Texts: Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56The following of Christ is not for people who are allergic to making choices. It is not for any who would rather keep their options permanently open, or for those of us who prefer to spread our allegiances around in order to keep things nice with important allies. For when Christ calls, he calls us to choose.
The sacred texts we read just now were written in the midst of a world that was, in many respects, just like the one that has arrived for us with the ascendency of George Bush’s America. The world was ruled by an imperial power, a power whose influence pervaded every sphere of life, whether that be political, economic, domestic or spiritual. Local cultural and religious organisations were tolerated, in the public sphere, so long as their aims and practices did not conflict with the agenda of Rome. Where local organisations did conflict with Rome, its members could be charged with both the political crime of sedition and the religious crime of blasphemy. For what Bush’s America leaves implicit, Rome put out there for all to see: that the accumulation and maintenance of absolute power is tantamount to making oneself into a god who requires both obedience and worship. In the world of first-century Rome, those arrested on suspicion of either sedition or blasphemy were often held for long periods without charge, questioned and even tortured without recourse to adequate legal representation, pushed through a show-trial, and then summarily executed. Ironically, or tragically (depending on your point of view), this whole system of intimidation and repression had a particular name in the first century: the pax romana, the ‘peace of Rome’.
It is impossible to comprehend the words of Jesus in the gospel we read just now, unless one understands that it was this ‘peace’, this pax romana, that Luke wanted to challenge and contest. From the point of view of the Evangelist, the peace offered by Rome was no peace at all. It was a false peace, an uneasy peace. It was a peace that demanded nothing less than the selling of one’s mind, soul and body to the invader. If one were to accept the pax romana, one would need to divest oneself of anything resembling an independent thought or will or action. Theologically, accepting the peace of Rome was tantamount to choosing Caesar, and all things Roman, as god.
For Christians, of course, this was impossible. For Christians are those who, having heard the call of Christ to follow, have freely and without compulsion chosen to give themselves over to Christ as Lord and God. For Christians, there is only one authority in heaven and earth, and that is Christ. Having been baptised into his death, we have died to the basic principles of this world, to its false forms of peace and justice, in order to look for a peace that is still to come. The peace to come, in Christian understanding, is the pax Christi, the peace of Christ. It is a cosmos in which people honour each other with a radical hospitality and unconditional love, very much after the manner of Christ himself. It is a peace in which the poor are no longer poor, and the rich no longer rich. It is a peace in which the colour of one’s skin and the accidents of one’s progress through life are no longer reduced to function as symbols of one’s worth (or lack of it). The peace of Christ is a peace that the world cannot generate for itself. It is the gift of God in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. It is a gift that Christians learn to receive and recognise only through the repeated discipline of immersing ourselves in the story of Christ’s faith, hope and love (that is, by prayer and worship in the Christian tradition). Furthermore, it is in the name of this peace that Christians take up the responsibility to resist the false ‘peace’ of the various empire-builders that appear, again and again, in human history.
When Christ speaks of bringing fire and a sword to the earth one must recognise, therefore, that this is not a sword or a fire that may in any way be compared to the fire or the sword of an imperial power. It is not, in any sense whatsoever, a ‘shock and awe’ campaign like that of Bush in Iraq, nor a kill-them-all-by-night campaign like that of Sharon in Palestine. No, the ‘sword’ that Christ brings is nothing other than his vulnerable humanity, his faith, his hope and his love. The fire he brings is nothing other than that kindled by his passionate care for the poor, the marginalised, and the victims. In a world such as that of Rome, or indeed of the emerging American empire, intangibles such as these are regarded as far more dangerous than any bomb, for they have the power to un-do or even destroy the fears and anxieties upon which all such regimes thrive and are founded.
Of course, the practise of Christ’s virtue is deeply costly for those of us who have the faith and courage to follow that way. As believers who look for a ‘better country’ than the one on offer in the here and now, we resist the values and practices of the here and now. And that, my friends, can be very dangerous. In the passage we read from earlier, the writer to the Hebrews notes that those who practise their faith in God’s coming peace are very often ridiculed, imprisoned, beaten up, exiled, tortured, or even killed. Just as Christ was, in fact. This is the baptism of which Christ speaks in Luke. The baptism into suffering and death at the hands of the powers-that-be for the sake of one’s hope that the whole world might be resurrected in love. One’s hope in such things can even divide families—those who long for something better from those who, whether because of fear or brainwashing, are content to ingratiate themselves towards the power of the imperium.
All of which leads me to ask a very old, but still very pertinent question. If the way of Christ is to resist the Imperial Power with prophetic perseverance and suffering love, why is it that church folk are still amongst the most prominent beneficiaries of the current world system? Why is it that church schools and educational institutions receive so much support from both public and private sectors, and why is it that church people are still amongst the most wealthy and successful members of the community?
Perhaps I may be so bold as to answer this way. Many church people continue to be successful because so many of us gave away the actual following of Jesus long ago. Perhaps as long ago as the Constantinian transformation of Christianity in the Roman Empire of the fourth century. A great many church people no longer resist the values of the imperium because they have chosen the benefits of capitulation to the present regime over the faith, hope and love of Christ toward a better country. I’m not sure that I can put it any more starkly than that.
Still, if that is what has occurred, then I weep for the church and I weep for the world. Because the values of the current world powers make only for misery, and on a terrifying scale. If, as the advertisers constantly tell us, the only people worth two crumpets in this world are white men and women of average intelligence, with large bank accounts, obscenely expensive cars, and beautifully sculptured bodies, then God help the rest of us! In a world with that kind of pecking order, the rest of us are reduced to irrelevance. The rest of us become fodder for an industry whose sole purpose and aim is to enrich the elites. Now, for the people who work the sweatshops of Asia and South America in order to, for example, create the uniforms of our Olympian athletes, that fact is clear and obvious. But for those of us who live middle-class lives here in the West, it is not so obvious. Unless, of course, one has read the stats on the alarming increases in our community of mental illness, substance addiction, paedophilia, family breakdown and suicide. Even then, one can always blame the victim. And that is what we usually do. Until we become victims ourselves. When that happens one sees, often for the first time, that we are all perpetrators and that we are all victims, duped into believing the usual propaganda about middle-class progress.
In times like these, it seems increasingly likely that Christians will have to adopt the ancient visage of the “fools” for Christ, those who resist the logic of the imperium to the point of great personal cost. If the elites continue to protect their interests as aggressively as they are doing in our present time, it may be necessary that many more Christians will have to reconcile themselves to being economically poor, or having low-status jobs, or not having jobs at all. In addition, many of us may have to get used to increased levels of mocking or patronisation. It is likely that, in times to come, our own lives, and those of the one’s we love, may actually be in danger. Yet, in all this, we are called to count our losses as nothing compared to the surpassing wonder of knowing Christ our Lord, who, having endured the cross and its shame, now imbues us, and all who follow him, with the promise of a world renewed. In the name of that faith, that hope, and that love, we are called to be happy in our resistance toward the inhumanity of Bush and Howard. For by doing just that, Christ himself comes to make the better country real. And that is enough for me. In that is our peace, and, I believe, the peace of the world.