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Sermon on Luke 12:49-53 - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on August 18, 2019 by Kathy Miller


Luke 12:49-53

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

August 18, 2019

I’d like to start this morning with a clip from the 1999 movie Dogma.  (George Carlin clip -[1]  (see the end of this sermon for description of video)

For $14.99 on Amazon, you can still buy your own buddy Christ dashboard figure - 20 years after the movie came out.  And while the movie is obviously poking fun, it’s poking fun with a silver lining of truth. “Buddy Christ” – the peace loving, good time having, always forgiving friend and pal is appealing. But Buddy Christ is not exactly the Jesus we hear about in Luke’s gospel today – the Jesus who says he has come to bring division, not peace and that families will turn against one another in his name. 

Back in 2010 there was an article in the Christian Century, a theological magazine, about the faith formation of teenagers that I still remember reading. It was about a study which claims the average Christian American teenager’s faith has been co-opted by a symbiotic faith – a faith that may look and seem quite like Christianity, but is not traditional Christianity at all.  The name the study gave to this symbiotic, alternative faith was “moralistic therapeutic deism.”  Ultimately this faith, MTD for short, has “almost without anyone noticing, converted believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness.”  In other words, it is a faith based on a God who is “nice.”[2]     

The study suggests this faith would include statements in its creeds like:

            “God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”

            “The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.”[3]

            “God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.”

“Good people go to heaven when they die.”

What these statements have in common are that they are each nice ideas which are very easy to believe in and require very little from the believer.  And they are nice, and may even contain aspects of truth, but they are not, alone, representative of Christianity.  But, based on that understanding of Christianity, many teenagers, and perhaps people of many ages, “tend to view religion as a Very Nice Thing- meaning religion may be beneficial, even pleasant, but does not ask much of them or even concern them greatly.  As far as they can tell, it wields very little influence in their lives.”[4]

The result of this is that many teens leave church all together when they become adults, which Pastor Sarah spoke about several weeks ago.  One reason they leave is not because they didn’t have a good experience with church, but rather, because they have no compelling reason to continue attending.  Most teens have perfectly fine experiences in their own churches.  The study found most “are left thinking only ‘nice’ thoughts about their churches.  They criticize the church in general, but few complain about their own churches.  They may call people in other churches judgmental and hypocritical, but in their own congregations people are ‘nice.’”[5] 

And on one hand, that is all well and good.  But, if people are going to use an adjective for church, is nice the one we want them to use?  Nice, but not life changing?  Nice, but not transformative?  Nice, but not a priority?  Nice, but not particularly relevant?  Nice, but not a community working to live out the good news of the gospel in observable, tangible ways? 

Of course, the obvious question is, why aren’t teenagers getting a deeper, fuller, more meaningful experience of faith?  Where do they, and we, get the idea that faith is merely a banal, nice, convenient addition when there’s time for it?  One answer to this is that teachers, mentors, parents and leaders, have spent so much time telling youth about a Jesus who is nice, kind, peaceful and loving that they haven’t ascribed any real meaning to him.  We spend so much time on the golden rule and tend to water down many other stories in the gospel message to steer clear of anything that might cause conflict or disruption.  Which means, in the end, what we’ve really done is passed along Buddy Christ. 

And when we look at gospel passages like the one we find in Luke today, it is easy to understand why we might steer clear.  Passages like this one turns upside down or at least raises some difficult questions about why the Jesus we have known as healer, teacher and peace proclaimer who now says that, in his name, families will turn on one another; that he has come to bring division, not peace.  That doesn’t sound all that “nice.”  Buddy Christ is a lot easier to get along with.  But, if we ignore passages like this one, we miss the opportunity to dig deeper and develop a richer understanding of who Jesus was, is and wants to be in our lives still today.  Because, while he sounds a little off-putting, Jesus is telling us something worth believing, worth ordering our very lives around, worth teaching our children and worth our children’s attention.

As one theologian suggests, this passage is best understood as “descriptive rather than prescriptive.  That is, it is not Jesus’ purpose to set children against their parents, or parents against their children, but this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes engendered by Christ’s work.”[6]  Because Christ’s work is supposed to be our mission and our calling, but it is not always the easy, or even nice, choice.

The division of which Jesus speaks is not a description of the kingdom of heaven.  God’s kingdom is still a place of peace—true peace where swords are beaten into plowshares and lions lie down with lambs.  Jesus is talking about the division found here on earth.  This division which happens in the places where God’s kingdom begins to break in amongst the kingdom of earth.  It is the cracks in the wall where the light is shining through, the weakening of a link in the fence, the space under the door where the breeze rushes in. 

God’s kingdom, the gospel Jesus is proclaiming, is coming to break down the walls, fences and doors which have served to separate and oppress people on earth.  And when the light starts to shine through the wall, the fence begins to buckle or the winds of change begin to blow, there will always be wall makers, fence patchers and door closers who are going to get upset.

Jesus is not hoping for division in this passage, but he knows anytime we take the gospel seriously and begin to think about how things around us need to change, division is sure to spring up.  Which is true in lots of areas of our lives, but better to look at ourselves than point fingers and we can see this truth in Christianity itself.  Christianity itself is full of factions and splinter groups and different denominations often created based on who is supposed to be “in” and who is not, who is going to heaven and who is not, who is worthy of grace and forgiveness and who is not, who is made in God’s image and who is not. Christ’s work is centered on breaking down these kinds of divisions, but ironically in the process of trying to break down barriers, we sometimes create new ones.  In the Presbyterian Church USA we saw this a few years ago when the denomination made the decision to authorize the performing of marriages for LGBTQ members, in the desire to include and welcome more of God’s people, and immediately some churches broke off to start their own new denomination.

And, again, before we point fingers at other people, let’s be honest about ourselves.  All of us here this morning have something to lose if we take seriously the idea that the elimination of “isms” and “phobia’s” is truly the work of God’s kingdom.  Because all of us here today benefit in some way by some “ism” which sets us at an advantage to others.  To truly hear the gospel message means that we may not only find ourselves divided from our loved ones, but that we may even find ourselves divided against ourselves—convicted that we may need to work against our own best interest and instead work in the interest of others.

Perhaps the hardest truth about Christianity these days is the message that stands so starkly against a moralistic therapeutic deism – that Christianity, to follow Christ, does not assume our life goal is happiness or that God is only involved in our life when we need a problem solved.  Rather, Christianity assumes that our life goal is to bring about God’s kingdom on earth even when that is challenging or sets us apart or causes division, rather than happiness.  And Christianity proposes a God who is intimately involved in our life all the time, not just when we have problems, because God calls us to be of service even when we have our own problems which need solving. 

The church, and by extension, we, may be guilty of making our faith so “nice” that it has lost its meaning. But, if we don’t tell the world about a Jesus who is deeper and more transformative than Buddy Christ; if we can’t show people how Jesus has been more than just a pal in our own lives, why should they bother? 

None of this is to say that we should stop telling our youth, or other people, about a Jesus who is loving, caring, forgiving. He is those things too.  None of this means our children shouldn’t be told the good stories about Jesus’ turning water into wine and multiplying the loaves and fishes and healing people.  He did all that too.  But he also stood up to the powers of his time who preferred the letter of the law to loving their neighbor, and he fed the hungry, welcomed outcasts, turned over tables in the temple of those who would exploit others, and was willing to die a painful death in order to show his love to us – which I hope you’ll agree deserves an adjective far more powerful than “nice.”  “Jesus is nice” just can’t be the totality of our message.  And the idea that Jesus’ message is easy to live out, or just applied in certain circumstances rather than the life transforming, meaning making, love inspiring message it is meant to be just doesn’t live up to Jesus’ teachings and sacrifice. And even in its challenges, let us remember that the gospel still means “good news.”  It’s not that Jesus has called us to a path of only suffering and misery, it’s that he has called us to something with such a transformative power that our lives are given greater depth and meaning. 

Jesus was not merely “nice,” but rather, he was willing to speak the truth to people even when it held up an ugly reflection in the mirror.  And ultimately, we are all in need of this kind of a friend – not just someone to pal around with, but someone who will be honest with us and encourage us to change ourselves and make change in the world, even when it is hard, because it is what is best for us and the world.  “Buddy’s” are a dime a dozen, but a friend who knows us inside and out and loves us anyway, a confidant, someone who will challenge us and turn our attention to the world around us, that is more precious than gold. 

So, let us proclaim an authentic faith, a rich, deep faith.  A faith which asks something of us, which orders our lives and structures our priorities.  A faith that sees past Buddy Christ and a moralistic therapeutic deism to a Christianity intent on bringing God’s kingdom here on earth.  May we pray with enthusiasm and eagerness “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and then put our prayers into action as the hands and feet of God, even when the path is hard and we meet division along the way.  May we work in our time on earth as if we believe in a kingdom of heaven where peace reigns forever and ever.  Amen.

Alternate opening instead of video: In the 1999 comedy, Dogma, there is a great scene with George Carlin playing a Catholic priest.  Carlin has called the press together to make an announcement about a new campaign the Catholic Church is launching.  He says, “Now we all know how the majority and the media in this country view the Catholic Church. They think of us as a passé, archaic institution. People find the Bible obtuse... even hokey. Now in an effort to disprove all that, the church has appointed this year as a time of renewal... both of faith and of style. For example, the crucifix. While it has been a time-honored symbol of our faith, Holy Mother Church has decided to retire this highly recognizable, yet wholly depressing image of our Lord crucified. Christ didn't come to Earth to give us the willies... He came to help us out. He was a booster. And it is with that take on our Lord in mind that we've come up with a new, more inspiring symbol. So it is with great pleasure..I give you... The Buddy Christ”

Unveiled next to him is a statue of Jesus in his flowing robes winking and holding a thumbs up.  Buddy Christ – the peace loving, good time having, forgiving friend and pal.  Buddy Christ – the nice guy everyone wants at the party.  Buddy Christ – not exactly the Jesus we hear in Luke’s passage today saying that he has come to bring division, not peace and that families will turn against one another in his name.

[1] Smith, Kevin, director. Dogma. View Askew, 1999.

[2] Dean, Kenda Creasy. “Faith, Nice and Easy: The Almost-Christian Formation of Teens.” The Christian Century, 3 Aug. 2010,

[3]Dean, Kenda Creasy. “Faith, Nice and Easy: The Almost-Christian Formation of Teens.” The Christian Century, 3 Aug. 2010,

[4] Dean, Kenda Creasy. “Faith, Nice and Easy: The Almost-Christian Formation of Teens.” The Christian Century, 3 Aug. 2010,

[5] Dean, Kenda Creasy. “Faith, Nice and Easy: The Almost-Christian Formation of Teens.” The Christian Century, 3 Aug. 2010,

[6] West, Audrey. Feasting on the Word. Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.


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