A few years ago, I read a wonderful biography of Prince Philip of Hesse, who died in 1980, and was head of the distinguished dynasty that had ruled part of central Germany for centuries. One of the book’s themes is the interconnectedness of Europe’s princely families and the drama of those relationships during the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Philip himself was a nephew of the German Emperor, William II. During World War I, Philip’s cousin, Britain’s King George V, was his country’s principal enemy. In World War II, Philip’s father-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, was an ally who famously switched sides midway through the war, with consequences catastrophic for Philip and fatal for his wife, the Princess Mafalda, who died in a German concentration camp 79 years ago this week.
Royalty, of course, are not the only ones divided by wars. The American Revolution famously found Benjamin Franklin and his son on opposite sides, while in the Civil War Abraham Lincoln’s brothers-in-law fought for the Confederacy – family divisions that were widely replicated in the experience of so many families at all levels of society.
Nor are wars the only causes of family conflict. We all know, perhaps from our own experience, how common conflicts can be among those closest to one another – and how painful that experience can be precisely because of the bond that binds family members to one another, like it or not.
Jesus in today’s Gospel used the potential for family conflict to illustrate his larger point about the complete commitment demanded of every disciple. One of the fundamental facts of life is that saying “Yes” to some one particular person, cause, or commitment often entails saying “no” to other options. So it is with the decision to follow Jesus, a commitment that is meant to matter enough to change everything. In this matter, Jesus himself set the standard. After all, Jesus did not die peacefully in his bed or while on vacation at the beach. Rather his death was due directly to the way he lived and the opposition that produced.
Of course, no one wants to be at odds with one’s family, friends, country, or whatever. No one should ever want conflict. But conflict happens – not always, but often enough, and especially in those great either/or choices that produce martyrs (and almost martyrs, like poor Jeremiah in today’s 1st reading). One of modern history’s more sobering facts is that the past century has produced more Christian martyrs than any other century. And then there are all the ordinary situations, which lack the high drama of martyrdom, but which can on occasion also call for doing something different from what one would otherwise have done, even at the risk of opposition.
Of course, we would all prefer a calm, untroubled life, in a calm, conflict-free world. We voice that sentiment every day when we pray that we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress. It’s not conflict per se to which Jesus calls us. It is commitment which he challenges us to live – to be clear about what matters most, clear about our purpose in life, clear about what needs to be done (or not done). It is the challenge of being willing to be transformed by God’s grace into the person God wants me to be – and being thus transformed while still a part of an otherwise untransformed world.
And, because we live in an otherwise untransformed world, that transforming experience can at times really resemble a sword separating us from whoever or whatever we would otherwise have so readily clung to.
Jesus does indeed promise peace to his disciples – the peace of his kingdom, a very different peace from a momentary absence of conflict. As Christians, we should not and must not go around with a chip on our shoulder as if we were spoiling for a fight. After all, the fruits of the Holy Spirit include love, joy, and peace – not hatred, hostility, and anger). The challenge, rather, is to build bridges, not knock them down – to pave the way for more and more people to experience the peace and unity of God’s kingdom, yet all the while still struggling to do so in an unconverted and untransformed and hence potentially hostile world.
Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Holy Ghost Church, Knoxville, TN, August 18, 2013.