The ‘B’ word – highly charged and in some quarters highly divisive. It’s virtually unavoidable unless you live under a rock. Of course, I’m talking about the term, coined a few years back, describing the political divorce of the UK and EU. Shortly after the 2016 referendum I chatted with a couple of my local friends who candidly argued why they had voted to leave. When they referred to the unrestrained immigration as one of their reasons, I found it quite amusing; they didn’t realise they were talking to an immigrant. Despite my having come from abroad, they considered me as one of their own. I took it as a compliment.
Common perception is that division is bad or wrong. Adjectives like ‘divisive’ are negatively charged. ‘Thought for the Day’ is my daily exposure to the argument that we all ought to strive to keep peace and unity. Honestly, I’m grateful that it’s a very short piece of radio; most of the time it reinforces the belief that any division is perilous. It might come as a nasty surprise to the good-willing presenters of ‘Thought for the Day’ to hear Jesus in today’s gospel. He speaks about his desire to see the earth on fire, denying that he’s a peacemaker and proclaiming that he’s a troublemaker. So much so that even the closest members of the family will be divided against each other. ‘Sweet Jesus’ isn’t so sweet now…
You may start thinking I’m trying to stir you up and start a religious war. I’m not. Neither is Jesus. In fact, every time when the Jewish independence supporters tried to get him engaged, Jesus refused to be sucked into their political project. He didn’t have any political agenda; his call was the change of heart, not of political system. It is in this context we have to interpret Jesus’ words.
After his resurrection Jesus instructs his followers to ‘stay in the city [of Jerusalem] until you are clothed with the power from on high.’ (Luke 24:49) They obediently do and ten days later the Holy Spirit comes down upon them in the form of fiery tongues. Their transformation is monumental. The same Peter who three times denied knowing Jesus out of fear for his life, now stands up and publicly accuses the Jewish authorities of the lawless murder of Jesus. However, though the accusation is being made openly, it’s not the main message of Peter. The main message is that the crucified and risen Christ is the Saviour of the world. As a result of Peter’s proclamation three thousand people are baptised and become members of the Christian community. That fire from on high has since spread across the earth fulfilling Jesus’ desire!
What about the division Jesus predicted? It’s not really rocket science. Jesus was fiercely opposed for his teachings and views. Those who had become his followers accepted and implemented values and attitudes that were incompatible with those commonly accepted in the societies they lived in. Being a Christian means to be different. I’d like to use the word ‘divisive’ to stay in line with today’s gospel narrative, but it’s too negatively charged. So, as Christians we have to be different from the world and challenging to the world. The question is: in what way should we be like that?
I’ve found the answer in the anonymous letter written around the 2nd century, addressed to Diognetus: ‘Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. […] With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. […] Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. […]
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments. […] Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.’ (FULL TEXT)