Today’s lessons give us food for thought concerning the power of God’s love at work in the lives of those who love and follow him. There is also an uncomfortable truth -- the gospel does not necessarily bring peace and unity – but we can also be assured that God’s love remains powerful even in the face of conflict.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians contains a beautiful prayer reflecting his sincere desire for strength and comprehension among believers. He reminds us that that we need to be “strengthened with power through [the Holy] Spirit” and that this strengthening will occur in our “inner self.” This teaching may seem somewhat foreign to a culture that focuses heavily on physical strength and beauty and which often understands love as an emotional response. Does our inner self really need “strength to comprehend … the love of Christ”?
Our inner self does indeed need strengthening. We are easily overcome by other dark and cynical forces; unfortunately love is not the first response that comes to my mind when challenges come my way. Yet Paul earnestly prays that we should be “rooted and grounded in love” in order to obtain this strength. The love of Christ living within us is an empowering force that can accomplish much, even more than we can ask for or imagine. But we must give it a chance to influence us, and we must choose to draw on the love of Christ as we consider how we respond. Paul also suggests this is not a solitary act, but one that is contemplated along with “all the holy ones”. We thus share this unifying experience, not only of being loved by God but in knowing the fullness of God through reflecting back this love in our lives together.
In contrast to this unifying theme of Christ’s love, the gospel passage in Luke provides a challenging -- even disturbing -- truth. Jesus speaks here of division, strife, and disunity which he also brings to the world. Moreover, that conflict comes even within earthly families, which are supposed to be places where we find love and acceptance.
At one level, we can understand this teaching as another warning to the disciples that he would not be establishing an earthly political kingdom. Jesus would accomplish something much greater, not through armies and political power, but through self-denying love, in laying down his own life for his friends. Thankfully, we can be included among that friendship group.
But this teaching also shows us that the call of God causes conflict. The peace we look forward to, which comes only in the fullness of the reign of God, is not yet here. Following Christ may cause us to reject contrary teachings and practices that are commonly followed, which can cause problems with others who do not know those ways and who may feel convicted by a counter-example. Division or conflict may thus occur between believers and unbelievers. However, it may also occur within the church, which admittedly is not as unified as it should be, in part because we are not all rooted and grounded in the love of Christ as we should be.
As Paul also reminds us, love is patient and kind. (See 1 Cor. 13) Just as God has been patient with us, we need to exercise a similar patience toward those with whom we have divisions and conflicts. When we are “rooted and grounded in love,” so that we may be “filled with all the fullness of God”, we tend not to be so full of ourselves. From my own experience, that helps a lot in breaking down divisions.
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