Several 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 until the 19th-century unification of Germany. 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, when royal relatives found themselves divided from one another by forces beyond their control. Philip himself was a nephew of the German Emperor, William II, whose Prussian dynasty had earlier dispossessed Philip’s family. 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 72 years ago this month.
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 [Luke 12:49-53] used possible family conflict to illustrate his larger point about what was expected of every disciple. It’s a fact of life is that saying “Yes” to some one particular person, cause, or commitment entails saying “no” to other options. So it is with following Jesus, a commitment that changes everything. In this matter, Jesus himself set the standard. After all, Jesus did not die peacefully in his bed or casually 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 20th century produced more Christian martyrs than any previous century, a pattern that seems to have continued into this 21st century, as recent events have reminded us. 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 rather his mission - setting the earth on fire - to which he calls us and faithfulness to which he challenges us – fidelity what matters most, to our true purpose in life, and to what needs to be done (or not done). It is the constant, life-long challenge to let ourselves be transformed by God’s grace into the persons God wants us to be – and being thus transformed while still a part of an otherwise untransformed world.
But, 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 must never go around with a religious or cultural 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 Christian challenge, rather, is always to build bridges, not walls – and so pave the way for more and more people to experience the peace and unity of God’s kingdom, yet all the while still struggling against an unconverted and untransformed and hence potentially hostile world.
Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time,Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 14, 2016