How following Jesus tore a household apart – and eventually brought it together again. (Listen.)
I’d like to introduce you to a very shocking man: my father. But to understand why he is so shocking, you first need to know about my mother. My mother grew up in a fundamentalist household which rejected infant baptism, evolution, smoking, divorce, and many other things. Because she was super-smart and good at languages, and because everybody knew that no man would marry a super-smart woman, she had been groomed from an early age to be a Bible-translating missionary spinster. So away she went to university to study anthropology and linguistics; but there she met my father.
My grandparents were appalled. For my father had been baptised as an infant, and as a Methodist at that. He was a biologist who specialised in evolution. He smoked. And, most shocking of all, his first marriage had been a disaster and he was divorced.
My grandparents knew the Bible back-to-front. They knew that in Mark 10, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (v 11); and they also knew that, according to Leviticus, anyone committing adultery must be put to death (Lev. 20:10). They were deeply concerned for the salvation of their daughter, so they rejected my father, sight unseen, and began a campaign.
First, they refused to meet him, and they prayed long and hard that the marriage would be called off. But if that wasn’t to be, then they prayed that he’d be taken away somehow. A couple of days before the wedding, my mother said to her parents, “Despite all your prayers, he hasn’t been hit by a bus yet. It would be helpful if you knew which man in a suit was the groom.” Only then did they agree, very begrudgingly, to meet.
Second, they tried to discourage my mother from the marriage, and so did all their friends. For many years, my mother had regularly corresponded with missionaries; now they all wrote to her, threatening never to write again if she persisted in this disaster. When she went to church, people took her aside and described the terrible sin she was about to commit, and the eternal consequences. Again and again, she was told by people she loved that, if she married my father, she was going to hell, and they would be excommunicated forever.
“I did not come to bring peace, but division,” says Jesus. “From now on, households will be divided, and the people you love will turn against you.”
The thing is, my grandparents and my parents all loved Jesus, and, more than anything, they all wanted to follow him. Yet they had very different understandings of sin, divorce, forgiveness, marriage, and new life: and these different ideas threatened to tear the family apart.
Many of us can tell similar stories about divorcees or LGBTI+ people. Perhaps your church couldn’t cope with your marriage breakdown and pretended it never happened, or perhaps the pastor met with you and blamed you and told you to make it work. Or perhaps your friend has been completely rejected by his father for being gay; perhaps a trans friend has had to move city to feel safe; perhaps you know a person who has been so wounded by years of judgement by church and family that they still struggle to accept themselves. And almost certainly you know someone who has rejected God altogether, because their experience of religious types has been so distressing. For the people who are most hateful are all too often families and churches, who judge, persecute and reject their own in the so-called name of Christ.
“I did not come to bring peace, but division,” says Jesus. “From now on, households will be divided, and the people you love will turn against you.” Yep. Only, isn’t Jesus supposed to be the Prince of Peace?
When we think of peace, we often think of comfortable agreement. In our world, the groups we belong to have clear boundaries, and these boundaries are maintained by common values and behaviours. So we are ‘Aussie battlers’ or ‘champagne socialists’. Citizens or asylum seekers. City or country. Gay or straight. Protestant or Catholic. WEPS kids or Cudgee kids. Even our families have strong cultures: This is the way the Clark clan operates. The Smiths do things this way; the Jones’s do things that way.
That this way of thinking breeds an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality is clear in how we describe ourselves. For example, I’m inner urban espresso, not suburban Nescafe; I’m upper middle class, not working class; I’m public school, not private school; I’m Baptist, not Catholic; I’m Cornish, not English; and thank God I’m a Sampson!
As long as we do the right thing by our group, as long as we don’t rock the boat, then we keep the peace and everything is just fine. But Jesus explodes this way of thinking. He demands that we love beyond the boundaries—beyond our family, our village, our clan, our country. He demands that we love everyone, not just our friends and family, but everyone, like ‘one of us’, no conditions attached. Even gay people. Even divorcees. Even fundamentalists.
The problem is, when we answer Jesus’ call and stop playing the ‘us’ and ‘them’ game, it unleashes havoc. When we make decisions which step away from our family culture and values, when we challenge the boundaries of the church, people feel threatened; and the people who feel most deeply threatened are the ones who are closest to us. In their anger and anxiety and resentment, they lash out.
“Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” These words should not be a surprise. Because we are walking in the footsteps of the ultimate scapegoat, the one who crossed boundaries again and again; the one who ate with wicked women and traitors and foreigners; the one who told stories where the religious insiders chose violence, and the religious outsiders chose love; the one who freely bore on his own body the retaliation of the world. If we follow Jesus, we should expect to be criticised, mocked and rejected, even and perhaps especially by the people we love.
And when this happens, we have a choice. We are free to participate in the hatred of the world and retaliate; we are free to capitulate, and smooth things over, and live a lie—or we are free to keep following Jesus. With him as our guide, we can try to love across boundaries, and we can graciously bear the consequences when our efforts trigger conflict.
Loving like this means no more ‘us’ and ‘them’. No more ‘real Australians’ and no more ‘urban elites’. No more rednecks and no more wogs. No more Cudgee kids and no more city kids; no more cootie-catchers and no more girl germs. No more adhering to destructive family cultures, and no more rejection of those who live differently. No more self-righteousness about how we do church; and no more looking at other churches, unless it be with the gentle eyes of love.
Jesus’ way isn’t easy. It goes against the human way of keeping the peace. It’s a road marked by suffering and conflict, and it leads straight to the cross. For Jesus’ way means the crucifixion of much that we hold dear: family culture, religious rivalry, national pride, class privilege, and identity markers of every stripe.
This way is difficult; this way is painful—but on the other side of the cross we find love, new life and peace. And this peace is not the peace of the world, the peace which demands that we submit to group culture and expels us when we don’t; it is not the peace that results from coercion, capitulation or control.
Instead, this is the peace which comes when we work through conflict, relate authentically, risk vulnerability, offer compassion and love one another through persecution, hurt and beyond; the peace which passes all understanding and obliterates all boundaries, found in the real and healing and liberating presence of the risen Christ, the Prince of Peace.
That’s all very nice, but no doubt you are still wondering what happened with my parents. Well, they married, and immediately they moved across the country out of everyone’s way. And despite all the anger and hurt and grief and rejection which people on both sides felt, people kept trying to follow Jesus.
It turned out that the missionaries still wrote to my mother, after all. My mother’s parents remained upset, of course; but they also remained in contact. They kept writing letters, and talking, and slowly working things out. Over the years, and especially with the production of grandchildren – my sister and me – they gradually came to terms with my father. He and my grandfather began having long conversations, about theology and forgiveness and other things that really matter. They became, I’d suggest, true friends. And in time, my father was granted a special cup and saucer, which only came out when he visited his in-laws to talk and drink tea, in God’s peace. Amen. Ω
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