Pentecost 10: Living with Division

Sermon by Hilary Belden
Readings: Jeremiah 23:23-29, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56

May the risen Lord Jesus bless us. May he watch over us and renew us as he renews the whole of creation. May our hearts and lives echo his love. Amen

 ‘From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.’

We are living in deeply divisive times. As it happens, my household was not at all divided by the famous outcome of the Referendum: like many Londoners, we were shocked and dismayed.  I found this mug – with the words, ‘Keep calm and play football’,  in a charity shop on that ‘day after’ which, for a football-loving household (them, not me of course) said it all. But a great many people disagreed with us so deeply that we are now in the current apparently insoluble impasse.

Deep division is what we are openly living with. Some of us here will remember the divisions of the Miners’ strike. Or the struggles over the ordination of women. The troubles in Northern Ireland are surfacing again as the Good Friday agreement comes under pressure. Long- standing divisions which are by no means all behind us. And all of us will have lived with deep disagreements in our own lives and families. One of my honorary nephews is researching and even writing some of the pro-third runway material being produced by Heathrow. You can imagine that’s not a frequent subject of relaxed chat for us. We tend to stick to cricket – he’s a talented MCC player member.

So Jesus is – you could say – making a statement of the (supply your own expletive) obvious about times like ours and, indeed, any times.   But the compilers of the Lectionary have placed his words in a context of prophecy and faith.  Jeremiah, who knew a thing or two about violent opposition and division, and whose writing Jesus would, of course, have known well, writes that the Lord says, ‘Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word, speak my word faithfully…is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.’  There are times when we must speak the truth and trust it to hammer to pieces the untruths around us.

And the writer of Hebrews, writing not long after Jesus’ life, reminds us of the extraordinary acts of God through the faith of his people – starting with the crossing of the Red Sea, going on to the fall of Jericho and the actions of Rahab –a prostitute but, in the crisis, obedient to God, on to Gideon and David  and so many – some who ‘won strength out of weakness’ and some who ‘suffered mocking and flogging’ or who were ‘stoned to death.’ These were people who met opposition and who ‘were commended for their faith.’ Yet, he says, in extraordinary words, ‘they did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better, so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.’ 

Jesus recognises starkly the division and opposition that he represents: ‘I came to bring fire to the earth.’  Two millennia later, in June 2019, the introduction to Bishop Mounstephen’s report for the Foreign Office – commissioned by Jeremy Hunt - on persecuted Christians  gives this ‘final’ reason of six for the Review: 

 ….To look at this both historically and theologically the Christian faith has always been subversive:' Jesus is Lord' is the earliest Christian Creed. Those were not empty words. Rather, they explain why from the earliest days the Christian faith attracted persecution. To say that Jesus is Lord was to say that Caesar was not Lord, as he claimed to be. So from its earliest days the Christian faith presented a radical challenge to any power that made absolute claims for itself.

Christian faith should make no absolutist political claims for itself - but it will always challenge those who do, which is precisely why the persecution of Christians is a global phenomenon and not a local or regional one. … And I suggest that confronting absolute power is certainly a legitimate concern and policy objective of any democratic government. Indeed the Christian faith’s inherent challenge to absolutist claims explains why it has been such a key foundation stone of Western democratic government – and explains too why we should continue to support it vigorously wherever it is under threat.

Nonetheless the focus of the Review’s recommendations is clearly on guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief for all…

For those who believe in Jesus, and believe that in him we are able to make perfect all those faithful people who came before him, the writer of Hebrews says:  ’let us lay aside every weight, and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’  

There are always prophets with dangerous dreams and leaders we distrust and disbelieve, but there are also voices of compassion and courage:  we can see the continual struggle to recognise the demands of climate change, or to invest in youth services, prison rehabilitation,  schools and hospitals. Our foodbanks and charities for the homeless are a massive reproof to the current structure of our society. We are supporting both here at St Margaret’s but we need to pursue that vision of a society that is structured to value everyone  and we need to  do whatever we can to support it. Our prayer has to be to know how to interpret the present time – as Jesus says, how to speak God’s word faithfully, as Jeremiah says, so that it can spread like fire.

Laura Giffard