The words Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading from Luke are rather jarring. We may be able to understand Him when he tells His disciples that He has come to "set the earth on fire." But when the Prince of Peace says, "Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division;" it’s pretty disturbing. It’s almost as if we were made to choose between the reconciling, peaceful, gentle Jesus, or the Jesus seemingly represented here.
When it comes to Jesus, we often do have to make a choice, but not the one described above. When we choose to follow Jesus, there is no escaping the fact that discipleship, in many ways, is a radical choice. To turn the other cheek; To forgive seventy-seven times; To love our enemies; To love one another as He has loved us; To deny ourselves and carry our cross. Are not these radical demands? And often, they will put us in conflict with the ways of the world. And so there can be division. I am sure that in the time of the early church, people who chose Christ did indeed come into conflict with members of their own families. It was not an easy choice.
When you come right down to it, it shouldn’t be an easy choice for us, either. To choose Christ has all kinds of implications for how we should live and work, and relate to the world. But even though Jesus uses this strong language, I don’t believe He is advocating violence and destruction. Divisions can be reconciled and healed. Such is the "breadth and length and height and depth" of Christ’s love for us and for all.
May we seek true peace which comes out of justice, and put ourselves at the disposal of the One "who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine."
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P. is on staff at St. Paul of the Cross Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.