The English writer G.K. Chesterton famously observed it’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it’s that it has been tried and found to be difficult. This may seem like an odd statement given over 2.2 billion people around the world subscribe to the Christian faith and in our country alone there are over 1,200 Christian denominations. But then you read one of Jesus’ teachings like we just heard and you begin to understand what Chesterton was driving at.
“I have come to bring fire, not peace, and from hence households will be divided: father against son, mother against daughter, and in-law against in-law.” Imagine if this morning we sent our youngest members off to Children’s Chapel and drilled into them the literal implications of this teaching! I suspect in short order our families would begin looking for another church to attend.
And it is not like today’s teaching is some kind of outlier. Just last Sunday we heard Jesus admonish his followers to sell all their possessions in order to give alms to the poor. Again, if we pressed these teachings here at St. Paul’s it would create a boon for other churches in the area. The truth is Jesus put forward many instructions that, when tried, prove to be difficult.
What are we who claim to be followers of Jesus supposed to do?
Well, one option is to pick and choose from his teachings, selecting to pay attention to what we want to do while ignoring what we do not. The degree to which we do this often says more about us than it does about Jesus. I mean, isn’t it wonderful when Jesus agrees with something we hold dear!
In meditating on a particular passage of Scripture I often ask myself a question: if this was the only teaching of Jesus’ we had what would Christianity look like? Of course it is a false question, but its value lies in the way it takes seriously what each part of the bible says or teaches. So, if today’s reading was all we knew about what Jesus said, how would our faith and practice be different? Well, for one thing, Christians would not be as consumed with “family values”.
Family values is a term pertaining to the structure, function, role, beliefs, attitudes, and ideals related to a family. It is often associated with the make-up of a “traditional family”, which consists of a bread-winning father, a homemaker mother, and their biological children. In 1980 61% of all children were raised in a home by their married parents. By 2014 this figure had fallen to 46% - a minority. The percentage with a stay-at-home mother is even lower.
Given this decline, is it any wonder some Christians are concerned about the deterioration of the traditional family? But the surprising truth is Jesus himself spoke very little about the matter. He denounces the frivolous nature of divorce in his day, citing the theology of two becoming one flesh and being concerned a divorced woman often was left financially bereft. But, as a subject, the Gospels record the teaching only once.
More on Jesus’ mind were the demands of discipleship and the pressing need for people to do the work of the kingdom. He understood how leaving your home and job, selling your possessions, and forsaking the faith of your upbringing would put tremendous pressure on a family unit. Jesus’ own mother and siblings confronted him publicly on several occasions and actually thought he was out of his mind. This reality gives us a context for understanding today’s reading.
For Jesus, the call of discipleship trumped family values as some talk about them today. Add to this how St. Paul held believers should remain single in order to be free to do the work of the Gospel and allowed marriage only grudgingly for those who are too “weak” to live on there own. While the family unit is important to be sure, it simply is not a major focus of Jesus and the New Testament compared to the emphasis some Christians place on it.
Rather than the composition of a particular family, Jesus seems to be much more concerned about the values and virtues expressed within every relationship. Is the relationship marked by honesty, mutuality, truthfulness, loyalty, industry, self-giving, and a determination to live out the imperatives of the Gospel? Being in a traditional family does not guarantee this will happen while being in a non-traditional household does not mean it cannot.
Well, this example raised by today’s reading is just one of many I could cite to demonstrate how we domesticate the demands of the Gospel by bending it to support what we believe or to attack aspects of our culture not to our liking. Chesterton’s famous quip provides the best insight I know as to why we do this. Quite simply, Christianity – when lived authentically as Jesus taught it – is no easy task.
If I take an honest look at what Jesus teaches and compare it to my actual practice, well, I come up wanting. It is not just that I lose my temper or think bad thoughts or indulge in a little bit of gossip now and again. It is not so much that I am a “bad” person. It has more to do with the way I shy from the demands of Christian living: forsaking material possessions, helping others no matter what the cost, forgiving unconditionally… the list goes on and on.
I wonder if the most important virtue in the Christian faith is humility. Acknowledging your own shortcomings has the benefit of taking one’s focus off the shortcomings of others. Jesus talked about this when he wondered why religious hypocrites fixate on the speck in a neighbor’s eye while completely ignoring the log in their own.
John Newton, the one-time slave-trader and composer of the hymn Amazing Grace, is remembered for saying, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am”. I like this. Each of us is on a journey toward holiness. Some start father afield than others and we certainly are not all at the same place or moving forward at the same pace, but we share one thing in common: we are all on the journey.
This is what I think about when I meditate of a reading like we heard this morning. The journey to follow Jesus is not easy – not for anyone. I rejoice in progress, find amazement in how good things once impossible have become ingrained habits, celebrate God’s unmerited love, and do my best to extend grace to everyone I meet because, like me, they too are on a journey called “discipleship”.