Scripture: Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV)
'I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 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?
The church building of my childhood has an enormous stained-glass window depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd: a bucolic scene, radiating tenderness. I've seen plenty of similar windows. But so far, no stained-glass scene of Jesus throwing fireballs or wielding a sword.
This passage is not what you'd think of as inviting, or seeker-friendly. The church, in reality, often has a bias toward Jesus as uniter, knitting together what is separated. Once we internalize that image, it's hard to see hope or encouragement in Jesus the divider. Yet Luke presents him as a full-throated bifurcater.
A wise preacher said that when Jesus spoke about pitting relatives against one another and dividing families, he wasn't referring to his mission, but to its effect.
In Jesus' day, even more than in ours, families were the basic unit of society. Family was identity, location, and first allegiance. I'll hazard a guess — based on 19 years of pastoring and 55 of observing — that in Jesus' day, as in ours, most families had issues of one sort or another. Disruptions, hurts, dysfunctions, wounds, accommodations, secrets: even the most loving aren't immune from the botherations of human ties. But it can take an enormous force of will to realize that our most cherished or rarely-questioned relationships could be exactly what blocks us from moving toward the utterly healthy connection of union with God.
Jesus may not have been over-the-top at all. He may simply have known what kind of leverage is needed, to disrupt our relating-as-usual in order to perceive the amazing mutuality and joy of life with God.
(If you do happen to see a church with a stained-glass fireball-wielding Jesus, please let me know. There could be some refreshing church happening in that place.)
God of sweet mystical union, thank you for the gift of family. Please grant me the grace to love that gift — but to cling only to you. Amen.