9th Sunday after Trinity

13 August 2019

Proper 15: Jeremiah 23.23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56

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FROM the start of Luke’s Gospel, it is clear that the peace that Christ brings to the earth does not imply an absence of conflict. The Blessed Virgin is warned that her Son “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed” (Luke 2.34). In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, “the message of Jesus’s birth, ‘peace to all’, is not being contradicted but given its proper context” (Judith Lieu, Epworth Bible Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke).

Jesus will not allow the language of peace to stifle opposition to the injustices of the present age. Elsewhere, he contrasts his peace with the false peace that the world gives (John 14.27). Such false peace is secured by our collusion with the powers and values of this world. In contrast, the peace of Christ is won through the shedding of his blood. The powers of this age are overcome by the “stress” of Gethsemane and the “baptism” of his suffering on Calvary (Luke 12.50).

Jeremiah criticises those who “preach peace when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14), and who “keep saying to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’” (Jeremiah 23.17). The preaching of false peace is not an act of love. In colluding with the people’s sin, false prophets are failing to guide them into the ways that lead to life. Jeremiah continues his critique in the passage that we read this Sunday. He writes that false prophets are speaking “lies” and “the deceit of their own heart”. Their consoling falsehoods are contrasted with God’s word, which comes like “fire” and “a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces”.

As Walter Brueggemann explains, those whom Jeremiah is criticising “celebrated and affirmed God’s nearness and God’s abiding commitment to and presence within the Jerusalem establishment”. For these false prophets, “God had become a part of that social arrangement.” In contrast, Jeremiah “bears witness to a God who is ‘afar off’, free, sovereign, and not a mere appendage to the established religion” (A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming).

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While the religious and political elites had a mistaken image of their intimacy with God, the Lord was indeed close to those who lacked an earthly protector — the orphan, the alien, and the widow — and all who cared for them (Jeremiah 22.3). This dynamic of proximity and distance is intensified in Christ. He is born among the Galilean poor. He, too, is far from the “Jerusalem Establishment”. Jeremiah likens the Word of the Lord to fire. Jesus, the Word made flesh, comes to kindle that fire throughout the earth (Luke 12.49).

Jeremiah can be numbered among the heroes described in our epistle: faithful servants who were “commended for their faith”, but “did not receive what was promised” (Hebrews 11.39). What they looked forward to is fulfilled in Christ. Through his paschal sacrifice, his “fire” has now been “kindled”, and his “baptism” has been completed (Luke 12.49,50). As Mary Healy explains, what those heroes had in anticipation we can now taste and see, as the first-fruits of the new creation are made present in the Church’s sacramental life. “Yet Christians too walk by faith, since we too still await the full consummation of the promise” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Hebrews).

After his warnings about division, Jesus speaks about “interpreting the present time” (Luke 12.56). People are able to predict future weather on the basis of the current “appearance of earth and sky”, but are unable to discern the signs of God’s Kingdom — a future whose first-fruits are already present. Jesus’s description of them as “hypocrites” in verse 56 suggests that their inability is wilful. People fail to discern the signs of the times because they do not want their lives disturbed. They want to avoid the conflict that will inevitably flow from a faithful witness to God’s coming Kingdom.

As Judith Lieu writes, “the present is not without significance, nor merely a holding operation until the climactic moment.” The Kingdom of God is not only proclaimed by Jesus: he embodies it. In him, and in his Church, it breaks into history. Baptised into his body, and nourished by the eucharist, we are given the grace to become living sacraments: people through whom the false peace of this age can be unmasked and confronted, so that the peace of Christ may be revealed.

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