Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 28:45 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There was once a man walking across a bridge and he saw another man standing by the edge of the bridge, and it looked like the man was going to jump. So the first man runs over and says, “Wait! Don’t do it! There’s so much to live for.” The second man says, “Like what?” “Well, are you religious?” The second man says, “Yes.” “Are you a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim?” He says, “I’m a Christian.” “Well, are you Catholic or Protestant?” The second man says, “I’m Protestant.” “What kind? Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist?” “I’m a Baptist.” “Hey, me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” “Baptist Church of God.” “Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?” “Reformed Baptist Church of God.” “Wow! Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879 or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?” “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.” And the first man says, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushes him off the bridge.
Obviously, Baptists aren’t the only one with divisions; Lutherans certainly aren’t all one big, happy family. But it’s a joke that makes fun of both the multiplying divisions among Christians as well as how seriously we take even the smallest thing. In fact, in our world, religion might be the only unacceptable reason for division between and among people. Maybe you’ve seen these opinion or news pieces about people who refuse to have anything to do with their families, whether it’s because of political party, or the person for whom they voted in the last election, or because of COVID restrictions, or something else. Those are all seen, at least by some people, as valid reasons for division in families. Certainly religion has divided and still does divide people, but it seems almost like a joke, a silly reason to be divided.
And maybe that’s what makes Jesus’ words seem so harsh, so unyielding, so unreasonable. Whereas many people would view almost any reason other than religion as grounds for division, Jesus seems to be saying that the only reason for division is religion—or more accurately, that He is the only reason for division. “I have come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish that it were already kindled. I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished. Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. Division in families, between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.”
In some way, when we identify the things over which we are willing to divide from our families, we are identifying our gods. Because we’re saying these are ultimate things. These are the most important things to me, and I’m willing never to see or talk to family members over these things. But Jesus says there’s only one ultimate, one eternal. There is only Him, God the Son in the flesh, baptized into death, His cross the dividing line. And the reason for that division is that it is the same as the reason for division eternally. When Jesus speaks in Matthew about those who are divided like sheep and goats, it is over Him, whether they received Him, heard Him, believed Him, and then they acted according to that belief or unbelief. Even when Jesus is walking around on the earth, there are divisions over Him, and the division is whether one believes Him or does not believe Him. That’s it.
Jesus says, “You think that I have come to bring peace on earth, but no, I tell you, rather division.” Not this, but that. Of course, Jesus does come to bring peace on earth. The second chapter of this same Gospel records the angels’ proclamation at the birth of Jesus: peace on earth! And He says “Peace to you” three times to His disciples. This way of speaking does not mean, not this, but that, as if they were exclusive. Instead, we should hear Jesus saying, “Not only this, but also this.” Not only peace, but also division.
Which does Jesus want? Does Jesus appear to condemn certain people, or does He want division among people over Him? That would be like saying that Jesus wants unbelief. But He did not come to condemn the world, but that the whole world would be saved. Jesus’ blood is shed for every single person who has walked this earth, and who are walking around today, and everyone who will walk around on the earth in the future. God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth. He does not will the death of any sinner. So Jesus does not come in order to bring division. He comes to bring peace; more precisely, as Paul puts it in Ephesians, Jesus Himself is our peace. In His own flesh, at His own crucifixion, He broke down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles, and, in fact, between all people who are divided by every kind of human division: cultural, racial, national (Ephesians 2:14-22).
So if Jesus comes to bring peace, why is there division over Him? Simply because some believe and some do not. Some receive Him and His word, and some do not. But of course, we know that the division is not only between the Church and the world, but between and among those who claim that same Name of Jesus. How can that be? The joke is funny because it’s true. And yet, Jesus gives us the Spirit of unity in the bond of peace. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. And in fact, it should not be this way. But remember we do not say, “I see one, holy, Christian, apostolic church.” We say, “I believe one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church.” The unity of the Church is real and true, but it is hidden to our eyes, because only God sees and knows those who belong to Him. We can only see the external confession of a church or a person.
If there are divisions, there is only one valid reason for them: Jesus and His Words. Every other division is sinful. But we take Jesus and His words so seriously that we will hold to them even if they divide us. The visible divisions among Christians are very often around Jesus’ words: Baptize them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Whatever sins you forgive, they are forgiven. This is My body and this is My blood. And should we take those words so lightly that we say they don’t matter? That visible, external unity is more important than holding to Jesus’ words, even if it means division? No. For us there is only Jesus and His word, even if no one around us understands.
But we will not rejoice in those divisions. We deplore them and lament them. We long for the day when we will, with all His Christians, see Him face to face. We cannot make it come ahead of time. We cannot remove the division over Jesus’ words. Only the Spirit of unity can do that. But that day is coming, because Jesus is our peace, not our division. All human division will give way to divine Peace. Come quickly, Lord Jesus and gather us from every corner of the earth, from everywhere, from every nation and tribe and language, one body of Christ forever in His presence, united around the marriage feast of the Lamb. Until then, “May God bestow on us His grace and favor that we follow Christ our Savior and live together here in love and union nor despise this blest Communion! O Lord, have mercy! Let not Thy good Spirit forsake us; Grant that heav’nly-minded He make us; Give Thy Church, Lord, to see days of peace and unity: O Lord, have mercy” (LSB 617:3).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/12/22