by Strahan Coleman
(Based on Luke 12:49-56; Isa 5:1-7)
One of the earliest documents we have from the early church, dating from the first or second century, is called the Didache, commonly known as The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles To The Nations.
In fact, before the New Testament canon was formalised in 692 a number of biblical collections included it. It gives us some profound insight into the emphasis and values of the early church.
I want to start this morning by reading from it …
(The Way of Life)
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways. The way of life is this. First of all, you shall love the God who made you. Second, love your neighbour as yourself. And all things you would not want done to you, do not do to another person.
Now the teaching of these words is this. Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what credit is it to you, if you love those who love you? Do the people of the nations not do the same? But you should love those who hate you, and you will not have an enemy.
Abstain from the desires of the flesh and of the body.
If anyone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other cheek to him also, and you will be perfect. If anyone compels you to go one mile, go with him for two miles …..
It goes on, summarising much of Jesus’s gospel teaching.
There are two ways, the apostles tell us, not two belief systems but two ways of living our lives. This way, they tell us, is the way of life.
… it goes on then, after more exposition on the ‘way of life’, to explain the other way, the way of death …
(The Way of Death)
[It proceeds to list a number of sins that characterise the ‘way of death’ – an interesting list!]
Then a few characteristics of such people … Persecutors of good men, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing the reward of righteousness, not adhering to the good nor to good judgment, alert to evil rather than to good; neither gentle nor patient; loving worthless things, pursuing a reward, not having mercy on the poor, not working for the downtrodden, not recognizing the God who made them, murderers of children, corrupters of God’s creation, turning away from the needy, oppressing the afflicted, advocates of the rich, unjust judges of the poor—sinful in every way!
May you be delivered, my children, from all these things.
So, according to this document, the Didache, there are two ways.
We might even say, two vineyards.
Vineyards crop up a few times in both the Old and New testament. Jesus uses it as a metaphor for Israel and her leaders a number of times. But in the Old Testament they’re used both positively and negatively to describe what it’s like living in God’s world.
In the case of this morning’s Isaiah passage, the vineyard is a place mishandled. A place God comes to make aright. But at other times vineyards are symbols of joy, feasting, blessing and promise. The land isn’t the focus in this image, it’s how the people use it that is. It’s as if God is saying, “I have given you something beautiful. All I ask is that you use it for the goodness it was made for.”
And then we have this harsh and uncomfortable Gospel passage. Jesus telling us he’s come not for peace but for division. It would be easy to read it as if Jesus loves dividing people – friends, families, communities – but that seems far out of kilter with the rest of the Gospel story. Didn’t he come to give life rather than condemn? Wishing that “all people would be saved”?
How do we make sense of this radical statement by Jesus then?
Well, what we do see Jesus doing continually throughout his ministry is refusing to allow the status quo when it comes to injustice, and in those circumstances Jesus is quite happy to create a clear line between him and the people causing injustice. Jesus made no apologies for making people feel bad when he called out the mistreatment of the poor, the hypocrisy of the hyper-religious, the mad extremes of the lawyers or the callousness of those who walked past the sick and needy. He wanted to make it clear that injustice and idolatry didn’t belong in his kingdom. To love God meant to love others and the world too. There was no middle ground.
Jesus did in fact divide the world in to two. But division wasn’t the point, a healthy vineyard was.
Two Ways, as the apostles taught.
Jesus openly and shamelessly invited every person on earth into the vineyard of his love, joy, peace and presence. But that invitation came with a hard caveat – ‘do what I do, love whom I love, care as I care. If you want to keep your greed, malice, condescension and self-oriented religious piety, you’ll have to find another vineyard. And there is only one other, a place full of darkness and death.’
As someone who has been experiencing the beauty of the contemplative tradition for over eight years now, this can feel shocking to me. Because it’s easy to assume that love wouldn’t want anyone to feel discomfort, to feel put out or put off by my marking the difference between these two ways.
But Jesus does make people uncomfortable. He’s not afraid to challenge us and draw a line in the sand. We have only two choices: the way of life, or the way of death, and Jesus came to make the difference vitally clear.
The gravity of this decision even having the power to divide families and friends.
I love my boys deeply, more than anything else in the world. And one of the things we’re teaching them at the moment is that to be part of our household they need to give as well as take. That they can’t expect us to be patient all the time and then turn and punch each other at a whim. That it’s not ok to take their little brother’s toys just because they’re big enough to do so. That they can’t enjoy our respect and security then disrespect each other’s dignity through teasing and degrading one another.
If they do those things, the natural consequences are often their losing a piece of our family vineyard; be it being sent outside to play, losing a hang out until they can be physically respectful, or going to bed early.
Because as much as I love them, in our family vineyard we want to love, respect and appreciate each other.
I never condemn or judge them, but by their own decisions they can choose where they want to be for a moment. Their behaviour divides them from us. As their father it’s my job to help them see that. To them, I’m sure at times it seems as if it’s me that’s causing the conflict. But as they grow up they see that it’s their behaviour, not my judgement that causes the divide.
I believe it’s much the same with Jesus. His bringing division is the consequence of our rejecting wholeness, goodness and life. Not from his desire to reject, cause harm or be unnecessarily provocative.
There are only Two Ways. Not three. Life and death. No middle ground. There is the way of Jesus, which includes all the things I shared from the Didache and all the gospels. Or there is a way that is not his – the way of death.
We can’t say ‘yes’ to Jesus’s way with our lips and not our bodies, finances, ears and schedules.
But here’s the thing.
There is another vineyard Isaiah talks about. We find it in 27:2-5;
In that day,
A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!
I, the Lord, am its keeper;
Every moment I water it.
Lest anyone punish it,
I keep it night and day;
I have no wrath.
Would I had thorns and briers to battle!
I would march out against them,
I would burn them up together.
Or let them lay hold of my protection,
Let them make peace with me,
Let them make peace with me.
This kingdom, with the king, and with all he is in us, is a place of beauty, magnificence, joy, wine and godly pleasure. It’s kept by God, and those who live there are satisfied by his calm. It rains when it should and keeps dry when it should, always budding, always fruitful, always with the sound of singing and dancing. This vineyard is open, no fences, anyone can come, especially the hungry. Its vines reach out through every street and community, across every continent and sea. It nourishes the forgotten and wraps around the naked, clothing and sustaining them.
This vineyard smells sweet and draws to itself anyone willing to give up on the bitterness of the world’s frosts and the violence of the greedy. This vineyard is God’s. It’s his kingdom. Established in Christ and planted permanently in the world. And one day, not a tear of grief or illness will be found in it. It will be perfected.
That’s where I want to be.
That’s where Jesus wants us all to be.
The rest is up to us, to what we choose, to whom we cling.
Jesus’s call to division in today’s passage is a potent invitation for us to take stock of our lives. To celebrate the places Christ’s Way flourishes in our lives and to seek his strength to overcome any places of death.
Where are you this morning in these two ways?
In which vineyard are you living?
Of course, none of us walk this road perfectly, that’s not what this is about. The goal is the struggle, not the instant success of following the way of life; and the New Testament is full of our stories of struggling to walk this way well. It’s the choice to keep giving a little more each day to Jesus and his way that matters, rather than slip into settling for the usual sins or living over-indulgently. It’s the direction we’re facing.
Jesus’s grace floods in to meet us in this struggle and loves us along the way. Remember, he didn’t come to condemn, but to invite, empower and walk with us in this journey toward building his vineyard with him.
Every time we choose to give rather than receive,
To forgive rather than harbour anger and violence in our hearts,
When we choose softness and patience rather than condescension and arrogance,
Every time we seek out those in need, and cover their wounds, and let them not be forgotten,
we are building our life in The Way.
We’re sowing in the eternal vineyard.
We’re making sure our home.
Yes, Jesus came to divide. He was clear about what does and doesn’t belong in his vineyard. His kingdom. But that division is also a call to live in a just and whole world, a right-living place where love is tangible and all are cared for.
May we find ourselves in the pleasure of that calling today.