August 15, 2016 –– 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 38:4–6, 8–10 / Psalm 40 / Hebrews 12:1–4 / Luke 12:49–53
The Fire of Judgment and Baptism of Death
Early in Luke's Gospel angels sing to the shepherds when God's Son is born: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace…. What a contrast with what Jesus says here: Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. That does not sound like the angels’ message. Jesus even speaks of bringing division to family. What is going on here?
The usual tendency is to over-simplify our understanding of Jesus for our own tastes and convenience. Yet anyone who is honest will recognize that Jesus said some hard things. They can be hard for two reasons: they are either hard to understand or hard to accept. Mark Twain once quipped that it was not the things in the Bible that he did not understand that bothered him; it was the things he did understand.
The Gospel today is one of the hard sayings of Jesus. He talks of setting the earth on fire (v49). There is a baptism that threatens even Jesus (v50). Then he says he comes to bring division (v51ff). Here it helps to remember two important elements in our faith: understanding and commitment. One can have understanding of Christian faith without commitment to it, but commitment is impossible without an understanding of what you would be committed to. We need a good understanding of Jesus to be able to give him the obedience of true commitment.
Luke earlier told his readers (9:51): As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. This is the context for everything after that. Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. He is aware of what lies before him; it’s never far from his mind.
So we come to these words today: I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing (v49). What is this "fire" that Jesus came to bring? Think back to Jesus' baptism. As he was doing his water baptism, John was speaking of a fuller event: I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come.… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Lu 3:16).
The picture here is of cleansing judgment. Jesus' death brought judgment on sin. And having died for our sins, the day is coming when the wind of God's Spirit will blow across humanity and separate the grain from the hull (the Bible calls it the "wheat and chaff"). In Psalm 1, the wicked are like chaff which the wind drives away. Wind and fire are both images of the Spirit. John was foretelling the Coming One who would unleash God's Spirit in the world, and one result would be shining forth of the true children of God’s kingdom. Saints are people who are enveloped with the very fire of God (e.g., Isaiah 33:14–15, Luke 24:32, and Hebrews 12:29). We have an incredible honor and privilege: Our lives can burn with the love of God!
It is here that the third part of Jesus' words begins to fall into place. As Jesus thinks about all that lies ahead, he tells what the result will be. It will be division––a division between those who embrace his way and those who will not. It has been that way since the first disobedience. Those who hated God’s truth wanted to kill Jeremiah. The reading from Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured such opposition from sinners that he endured the cross. Godliness draws opposition.
It helps here to differentiate between effect and purpose. When Jesus said he had not come to bring peace but to bring division, he was talking about the effect of his coming, not that this was the purpose of his coming. Later in his Gospel Luke reports Jesus clearly saying, For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Lu19:10). God desires our salvation; that was the purpose for Jesus coming. Yet God gives everyone free will––the freedom and responsibility to choose, and there are some who will not submit to God. Again, allegiance to Jesus Christ always carries the threat of conflict.
That is what it meant when Jesus spoke to his disciples as they walked toward Jerusalem. That is what it means for us today. First, there is basic faith. We are invited to believe that Jesus did undergo that baptism of death, and that in so doing he forever altered God's judgment on people who believe. This is the essence of baptism and professing Christian faith.
Then there is living it out––“proving” our faith. When a conflict of interest comes up, what is our response? Where is our commitment? Think of the criticism and animosity that comes from the press and and the general culture when the Church confronts evil with God’s truth. Do we stand up for our Faith? People who are “Christians” in name only do not want to draw conflict. It is hard to pick an argument with a person who has no convictions, but who really cares about a church that doesn't stand for anything?! Half-heartedness did not take Jesus to the cross,
In a more recent context, think of Martin Luther King, Jr. His was a message of peace and justice and love for all people. On the other hand, it is also true that almost everywhere he went, hate and violence accompanied him. He carried such a positive force of justice and spoke with such authoritative love that evil forces of hate could not help but retaliate.
As Jesus goes to his death, he is calling disciples who will follow him to the cross, to be people who are willing to sacrifice everything else for loyalty to God and his ways. This part of the Gospel asks: what passion fills my life? What is my supreme loyalty––above love even of husband, wife, father, mother, sister or brother? For what are we willing to sacrifice life itself? We honor people who will die for their country and call them patriots; people who sacrifice everything––money, status, and even family––for Christian faith are too often called fanatics.
Jesus did come into our world to bring peace––God’s peace. But that is not a “surface” peace, and Jesus did not teach or model a peace that denies the implications of obedience in a rebellious world. As we follow Jesus it is ours is to obey, as he did, all the way to the cross. If others will not go, if our obedience causes division, so be it. We cannot choose an inferior allegiance and at the same time say “Jesus is Lord.”
The fire of judgment and baptism of death…. In Jesus Christ, this is the way to life.