Proper 15, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Have you ever heard the phrase, “The work of the clergy (or the work of a deacon, or the work of a priest, or the work of the church, or the work of God) is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”? It’s heard it many times, in many contexts, and in some ways I completely agree with it. The statement reflects the importance of the message of Jesus Christ in the world, and usually that message will stand in opposition to the comfort of the status quo. So as I contemplated this week’s sermon, and thought about Jesus’ words, that phrase came to mind. But when I went to trace the origin of that phrase, because frankly, I don’t like quotes or phrases unless I can correctly attribute them, I was surprised to find this one’s origin. The original phrase was proclaiming that it is the work of the newspaper to, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It was first coined in 1902 by a journalist named Finley Peter Dunne. Isn’t it interesting where we place our hopes when it comes to balancing out the scales of justice in society? Even more interesting to me is that in 1987 this phrase is then used by a Christian author to discuss God’s mercy and wrath.
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is well aware of God’s wrath. Not too long after Jesus has rebuked the disciples for wanting to call down fire on some folks, Jesus himself says he came to bring fire and wishes it was already kindled! The interesting thing about this is that there are a lot of different kinds of fire in the bible. There is the fire that consumes and destroys Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins of arrogance and being inhospitable. There is the fire of the burning bush, which does not consume, and shows Moses that God is present. The pillar of fire that is the presence of God throughout the Old Testament. Then the fire that John the Baptist speaks of when he says that he will baptize with water but another (Jesus) will come to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. With the advent of the Holy Spirit we get the flames alighting on the heads of the disciples at Pentecost. So there are many ways to think about fire, and what Jesus may mean when he says he came to bring fire. We know that God’s judgement is hanging over creation, but while Jesus may be here to herald that judgement in the fulfillment of the Law, he is also taking all of that Judgement on himself in his death and resurrection. He is taking all of the fire and shielding us for all eternity from it. Jesus knows what is to come, the baptism he is to undergo, and in this part of Luke which we currently find ourselves, he is drawing nearer and nearer to the cross.
Last week I said that I believe when Jesus is discussing how we live in God’s Kingdom, when he is describing the values of that Kingdom, that these are things we should want to do and not necessarily commands that have been carved in stone. Living in the kingdom means that we have a spirit that compels us to live out the values. A similar approach is needed to what Jesus says next in our Gospel today about bringing division. When Jesus says that, it is more than likely he means it as a description of the natural result of discipleship, and not as the command to cause division in relationships to follow him. It is not the work of Jesus to set parents against their children, but rather when one lives out the call to discipleship, quite often you find yourself in conflict with those who refuse discipleship. As an example, think of the parable of the prodigal son. When the father welcomes the prodigal son home with joy and feasting, though the relationship between those two has been mended, the relationship between the father and the elder son, who is focused only on himself, is fractured. When you proclaim reconciliation and justice as values of life, then you will upset the status quo. You have to be willing to suffer at the hands of a vile world that does not like the light of the Gospel to shine upon it. Christian discipleship means valuing nothing over God’s kingdom.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century German pastor, theologian, and martyr wrote regarding the church and the times he lived in, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
We cannot afford to simply pay lip service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Either it means everything or it means nothing. God has made it clear what the cost of discipleship is. God expects everything from us, and, of course, forgives us when we fail to live up to it. But the real sin exists in between those two extremes, if we completely refuse to try.
Bonheoffer goes on to say, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “you were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
It is always time to embrace costly grace. There is always a darkness growing in the hearts of humanity. There will always be a price to pay for proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Sometimes that cost isn’t as high as other times. We are not called to proclaim when it is convenient. We are not called to sugar coat the parts of the Gospel that are uncomfortable or might be disliked. Christ asks of us the very same price he paid for ushering in the Kingdom of God, but at the very least, to suffer not having everyone be our friend. You cannot make God’s truth comfortable when it doesn’t sit well with others.
We do not go about this task alone. St. Paul writes, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” That is our task. It is the simplest and most difficult thing God asks of us. We stand in a line of disciples, martyrs, and prophets who followed as God called and did not bind themselves to the whims of the world. We gather here to hear God’s word, to hear Jesus Christ proclaim the Kingdom of God at hand. We join with that great cloud of witnesses as we partake in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Then, we step back out into a world in dire need of costly grace, knowing as Christ says, how to interpret the present time.