then, the prophet now rests from his labors in heaven.
Do not try to measure the presence of Jesus by how much peace you feel. You know Jesus is present in His Word and Sacraments, no matter the storms around. He promises to be! We do well to remember Luther’s observation that a superficial peace may mean that people have departed from the faith so far that the devil sees no need to trouble them anymore.
Don’t place your hope in some superficial worldly peace. Instead, give thanks that, no matter the storm, you know that for Jesus’ sake you’re not going to drown. Because Jesus comes to divide. He divides you from death to life, from sin to holiness, from grave to heaven, from “enslaved to the devil” to “child of God.” He has done so by taking on your sin and enduring the cross, that baptism of fire which damned Him so that you might be purified and blessed for His sake.
And you are blessed! For Jesus has come to divide you from sin, death, and the devil. He’s even doing it right now. How? With His Word, with this Good News of peace with God: You are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.