This summer congregations that follow the Revised Common Lectionary were forced to grapple with one of Jesus’s more unsettling pronunciations: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51 NRSV). On the one hand, a regular dose of headlines and stories across contemporary media platforms reminds us that we live in a divisive age. For United Methodists, whose denomination feels like it is on the verge of collapse or schism or … something, Jesus’s words should have been particularly acute. We human beings are a fractious enough species on our own; we can be sufficiently divisive without divine assistance.
On the other hand, after reading this passage Christians must face the seriousness of attributing the source of our divisions to Christ himself. It is common enough in our disagreements, within and without the church, for each side to claim Christ for itself. But if the fact of a division, and not merely its particulars, is because of Jesus, then the stakes are quite high. If we determine that Jesus is the cause of a division, then we may find glory not just in being on the “right” side of the division but in the mere fact of the disagreement. In other words, if Jesus is the source of our division, then we are right both to adopt a position that we believe is more faithful than the alternatives and to break away from others who disagree with us, no matter the cost, because being in favor of division, in that case, would itself be a form of faithfulness to Jesus Christ, who is causing the division in the first place.
The verses following Luke 12:51 support this strident approach to conflict. Jesus says, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (12:52-53). No human relationships, not even intimate familial relationships, are sacred when a division genuinely has Jesus Christ as its cause.
And that’s the rub of this passage. In our age of heightened division, the last thing we need is one more reason to discard relationships with people who disagree with us. There is too much of that already going on in our world. Fortunately, however, I don’t think this passage gives us “one more reason” to isolate ourselves in our disagreements. Instead, Jesus gives us, at least by a hint, the only reason ever to allow such ruptures.
That reason is his cross. And the hint of it comes just a little earlier in the pericope, when Jesus speaks of having a “baptism with which to be baptized” (12:50). This baptism is his impending crucifixion, and, given the words about division that come on the heels of Jesus speaking about his “baptism,” it is safe for us to connect the baptism Jesus will undergo with the division he will cause.
The magisterial reformer Martin Luther coined the phrase crux probat omnia: the cross tests everything. What fails the test of the cross is not worthy of God. For our divisive age, I propose a necessary correlate: crux probat omnes discordias. The cross tests all divisions. Before we attribute any division to Christ, we first ought to apply the test of the cross. Does the source of the division look like Jesus Christ, crucified? If so, it is a division for which we must count the cost, take up our cross, and follow Christ. If not, then we may be more or less justified in our position in the divide, but we must confess that the cause of the division itself is not Christ but human sin. What fails the test of the cross is not worthy of God.
To discern rightly whether a division looks like Jesus Christ, crucified, means, of course, that we must have an intimate knowledge of our crucified Lord, a knowledge that forms our hearts and lives as well as our minds. A good starting point for that knowledge is the Christ hymn in Phil 2. Charles Wesley, in his hymn “And Can It Be,” offers one of the briefest and most profound summaries of that passage. Christ, Wesley says, “left his Father’s throne above (so free, so infinite his grace!), emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s race” (emphasis added). A cruciform conflict, a conflict whose source is Jesus, should be one that has started because we emptied ourselves of all but love.
I suspect few of our present conflicts, within or without the church, would pass such a test. Crux probat omnia; crux probat omnes discordias. What fails the test of the cross is not worthy of God.