One of the interesting side-stories of the great wars of the 20th century was their particularly devastating impact upon the interconnected royal and noble families of Europe, which suddenly found themselves divided by military conflicts created by politicians. For example, Prince Philipp, Landgrave of Hesse, head of the distinguished dynasty that had helped make the Protestant Reformation possible, was a nephew of the German Emperor, William II, whose Prussian dynasty had earlier dispossessed Philip’s in 1866. 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 75 years ago this month.
Royalty, of course, were 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. In the Gospel a few weeks ago, Jesus used the case of a family conflict over inheritance to illustrate why wealth and possessions are problems for any serious disciple.
In today’s Gospel [Luke 12:49-53], Jesus 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 somewhere. Rather his death was due directly to the way he lived and the opposition that produced [cf. Hebrews 12:1-4]. So it was – and is - with martyrs.
Of course, no one should want to be at odds with others - with one’s family, friends, country, or whatever. No one should seek conflict for conflict’s sake. Yet 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 [Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10]). 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 on us to do something different from what we would otherwise have done, even at the risk of opposition - like Scott Daniel Warren, for example, who was put on trial by our government earlier this year after providing food, water, beds, and clean clothes to immigrants in Arizona.
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. There are Christians, unfortunately, who seem to live with a permanent chip on the shoulder, claiming persecution all the time and spoiling for a fight. But 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 struggling to do so in an unconverted and untransformed and hence potentially hostile world.
Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception church, Knoxville, TN, August 18, 2019.