“You know how to interpret the signs of the earth and sky but you do not know how to interpret the present time.”
Human ability to forecast the weather has advance a great deal since the time of Jesus. When you see a cloud in the west, you know it’s going to rain. When you feel the wind turn to the south, you know its going to be hot. Red sky at night, shepherds delight! In our world our knowledge of the forces of nature and the ability to predict them is much advanced over folksy sayings. The barometer that hangs by my front door tells me more about the state of the weather than folk 2000 years ago ever knew. And though we joke about the inaccuracy of the weather forecast, it is a remarkable achievement and, given the incredible complexity of weather, astonishingly accurate. It is the triumph of knowledge accumulated through long observation and the power unleashed by technology. Yet Jesus’ wry observation of the people around him still holds true: “How clever you are about so many things, and yet how little you really understand about what is actually important!”
Of course its not just meteorology that has advanced. In every field we are usually safe to assume that we know and understand now as much, if not more than has ever been understood, and certainly more than was understood 2000 years ago. This would be true also of fields of knowledge with direct relevance to the life of the church in modern society. The modern age understands more about, for example human psychology. “We” know what makes human beings tick. We have profound understanding of how and why people choose, how they learn , how they grow in maturity and understanding. This is knowledge that can be exploited by politicians and advertisers, but also by the church in the interests of evangelism. We also understand, better than any of those who first heard them, why parables are such effective form of communication. We understand a great deal about messages, messengers and their hearers and how to make what we say more effective. Which can be of great help to preachers. “You know so much about so many things and how to apply that knowledge, and yet know so little of so much else that you stand there like startled lost sheep”
We know so much about “faith development” and the social dynamics around and within the Church. Yet we fail to grasp the real place of the Church in the world. And in particular we find it very hard to understand when the Church and Christians come into conflict with the wider society. Our basic assumption is that we should be able to get on with everybody. That even if some people want to have nothing to do with the Church and the Christian message about Jesus, they should at least have no objection to us getting on with what we’re about. Indeed we probably think that people should like us after all we’re good and king and generous, qualities that society still values, and we’d reckon we have more of those than most! We in fact bend over backwards to never give offence. We always seek common ground, always look for room for reconciliation. This of course is part of our clever strategy, that we have learned from our better understanding of the way individuals and society works, to invite others to join us, by proving that we are just like them, and proving that there is no grounds for disagreement between us.
So when Christians do find themselves in conflict with society at large we very often become confused and disoriented. We feel this shouldn’t happen to us. No one should object to who we are and what we do. Briefly a few years ago the wearing of religious symbols at work or in public became a hot topic for discussion in the media. In a way this was a case in point. We actually weren’t too sure how to react. We never imagined anyone could object, so we didn’t really know what to do when they did. Should we demand our “rights”? Should we be defiant? Yet such provocation seemed to lead us further into the conflict we weren’t expecting. Should we back down, make a small sacrifice to maintain peaceful coexistence? Yet where do we draw the line with such compromises? We have become so used to peaceful coexistence with the world, so comfortable and accommodated with society at large, that in such situations we struggle to make a coherent response.
So when Jesus himself says:
“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you but rather division.”
We are shocked! This seems to run counter to our picture of Jesus. Gentle Jesus meek and mild is supposed to be someone who is able to get along with everybody. Jesus is the “Prince” of peace, isn’t he? We’re so good at so much. Yet so bad at grasping what Jesus is actually about. Jesus creates κρισισ which the Greek word which is the origin of our word “crisis,” but it actually means something like “moment of decision.” Jesus’ presence in the world demands a choice, for him or against him. Jesus indeed brings a decisive division into the world.
There is a point somewhere at the top of the Pennines where two raindrops falling side by side will run in different directions. One will run down into a river like the Eden and then into the Irish sea. The other will run down into the Tyne or the Wear or the Tees and flow into the North sea. Though they started side by side, they end up near enough 100 miles apart. There is a decisive point, a crisis point, the watershed at the top of the Pennines either side of which leads raindrops in opposite directions. Jesus brings that kind of watershed to the people of the world
I have an article at home, by a theologian, with the somewhat alarming title “Preaching as if we had enemies.” Alarming because we tend to assume that Christians don’t have enemies and that we should always be trying to convince people to be our friends. We are so good at so much, and yet are so bad at grasping what the Church is actually about. We fail to grasp that what we must say as Christians actually makes enemies. If Jesus bring crisis to the world, then some are going to be on the opposite side of that divide. If we say, as we must, “Jesus is Lord” we are guaranteed to offend everybody who thinks that someone else (probably themselves) is Lord! If we are be open and truthful about what the New Testament says we should believe there is absolutely no way around this. If we accept and act on who Jesus is and what he told us to be we are sure to create enemies. Bearing in mind of course we Jesus also told us to do about our enemies!
Conflict is an inevitable part of God’s mission of which we are part. God’s ways are set against the world’s ways. Jesus came to bring fire to the earth, a fire that would refine and purify. Whilst we should be opposed to all forms of violence. And Christians should not resort to coercion or war under any circumstances. The peace that we have usually made with the world has been false. It has been a peace that has generally consisted of running down the world’s side of the watershed that Jesus has created. It is a peace that denies the divisions that Jesus has made, by placing ourselves on the peaceful but wrong side of such divisions.
Jesus was clear in his own mind what it would take. The baptism which he had to endure was betrayal and rejection by the very people he had come to save, and death on a cross at the hands of people who had no idea who he was but hated the idea there was any other Lord but their own. We should expect nothing different. But the outcome of such a baptism is the resurrection. The outcome of such fire on earth and such division in the world and even among families, is the establishment of the Kingdom of God. We know so much, and yet grasp so little. The one thing that we need to grasp is that Jesus is the prince of peace, and the division that he brings to the world leads to the only true and lasting peace.
Know how to interpret the present time! by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0