An Unvarnished Truth
Until comparatively recently, at least going by the number of books allegedly authored by St Paul, I had always assumed that Paul wrote the biggest single chunk of the New Testament. However when I checked, in terms of the total pages written, Luke as the only systematic historian of the emerging Christian Church with his detailed Acts of some of the Apostles, and his gospel stories of Jesus, leaves Paul somewhat in the shade. Just for the record from a sample volume of the RSV with 552 pages for the New Testament, Luke’s Gospel is 78 pages and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles 71 pages 149 pages in all (over a quarter of the whole). Paul’s 121 pages is more problematic in that some scholars claim some of his books may have been written by someone else.
To understand today’s passage we should remember Luke’s gospel was collected as a defence of this new Christian faith in a time when the followers were coming under attack. He addresses both books to the “most excellent Theophilus” and there is some reason to think of his writing as being assembled to give this high official of the Roman government reason to support this new faith. You also may remember Luke was a contemporary of Paul. Thus a number of Paul’s themes are echoed in Luke’s gospel and the early Church history contains many personal touches. Paul describes Luke as a gentile and as a doctor eg Colossians 4, 10 – 14 and we also know that he alone accompanied Paul to prison in Rome, so he would have been very much attuned to the need for having the new Christians and their potential critics warned that Christianity could turn out to be divisive in practice.
When Luke was recalling Jesus describing the division that this form of faith would bring, even to family situations, recent memories of seeing families torn apart must have been very much alive in Luke’s memory.
It doesn’t take very much self-reflection before we come across reasons for the discomfort that Jesus’ gospel can generate in practice. Certainly others have understood that this is always likely to be the case. You may for example have come across the line in a song by John Ylvisaker: “Jesus was sent to upset and annoy.” Although this would no doubt puzzle anyone who holds to the saccharine image of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, and who is under the fond impression that Christianity is basically that which happens within the confines of a Church service, or perhaps one who believes that Christianity is best practiced in complete isolation to others, yet anyone who has thought of attempting to apply Christian ethics to family, community and international decision making would soon have ample reason for agreeing.
Because families and communities have the power to force decisions by weight of numbers, and since Christian principles often challenge popular assumptions of nationalism, selfishness and self interest, we can assume anyone attempting to live by the sort of Christian principles championed by Christ would soon find themselves at odds with those whose preferred actions follow basic self focused instincts. Honesty should also encourage us to admit that the Christian principles advocated by Jesus are not always characteristics which we associate with all branches of the Christian Church – or even principles we associate with all factions of an otherwise apparently Christian congregation.
It is not as if we are unfamiliar with the teachings we aspire to follow. Taking no thought for the morrow, putting acts of kindness and compassion ahead of rules, forgiving seventy times seven, recognizing good acts regardless of expectations associated with religion or position (cf the Good Samaritan) and not storing up treasures on Earth – all of these are clear enough. What is less clear is how we might engage in such acts without disturbing our own baser instincts or for that matter, antagonizing those around us.
At the most basic level, think for example how the family might react if one member decides to disburse material wealth to the needy, particularly when those who have expectations of inheritance see their share under potential threat. Even when we are not personally affected by such decisions we can probably understand that those who give generously to the needy make their colleagues and family whose actions are less generous feel uncomfortable.
Even formal association with particular faith communities can be a problem. In my wife’s family for example I know of a father with a nominal Baptist background who would not attend his daughter’s marriage to a Catholic man. As a science teacher some years ago I was instructed by my Principal not to teach evolution to some exclusive Brethren pupils because he considered their acceptance of such a view would result in them being cast out of the family. More recently I have also had in my Epsom congregation, a congregation member who some years previously had been cast out of his Muslim family for marrying a Christian woman.
When we read in today’s gospel: 53they 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.” we find a truth that continues into our present.
Thinking of divisions immediately draws attention to the human weaknesses connected with the idea of Church. Historically we find much evidence that members of various Church denominations have traditionally favoured those in their own denomination, sometimes to the point of rejection of members of other faiths or those with other shades of belief. The Protestant Catholic rift in Northern Ireland, the oft heard condemnation of representatives of other faiths eg followers of the Muslim faith and Hinduism in our own communities, and patterns of immigration laws past and present should remind us not to pretend a formal association with Christianity will ensure that Christian principles will always win out.
Nor are these principles always welcomed. Where a majority accepts an exclusivist stance, those who work for peace are sometimes rejected to the point where they are victims of stand-over tactics or even violence. While it is easy to be scornful about populations in places like Egypt or Iraq where religious intolerance sometimes spills over into acts of uncontrolled vengence and where peace keepers are targeted, it is less comfortable to remember our own history.
Those who insist on forgiving enemies are considered traitors in times of war, and anyone who doubts that need only look at the history of pacifism in the West.
Colin Morris in his God in the Shower (Macmillan 2002) recalled how his father talked of a comrade in World War One who had served with distinction in the great battles of Loos, Ypres and the Somme. “ One day they were throwing the bodies of dead Germans into a huge shell crater to be rid of the sight and smell of them. This man suddenly stood up and said “Enough! This butchery is madness.” This man, said Colin Morris’ father, was the bravest of us all. “When the officer’s whistle blew and we went over the top again, he stayed behind in the trench. In no-man’s land we had an even chance of survival, but when he disobeyed that order he was a dead man”. Although Morris does not spell it out, we don’t need to look too far to see the irony in officers who expect the enlisted soldiers to attend Church parade, then use a court martial to proscribe the firing squad to anyone who refuses to disobey the commandment not to kill.
There is always a temptation to compartmentalize our thinking, in effect thinking Church when we are at Church, and community when we are in the community. We then risk having our faith become irrelevant to our day to day life. It is, as Jesus is recorded as saying, fairly easy to notice the weather signs yet there are more important signs of our times which are always there for those of us who are prepared to look. Remember he asks: You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Jesus calls those who will not look hypocrites, and perhaps we should ask ourselves why.
For each generation the signs will no doubt vary, but the charge of hypocrisy for those reluctant to notice must surely stand, particularly if we claim to follow a faith that has something to offer in our respective life situations. Community-wise, there would be few communities where there are no disadvantaged people. Some Church communities are very aware of such needs and the pattern of giving to food banks and organizing support services is to be commended. A reality check for a local congregation would include looking at which needs are actually addressed each month and each year.
A similar self assessment on attitudes to international responsibilities is also part of any congregation’s claim to be relevant. For example most would be at least dimly aware of a present situation where powerful nations regularly exploit weaker nations for the strong nations’ benefit. As a nation we pay lip service to international justice yet do not always insist our decision makers adjust policies to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources. According to our democratic practice, to passively accept our nation’s practice is tantamount to giving our rulers permission to continue in their current policies. This becomes serious when for example a nation’s industrialists believe they have support for their rights to produce obscene numbers of weapons and sell them to vulnerable nations. Similarly there are statistics available to show that the world’s producers grow enough food globally to feed the world’s population and yet many would rather not notice that approaching a billion people have insufficient food for their needs. Policies of fair trade can be supported at the local level, and politicians can be lobbied.
This is only a sample of current tensions and we might argue that none are new situations. We can also argue that such issues are too big for individual Christians or individual congregations to make a real difference. However the hypocrisy comes when we claim a faith that concentrates on righting injustice and on offering compassion and fail to notice when we are making no serious effort at all. When the signs of division are all around us, to talk and act as if there is only unity in our corner of the world and community may lead to a comfortable Church, but some would argue this would also be a church with little to offer its world.
I said at the outset that Luke was using his gospel and book of Acts of the Apostles to defend Christianity. Unlike many faith protagonists today, Luke mounts his defence simply by recounting what has happened. The actions of Jesus and his subsequent followers are their own defence. It is an approach from which we might be wise to learn. Ultimately it is our individual histories rather than what we might say we believe that will either convince toward or alternately dissuade others from our faith. To show that we can read the signs of our time and chose to respond in a way that addresses the realities of our day as best we can according to our gospel insights is unlikely to solve the problems but might at least lend our faith genuine credibility. To fail to notice the genuine problems, divisions and issues may allow us to pretend to offer a relevant faith, but unless others can see the relevance for themselves we should not be surprised if our claims are then seen as empty and of no real value.