Once upon a time, I lived in a world where there was such a thing as a “normal family.” These were the families who could sit around a dinner table and have a pleasant conversation, who never had a disagreement, who never had to deal with passive aggressive behavior, and whose dealings could be taken at face value without any hints of ulterior motives. In this world, people were happy, holidays were perfect, siblings loved each other, and marriages were unbreakable. Laughter was pervasive, love overflowed, and peace ruled the day in this world. And since my life did not resemble this world, surely I would find a life partner whose world was like this. Surely there would be a way to escape my own reality to find that world where the “normal family” existed.
Of course, once that notion crumbled, I created a new one. Then I lived in a world where there was such a thing as a “conflict-free church.” This church was one where people welcomed others warmly, where the love of God poured out of every parishioner, where every meeting unfolded in a peaceful, consensual manner, and where everyone felt at home. In this church, the people all lived Christ-like lives, and they were so focused on serving others that they never fell into serving themselves. In this church there was no judgment, no division, and no central source of power. At this church, people were happy, worship was beautiful, and money was never a concern. Surely such a church existed, and so if my church was not this way, I would find that “conflict-free church” somewhere.
Jesus takes a blowtorch to these make-believe worlds I envisioned in today’s gospel. Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Jesus,” many of us may want to say today. I thought Jesus was the Prince of Peace – in fact the same person whose name we invoke when we greet one another with, “The peace of the Lord be with you.” Today’s Jesus is not the sweet, peaceful Jesus in a manger. Jesus denies peace altogether today and instead rolls out a campaign of conflict. There is no peace-loving church today. In fact, Jesus even goes on to say how he will be turning family members against one another. Father against son, mother against daughter, in-laws against in-laws: families will be divided against one another. Not only do we lose the dream of a “conflict-free church” today, any hope of a “normal family” without pain or strife is obliterated today too.
Of course, what is most painful about this gospel lesson today is that we already know the gospel to be true. What person here today has not faced conflict within their family? For the lucky among us, that conflict may eventually pass and familial love is relatively easy. But for pretty much anyone who has had an honest and frank conversation with me, I do not know one single family who has not been touched by divorce, pain, cutoff, abuse, rivalry, anger, manipulation, or division. Conflict is not the anomaly – conflict is the norm in our families. And if church is anything like a family, we have known bitter conflict in church too. Some of us have left churches because of conflict, pain, or suffering. Most of us have known conflict here in this place – and if we have not yet, we will. Why this gospel lesson is so hard today is because this gospel holds up a mirror – a mirror to our broken lives, our broken world, and our broken church. And quite frankly, most of us do not come to church to look in a mirror; or if we do imagine church as a mirror, we hope the mirror is like one of those carnival mirrors that can distort our broken worlds and reflect something much more beautiful or hopeful than the reality we know.
Despite all the seemingly bad news in today’s gospel, some of Jesus’ words reach out to us in hope: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed.” The idea of Jesus’ baptism not being completed has been bouncing around in my head all week. In the early days of the church, fonts were not the pretty, upright fonts we see now that hold a beautiful bowl of baptismal water. Fonts were more like pools, with steps leading down and steps leading up on the other side. The person to be baptized would walk down those steps, be fully immersed in the water, and the come up for air again as they emerged from the water and walked up the exit steps. The symbolism was rich – baptism looked like the emergence from the watery birth canal, and baptism rightly lived into the name “new birth.” But also weaved into the symbolism is journey – a journey from a former life, into a watery chaos (not unlike the chaos from which God created the earth), and emerging a new creation and a transformed person.
The idea that Jesus’ baptism is not yet complete somehow makes sense when we think of baptism as a journey. In the midst of all this talk about conflict and division, Jesus is giving us a picture of what living a baptized life is like. At our baptism, we make promises – to turn away from sin time and again – and to turn into the way of baptized life – seeking and serving Christ, loving neighbor as self, and striving for justice and peace. The image of Jesus’ baptism not being complete gives some grounding to what all this conflict and division is all about. The conflict and division is a necessary component to completely live into our baptismal covenant. We say that when we fall into sin – not if we fall into sin – we will turn back toward the Lord. The journey of baptism promises then that we will not have a peaceful, conflict-free road and that our baptism in not a once and for all activity. Baptism is a journey, of fully living into those baptismal promises, in which the challenging stuff will shape and mold us into better disciples and better servants of Christ. Jesus knows that our baptism journey will never be one of peace – at least not the superficial peace we long to have. Our baptism journey will be one of division. That division will not only be because conflict is a necessary part of life, but because the radical way of Jesus can only be achieved by walking through the watery chaos of baptism – a chaos full of conflict and division – but a journey in which we emerge transformed and renewed.
Once upon a time, I encountered a world where conflict was not a curse word. In this world, conflict was not an uncomfortable experience to be avoided, but a challenging experience that led to new growth and new life. In this world, everyone was not happy in a superficial, cheerleader kind of way. But people were happy in a much deeper, rooted kind of way. In this world, families still fought, but the fighting led them somewhere new and life-giving. In this world, parishioners grew to expect conflict – but also grew to expect transformation. In this world, conflict was not the end of relationship, but instead the tool that drug people through rough times into times of unknown joy and peace. This is the world that I long to inhabit. This is the world that gives us life. This is the world that leads to new birth. Our invitation today is to step into the watery chaos of division and conflict, so that we might emerge a faith community on the baptism journey. Amen.