Reference: Luke 12:49-56
The struggles over whether or not Biblical authority is determinative for current Christian belief or is only advisory has resulted in splits across many denominations. The cry of “schism” has been raised, accusing many who have left a denomination of dividing Christianity, “leaving the Church.” Yet splits and divisions are hardly new. All the denominations which arose from the 16th Century Reformation, and all the subsequent further fractions are in a strange position to complain about others doing schism. Even Roman and Eastern churches are the result of an 11th Century schism, although caused by the other side, if you listen to each group.
Nevertheless, such division is of the Body of Christ, and bodies are not meant to be divided, so there is sin involved here. The Trinity exists together in seamless perfect love, with no division. As well, he exists in perfect harmony, unity and peace. That is the role model for the rest of us. Why then, does Jesus tell us that his coming brings division and not peace?
We can start with that true peace depends on justice. In the Trinity “righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). This symbiosis is brought home in the celebrating priest’s invitation to pronounce the Creed together (in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom): “Let us love one another that we may with one mind confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and indivisible” The recitation of correct dogma is either meaningless or a hostile act if it does not arise from a harmony in love. This is why all Inquisitions, burnings at the stake, forcible conversions and attempts at legislating rather than persuading your neighbor, are in themselves heretical, because they proceed from the most anti-Christian perspective of all, that of no love. Where there is no love, there can be no harmony, unity nor orthodoxy. To adhere to the Christian creed and flawless Biblical orthodoxy without love is just so much noise, as St. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 13. On the other hand, to be awash in love, but without a focus of that love on the source and perfection of love in a confession of faith in the Trinitarian God is equally disoriented.
When Jesus announces that he brings a sword, he is therefore simply stating a sad fact. It had already played out in the frequent apostasy of the Old Testament nation of Israel. It has continued in the two manifestations of terminal sin ever since as well: Love without right belief, and right belief without love. When the Church loses either of these two polarities, it is in need of reformation. That can bring repentance, as happened occasionally in Old Testament times, when the authorities were convicted of the error of their ways, and amended their lives. Repentance seems even less common in church hierarchies, however. At some point, the sword comes down to divide, as a result.
Yet it is worse than that, because the sword of Jesus is not the only sword around. Mankind has divided and split since Cain and Abel. Usually, it has been for all the wrong reasons. As the entire New Testament makes clear, orthodoxy lived in love is the only valid expression of Christianity. Manifestations of Christianity lacking one or both of love or orthodoxy and human divisions based on issues unrelated to either, are unacceptable. Nevertheless, the proliferation of swords continues despite the Incarnation of peace.
St. Paul repeatedly denounces the intrusion of human divisions into the Christian community (see, for instance, Galatians 3:26-29, Ephesians 2:11-22, Colossians 3:11-14). Jesus, in answer to the question as to who my neighbor is, whom I should love, tells the story of the Good Samaritan. The point is that all people are our neighbors, without exception. As Christians, we are not able to accept the divisions which others have established. Having made that statement, it must be immediately qualified by noting the need for repentance among many Christians who have done exactly that. By buying into human divisions, they have defiled the Body of Christ and totally confused the message of love which Jesus brings.
We are currently facing a crisis brought on by the artificial and sinful human divisions being promulgated. The divisions based on race and ethnicity have besmirched our nation from the beginning. Even as the Founding Fathers proclaimed God’s truth that all are created equal, the inequality of the population was patently obvious and written into the founding documents of the nation by many of the same worthies. As the country convulsed in the struggle to end slavery, xenophobia and institutionalized racism thrived. In the Civil Rights movement, real progress was made by Christian prophets such as Martin Luther King. But we continue to struggle as elements of our community continue to embrace and promote racist and prejudicial divides. Nor is there only one sword of human division. The swords divide based on ethnicity, nationality, economic status, lifestyle, gender, and other issues. Many Christians continue to wield these swords, along with others.
If you are one of them, hear this: no matter how orthodox your confession of doctrine, no matter how you care for your family, no matter how much you tithe to your church, no matter how much you think you are defending your way of life, you are wrong. Further, if you think it is your job to welcome people different from you by whatever measurement into the Church, your intentions are commendable, but it is Jesus who welcomes people into his Body. You do not own the Body. You cannot welcome your brother into your family. He is already in your family. God has been his father, and yours, all along. What you can do is love him, care about him, encourage and support him and celebrate him. Nor can you confess the sins of others. If you are a racist, you should repent, confess it and amend your life. If you are not a racist, you should not confess it on behalf of those who need to do their own repenting. If you are like me, you own enough sins without having to sign on for those you don’t possess.
All of these human divisions, when they infiltrate the Church, obscure the sword of Jesus. Orthodox Christians are often seen as self-righteous judgmental Pharisees. Could that be because more than a few orthodox Christians have been exactly that? The point needs to be all the more, that by definition self-righteousness and judgmental attitudes are not at all orthodox, rather such attitudes are strongly censured by Jesus. The sword does not divide the righteous from the unrighteous. Jesus is the only one ever in the former category. The sword is instead the commitment to the Body, the person of Jesus Christ, “the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people,” as the Book of Common Prayer phrases it. The divide which is crossed is one offered to all people without exception, but forced on no one. The sword cuts when human sin prevails and the offer is rejected, the faith is not confessed, the love is not reciprocated. That is serious. It is incumbent on the “company of all faithful people” to make sure that no additional divides confuse the issue.