In the men’s medley relay at the Olympics in Rio, each man swam his leg with purpose and determination. It was clear that they were swimming as they had been coached, according to the strategy planned beforehand. They each wanted to do their best in their own leg, of course. But they also wanted to win the gold medal for their teammate Michael Phelps in his last Olympic race.
Young women gymnasts cheered each other on in their events as they focused on winning gold for the team. Rowers from the United States lined up, hands over hearts, and sang together the “Star Spangled Banner.” That’s what we like to see — going for the gold but going for the gold in a golden way, in unity and comradeship.
So, why would Jesus, of all people, proclaim that he came not to bring unity, but division? Why would Jesus say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and our enemies as well. When Jesus through Paul tells us to lift up, knit together the communion of believers, not to tear it apart, threaten its cohesiveness through gossip, slander and ill will. When Jesus is the one who told his disciples the night before he died, “Peace is my last gift to you, my own peace I now leave with you; peace which the world cannot give, I give to you.” It doesn’t make sense.
But what if Jesus is talking about a different kind of division, a different kind of disunity?
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
Two doctors at different times have said that I almost twinned. All my life, in some ways, I have felt that other one who is there but not there, with me but not with me, and I have longed for her.
When I would call my mother and get a busy signal, I would always know that she was on the phone with my aunt, her twin. I found it very frustrating and often said that I needed to form a support group for children of twins. And I wanted a person like that for my own.
My almost twinning can play out in my longing for friends, for family, for meaningful relationships and treasured people in my life. And sometimes I take it too far. I will concentrate on it instead of my relationship with God. I will let it take priority in my mind and heart over thinking about God and our relationship.
That’s what Jesus is talking about here. God gives us our parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces, nephews, cousins, children. And God gives us our husbands, wives and friends. God means us to be in community with others, to live out our faith as we interact with other people. God wants us to find unity with the people in our lives.
But that is different from making those relationships the highest priority in our minds and hearts. In proclaiming the division he has come to bring, Jesus reminds us that he is the focus, and all of our relationships flow out from him. We are to choose no one and no thing over him.
History found Simone Manuel at these Olympic Games as she became the first African-American woman to win an individual event in Olympic swimming. The British newspaper Daily Mail reported an interview with Simone’s mother: “When she was about 11 years old, she did come to me once … (and) asked about why (she) didn’t see many others like herself in the sport of swimming and I didn’t have an answer for her immediately.” Together, they researched Simone’s question on the internet, and, her mother added, “For her that was the moment that she realized she had a bigger role to play.’”
When Simone won gold in the 100m freestyle, she said to the broadcast reporter, “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”
Simone has kept her focus on her purpose, and her hope is that unity will spread and deepen through her story, her work and her accomplishments. I imagine that it could have been tempting just to focus on swimming, but she has focused on this greater good, this higher good as well.
We can do that , too, in our own lives. When we find ourselves overly focused on or obsessed with anything besides God – any relationship, situation, work, school, whatever it is – we can ask God to bring us back, to help us reorient our focus to where it needs to be, on God. And then we, too, will know what it means to take the golden way. We, too, will know what it truly means to go for the gold.