Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Sermons from the margins

The Sword of Truth

Luke 12.49�56

"Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." 

Those are hardly the words we expect to find on the lips of Jesus. Did not the prophet Isaiah foretell that he would be the Prince of Peace? And of all the gospels to find them in, surely the least likely is Luke's. After all, he was the one who told of the angels at Jesus� birth, proclaiming it as the dawn of peace on the earth.

But there the words are: Jesus states that he comes to bring not peace but division - and the worst kind of division at that, family feuding with father set against son and daughter-in-law against her husband�s mother. What are we to make of it?

Let us first of all look at the original context of the words, and what they might have signified when first spoken, and then consider what they might mean for us now.

This reading comes from the long central section of Luke�s Gospel. This consists of ten chapters cast in the form of a journey made by Jesus and his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. The section opens with a solemn announcement making it clear that this is not just any old journey but a momentous one leading to the climax of Jesus� life and ministry: "When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem" (9.51).

This is to be the Lord visiting and redeeming his people, the crisis in his life and in theirs that was spoken of at the beginning of Luke�s Gospel. This will be the Lord�s coming to his temple, prophesied by Malachi of old and foreshadowed in Jesus� childhood visits to Jerusalem with his parents.

Luke's Gospel aims to proclaim that the end of this journey will be nothing less than the dawn of the Messianic age, the beginning of God�s reign on earth.

Luke thought that this future golden age had been predicted in the Old Testament. But the prophets had also warned that its arrival would be heralded by pain and disaster on a large scale. That is what Luke makes Jesus say in this passage. The reign of the Prince of Peace will be preceded by a short but sharp time of conflict that will mean everyone making the decision for themselves: Are they with Jesus or against him? There will be no family tickets. Personal commitment and membership are required.

That was the meaning then. What about now?

First, we need to face up to the fact that the time of conflict which Jesus and the early Christians confidently expected did not actually come to pass. There was certainly a national catastrophe for Israel in the year 70, when an abortive revolt against the Romans led to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. But the disasters which were to precede the end failed to appear.

Nor did the period of peace come about. Such peace as did follow was a Pax Romana or "Roman peace", established and maintained by imperial force of arms. It was not the reign of the Prince of Peace foretold by Isaiah. A community was formed that acknowledged the sovereignty of Christ - the Church, known from the first as "the fellowship of the Holy Spirit". But it was tiny and (as is clear from the evidence of the New Testament writings which it produced) it was anything but peaceful. Rather it was beset by "fightings within and fears without".

The failure of Jesus� words to be literally fulfilled in the Luke's lifetime (a fulfillment which he had predicted) means that their reliability, and any later interpretation of them, must be treated with caution.

Over the past 2 000 years there has been no completely agreed interpretation of Jesus� sayings, but there have been two generally accepted principles in applying them.

The first principle is that Jesus' sayings which refer to his own generation may properly be applied afresh to individuals in each generation. The world did not end in the first century. But for each one of us our own age is the one that will see the end of our own earthly life. It's therefore fair enough to suggest that his warnings and promises apply to the lifetime of each person.

The lesson in this story is that the demands of Jesus and the gospel may have to take precedence even over what is owed to our family.

The second principle of interpretation is to allow scripture to interpret scripture. This means letting the clear meaning of one verse point to the true meaning of some more obscure passage.

I have say that personally I have grave doubts about this principle as a general way of approaching the Bible. It is too open to abuse. But it is nonetheless one that many Christians accept, and in the case of this morning�s gospel reading it does offer a constructive reading of a difficult saying.

So I offer this interpretation for your consideration.

As mentioned above, Luke has Jesus say, "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division" (Luke 12.51). The parallel and better-known version in Matthew reads slightly differently: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword" (10.34).

Combining Luke�s "division" with Matthew�s "sword" puts me in mind of the Letter to the Hebrews: "The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (4.12). The comparison of God's Word with a sword in turn leads us to Paul�s exhortation in Ephesians to take up "the whole armour of God", including "the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God" (6.17). And in the opening chapter of that letter Paul spoke of God�s "word of truth" (1.13).

I do not think we can claim that the progression division sword God�s word God�s truth gives the one true meaning of the words with which we started. But it does show one way of deriving a useful message from an awkward text.

However, taking all these references together, I conclude from this story in Luke that although peace and unity within a family and the Church are great virtues, one demand overrides them and justifies, or even requires, the creation of division.

And that is the demand to discern and hold on to God�s truth.

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