A Homily for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses Amen.
Let’s start with that recurring question that pops up time and time again in response to Jesus’ teachings: how is any of this possibly “good news”? Christ says he has come to bring fire to the earth, that he does not bring peace but division, that he will divide family member against family member. This seems more like “Good News for People Who Love Bad News.”
We might suggest that Jesus is being metaphorical somehow, that there is some less pessimistic meaning hidden in the text, but we see this literal division and violence lived out in the experience of the early Church. Our reading from Hebrews makes pretty clear that the going is gonna get tough. After listing off some folks who managed to escape suffering and oppression, the author quickly notes:
Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
And even Saint Luke’s other writing makes clear that the suffering will be real and literal. In the Acts of the Apostle, Saint Stephen is stoned to death while the future Saint Paul watches on, approvingly. Paul himself, as we heard a few weeks ago, spent years in and out of prison before eventually going to Rome itself and being executed outside the city walls. That same city publicly crucified Saint Peter upside down as a half-time show at a racetrack, and Peter’s brother Andrew, my namesake, is identified with an X-shaped cross, a reminder of the way he was crucified.
But the suffering didn’t stop there: early Church records are full of stories of the saints who were tortured and murdered for their faith. These tales are gruesome, at times fantastical, and were cherished for demonstrating the piety of the faithful martyrs.
It might also be easy to suggest, then, that while Christ is speaking literally, it was a warning to early Christians. We know that even when the faith was tolerated, the Church was never well-liked by the Roman authorities. Sure, such oppression is to be expected when Christianity is outlawed, but things will get better? Right? Right?
You would think so, but even after Christianity became the official religion, division and the sword still ruled the day. Saint John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, was constantly at odds with the wealthy, the imperial court, and even other clergy for his steadfast embrace of the poor. Our own Martin Luther spent years in hiding from princes and popes, and in his reforms, he succeeded not in perfecting the Church but tearing Europe apart.
And in our own era, our kindred have suffered greatly for the faith. As the Nazi regime ravaged Europe, faithful Christians, few in number though they were, endeavored to hide Jews, dissenters, and other oppressed persons. The ten Boom family, living in Holland, worked with the Dutch Resistance. They worked to illegally distribute ration cards to Dutch Jews and renovated their home to provide sanctuary for Jews in hiding. The family was eventually arrested for their actions and sent to a concentration camp, where several members of the family died. Corrie, one of the daughters who recounted the family’s story in her book The Hiding Place, was released because of a clerical error; she was scheduled to be executed with her bunk mates only days later. When she returned home in the winter of 1944, she immediately resumed her work hiding targets of Nazi violence, welcoming mentally disabled persons into her house.
Sadly, we know that Corrie ten Boom is the exception: both in her willingness to endure such suffering but also in her survival. Other saints, like Bonhoeffer and Maximillian Kolbe, perished in the camps.
All of this bloodshed, terror, and division – it’s hardly joyous news or a blessed fate. What about our call to be of one accord? What about being united in the Spirit or being one as Christ and the Father are one? Where is the Good News in Christ’s words today?
The Church is the ecclesia, the group that is called out of this world by our Lord. We have been set apart as citizens of another Kingdom not of this world. Our loyalty is not to any human king or nation; we do not pledge allegiance to any flag or republic. And seeking such unity with God will inevitably divide us from the powers and principalities of this world. As a people who see the image of God in all people, who see our Lord Christ even in the least of these, as a people formed by sacrificial love rather than a desire for power, as a people who serve God rather than wealth, we will constantly clash with those who crave power and wealth at the expense of others. The peace we seek is not merely the absence of conflict but the presence of God’s justice, mercy, and love; and to build up that peaceful world, we will be in direct conflict with those who would perpetuate injustice and spread hatred. This is, in the words of the 15th century monk Denis the Carthusian, “a good, healthy division,” because:
Love for God and desire for inner peace will set those who believe in [Christ] at odds with wicked men and women, and make them part company with those who would turn them from….purity of divine love….
But, if we seek Christ, we will know that better peace, rooted in love for God and for neighbor and even for our enemies, from whom we are divided. And this better, loving peace for which we strive is “ a kind of foretaste of the saints in heaven – the peace of eternity.”
And so yes, the powers and principalities may rage against us. They may mock and scorn us. Pundits may call us foolish for daring to love the neighbor at our border as much as the neighbor next door. Christians may be imprisoned for daring to feed the hungry homeless person in the city park. To be certain, these sufferings pale in comparison to the abuse the Church has faced across the ages and in parts of the world today. But all of it – the scorn, the mockery, the torture, and even the death will give way to something far more glorious, to that peace which the world can never give in a Kingdom where every tear is wiped away. We know that these powers hold sway for only a little while longer – that though they may torture and murder the faithful, that our Lord will win the day. We know that graves shall give up their dead and that peace – true, divine peace – will cover the face of the earth as the Kingdom of Heaven descends and our Lord makes all things new.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses – literally, of martyrs – who have resisted the sinful powers and paid dearly for it. Like our Lord before them, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and putting it into action brought them into direct and violent conflict with the wicked powers of this age. And we have faith that their suffering was not in vain, for it shall be swallowed up by the joy of Christ’s Resurrection.
As Corrie ten Boom once said, “There is not pit so deep that [God] is not deeper still.”