Proper 15, C
Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’” Oh. No. Wait. That was last week. Hang on. Ah. Here we go.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized”
Wait a minute. Fire, baptism, this whole doomsday feel, did I get the wrong spot again? Who is this speaking, John the Baptist? No, it says “Jesus said.” Can this possibly be the same Jesus who was calming our fears and promising us God’s kingdom last week?
This is Jesus. And not only Jesus, but the Jesus of Luke’s gospel – not the more strident voice of Jesus revealed in Matthew. Luke’s gospel opens with the promise that Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” (1:79). It moves through the stories of healing and love and compassion with the repeated admonition, “Go in peace.” As the gospel ends, the gentle Luke tells us of the resurrected Jesus appearing among his followers and offering a final benediction, “Peace be with you” (24:36).
But today, “I came to bring fire to the earth!… Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
I’m going to let you in on what may be the worst kept secret ever. I’m not much of a hellfire and brimstone preacher. Not that it doesn’t have its place now and again. It certainly can get people motivated and fired up. I just don’t really have the knack for it. And honestly (although possibly blasphemously), I simply don’t like the fiery, angry (no matter how righteously angry), vengeful picture of God. I don’t like it. I don’t believe it. I resist following it with everything in me. Whether that is because I fear judgement, because I avoid confrontation, or because it just doesn’t touch my heart as truth, I guess I’ll have to let God judge. But I’m drawn to the quiet, peaceful, loving, healing, prayerful Jesus; author of peace and lover of concord.
In his short lifetime, Jesus reached out to all God’s children, all his brothers and sisters, tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners of all stripes. He healed and he loved and he taught. Yet, even as he modeled love and inclusion, Jesus’s path engendered division. As Dan Clandenin points out, “Jesus was rejected by his home town of Nazareth. His family tried to apprehend him as insane. His brothers didn’t believe in him. The people of Capernaum ran him out of town. A Samaritan village wouldn’t even let him enter their town. His detractors said he was demon-possessed and “raving mad.” The religious elite “opposed him fiercely.” (Dan Clendenin Not Peace But Division: The Embarrassing Words of Jesus) And yet, he loved on.
Today’s lesson is a reality check; a reminder to those of us who would rest within the promise of peace. A reminder that God’s peace is not the peace of this world. A reminder that external calm does not always reflect the deep abiding peace of God. A reminder that following God, truly following God, comes with some cost. It did for Jesus – it will for us.
One commentator points out, “The harsh sayings and indictments resounding in this text remind us that Jesus has not come to validate the social realities and values we have constructed. Such social realities and values have a propensity to seek a harmony that favors those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who are powerless and expendable. Jesus’ missional agenda of compassion, mercy, and justice shatters such a status quo.” (Richard P. Carlson, Feasting on the Word) But I am one. What can I do about social realities, missional agendas and the almighty status quo? According to Marian Wright Edelman, “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.”
William Wilberforce introduced legislation in the British Parliament to end the slave trade in 1779, largely impelled to do so by his own religious conversion. While profession of some religion was the norm in Wilberforce’s day, religious enthusiasm was considered rather gauche and socially unacceptable. At the time he introduced the bill, Wilberforce was shouted down and laughed at. He was ridiculed and ostracized from polite society. He continued to fight for his cause for the next 28 years, when the Slave Trade Act of 1807 effectively ended the slave trade in England. Having gained that long-fought victory, he could have rested peacefully – a job well done. His dedication to following his Christian faith would not allow him to do so. He continued to fight for the end of slavery itself–not just the slave trade, but the end of slavery itself. Wilberforce died 3 days after he received notification that passage of the Slavery Abolition Act was assured.
Jesus seeks the fire of justice, not of destruction, the cleansing flame from which springs new growth. Jesus accepts the baptismal waters of new birth. Jesus recognizes that division, disturbing and destructive, is the midwife of new life, life in faith, life in God. Slavery would never have ended in Great Britain, or in America without division, without William Wilberforce and countless others to follow their consciences, to be willing to disturb the status quo. In this country, would women have gained a right to vote (or to serve as clergy) without division? Would workers have a right to a living wage? Would children have a right to schooling? Would South African apartheid ever have ended? Would any partner gather the courage to leave an abusive spouse?
Jesus’s words today are disturbing, frightening. We would do well to recognize and admit that – Jesus Himself was disturbed, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” How do we really feel about joining the list of faithful penned by the author of Hebrews? A life of faith sounds appealing enough when one is conquering kingdoms, quenching fires, and administering justice; suddenly less so when one is being flogged, or tortured, or stoned, or sawn in two, or crucified, or even being ridiculed. May I not simply let the laws of the nation and the institutions we have built keep the peace?
Author and theologian Verna Dozier had this to say about faith and risk and institutions: “Faith implies risk. The faith view of reality is frightening in its openness, so institutions are always trying to control reality with doctrines and laws and creeds. Kingdom of God thinking calls us to risk. We always see through a glass darkly, and that is what faith is about. I will live by the best I can discern today. Tomorrow I may find out that I was wrong. Since I do not live by being right, I am not destroyed by being wrong. The God revealed in Jesus, whom I call the Christ, is a God whose forgiveness goes ahead of me, and whose love sustains me and the whole created world. That God bursts all the definition of our small minds, all the limitations of our tired efforts, all the boundaries of our institutions.”
Let us pray:
Cast the fire among us, O Lord;
Baptize us with Christ’s baptism.
Open our hearts to your vision.
Let us be the fleas on the dog of injustice and oppression,
encouraged by the great cloud of fleas who have gone before,
fixing our eyes on Jesus and on his cross. (adapted from Ron McCreary, Midrash)