Scripture: Luke 12:49-56
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! ~ Luke 12:49
If there is one characteristic that stereotypically describes Canadians as a whole it is probably that we are ‘nice’. We’ll say sorry if you bump into us, we celebrate our diverse and ‘tolerant’ nation and we have a stellar reputation on the world stage with regards to human rights. It is a pretty big part of our national identity… but in reality it is an elaborate lie we tell ourselves.
I say that it is a stereotype and a lie, because there are just as many rude or mean people in Canada as elsewhere; when we say sorry it is often in a passive-aggressive kind of way, or in attempt to remind the other person they need to apologize; and the stellar reputation on human rights rings a little hollow, what with our history of residential schools, rampant poverty amongst immigrant populations and other discriminatory practices like carding and racial profiling of black communities here in Toronto. But it is certainly a ‘nice’ myth we like to tell ourselves.
The myth of niceness is fairly prevalent in the church too. Go to any church in North America, and you will probably hear them tell you that their best characteristics are their welcoming attitude and how nice they are. It is certainly laudable to be welcoming and nice, but just like any group of humans the church is full of broken people who, are unwelcoming, who are intolerant of change, people who are mean and downright rude – every church, no matter how good the community is a mix of good and bad this one included. The myth of niceness can paper over unloving attitudes that have no place in the church, or the life of Christian disciple.
We often like to tell ourselves the same myth about Jesus too. We like to tell ourselves that Jesus was nice, that he is our friend, that he is a nice comforting presence in the chaos of the world, that he came to affirm the best about us and that the primary calling of Christians is to be nice. We cherry pick a few passages like the Beatitudes, or Jesus saying that he will give us rest, or other tender moments and we create a nice pretty picture of a safe and comfortable Jesus that wouldn’t offend or upend our sensibilities. We believe that if we’re nice good people, then we are truly following Jesus; if we’re nice the world will obviously know that we are Christians by our niceness.
But you know what…. Jesus never said that…
When we believe this myth about Jesus’ niceness, we do a disservice to Jesus and the significance of his message; when we preach a Gospel of niceness we diminish the power and effect of his death and resurrection. And furthermore, when niceness is our Gospel, passages like the one we heard from Luke this morning can be a little awkward or jarring to fit into our picture of a ‘nice’ Jesus. After all Jesus’ words that we heard this morning weren’t particularly nice, at best they are downright rude and at worst they shatter every image we have created in our minds about Jesus as a nice guy!
Jesus tells his listeners that ‘he came to bring fire upon the earth and oh how he wished it were already kindled.’ And then he follows that up by asking ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you but rather division!’ Then he went on to tell the tale of how because of him and the Gospel households will be divided son against father, mother against daughter and so-on and to top it off he finishes up his tirade, getting angry at the crowds for being so dull-witted that they couldn’t read the obvious signs of the coming of God’s Kingdom like the could with the weather.
Not exactly the nice picture we like to paint of Jesus.
But the reality is that Jesus knew full well the impact he would have on the world, he knew full well that his Gospel of Life would not be received with open arms in a world mired in death and sin, a world so convinced that they knew what was right and good that the they didn’t need God’s Kingdom. Jesus knew full well that ‘nice’ or ‘pleasant’ wouldn’t cut it, his mission was life or death, his mission had eternal significance, and it faced opposition that needed to overthrown.
Jesus’ message of sacrificial love, of living for others, of giving up attachments to material things, is counter cultural, it goes against the natural inclinations of most human beings and human cultures that have almost always benefited the selfish desires of the human heart, have almost always benefited those people that take from others and accumulate power and wealth for themselves.
Jesus knew that this kind of message that got to the very heart of what it meant to live a good life, the very heart of what it means to be human would divide families. Certainly, with all we know about God’s love and mercy it was never Jesus’ goal to bring division to the world, but God also doesn’t force anyone to accept his Son, he doesn’t force anyone to hear and respond the Gospel of life. God is not a puppet master that dictates your every move, he has given each and every one of us the freedom to respond to Jesus and the salvation that he has brought to the world. God is not an overbearing parent or controlling lover forcing us to be in relationship with him, rather he has made it possible for us to become his children, he has removed all the barriers in our way and waits with open arms for us to return to him.
But because it’s a free choice that everyone is afforded, not everyone will say yes, not everyone wants to experience the love and mercy of God, not everyone wants to give up their selfish ways and me-first attitude, giving up comfort and material attachments for the sake of others – and often that’s because the church and Christians have been terrible representatives of God’s grace not acting or speaking in ways that make the Gospel attractive or enticing to those who don’t believe.
The demand of the Christian life goes far beyond niceness, it is life-encompassing. It is an orientation towards God and our neighbour over and above our own selfish desires (whether those be selfish desires be in our personal lives or in the life of the church!). As German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, Grace is costly – it demands your whole life, it demands the your obedience and devotion but in return it offers complete freedom from the power of sin and death, it offers abundance in the places in our life that really matter – an abundance of grace, an abundance of love, an abundance of goodness, an abundance of sisters and brothers in the church.
Jesus and the Gospel are divisive because they cut through to the core of who we are and how and why we are here on earth. Jesus’ call to discipleship is so much more than a veneer of niceness and generic ‘goodness’ which cover over the sins lurking beneath. As disciples we are called to love, we are called to sacrifice, we are called to live as if God’s Kingdom is here in this present age – knowing full well it won’t come fully until Jesus returns.
Jesus told his disciples that the world would know them by their love for another and not how ‘nice’ they were. Love is hard, niceness isn’t. Let us choose the hard path, the narrow way because that path leads to eternal life for us and for those we love and serve; that path leads to the healing of ourselves and the nations of the world. Amen.
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