Out of Character?
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!"
Does that sound like Jesus to you? Or does it sound out of character.
And if it does sound out of character, well maybe that says more about us than it does about Jesus. If today’s gospel rubs us the wrong way, if it sounds out of character, then maybe it’s us. Maybe we’re guilty of having domesticated Jesus, of having tamed him and turned him into the sort of God that we want him to be.
It’s easy enough to do. We can cherry-pick Bible verses we like, the ones where Jesus is kind and gentle. We can focus on the images that are benign, like the baby at Christmas or the Good Shepherd looking after his sheep. We can create an picture of Jesus that is soft and comforting, just the sort of God we are looking for, one who will comfort us when we’re down, provide a little guidance when we’re unsure of what to do, a God who will love us, but not demand too much of us.
But what a woefully inadequate picture of Jesus that would be.
Jesus was a radical agent of change bent on overturning the political, social and religious status quo. He was rejected for speaking and acting that way and put to death for disturbing the peace.
Listen to what the prophet Simeon said to Mary way back at the beginning of Luke’s gospel when he saw the infant Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
When Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace, but rather division, it’s a moment of truth-telling. You could say that he’s simply stating the obvious. And yet, we find it disturbing, and we consider it out of character. Which means it is also a moment of truth-telling which is directed at us.
A number of years ago two sociologists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, interviewed thousands of American teenagers to get a sense of their religious beliefs. They came up with the term “Moral Therapeutic Deism” to describe the basic common beliefs of the Christian youth that they interviewed. Moral, because the youth believed that God wants people to be good, to be nice and fair to each other, and that if you lead a good, moral life you will go to heaven. Therapeutic, because having a relationship with God is good for you, God will provide guidance and comfort when needed, and help you to be happy and feel good about yourself, which is the main goal of life. And Deism, because God is generally imagined as being far away in heaven, and only becomes involved in your life when needed to solve a problem. Moral therapeutic deism, according to the authors who coined the term, views God as something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.
Does that sound good to you? If this version of Christianity, if you can call it that, sounds attractive to you, then you’re definitely going to have issues with the Jesus that we find in the gospels.
Jesus is not a God who is distant and who only gets involved when you have a problem that needs solving. Jesus is a God who is in your face and calls you to serve others and to work for social and economic justice. Jesus is not there to help you to be happy and feel good about yourself. He’s there to tell you to sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus did not come to avoid conflict and be nice. He came to proclaim the kingdom of God, a radical new way of living together that calls on the privileged and the powerful to give up their power, a call that was rejected and brought not peace but division.
Now don’t get me wrong. Jesus, the one we call the “prince of peace” isn’t against peace. When he heals the woman who has been suffering from bleeding for twelve years, he tells her to go in peace. When he forgives the sins of the woman who falls at his feet during dinner, he says to her: go in peace. Jesus is a peace-maker, he heals, he forgives and he liberates to bring about peace. But he won’t create a false sense of peace by blessing the status quo or by watering down his kingdom message to make us feel good. Jesus is not against peace, but he is a truth-teller, and the truth is that this world needs fire.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
What is this fire that Jesus wants to kindle in the world?
It is easy for us to make the wrong association here, to be captivated by images of hell-fire that come to us from Greek mythology or Dante’s Inferno, and from some places in scripture, images of punishment and destruction. But those are the wrong images, they point us in the wrong direction. Fire throughout scripture has also been a sign of God’s presence. The burning bush through which God appeared to Moses. The pillar of fire that guided the people of Israel in the wilderness by night. The chariots of fire that lifted Elijah into God’s presence. All of them life-changing moments, because fire symbolizes not only God’s presence, but also God’s power of transformation. Fire is the refiner’s fire that transforms lumps of metal into gold and silver. It is this transformative power that John the baptizer refers to when he says at the beginning of Luke’s gospel:
“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The fire that Jesus wants to kindle on earth is the fire of change, the fire of God’s active, transforming, presence in the world. Jesus came to bring fire to the earth, to be a radical agent of transformation in order to bring about God’s kingdom. And God’s kingdom changes everything.
“Can’t you see it?” Jesus says to the crowds. “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
The gospel reading kind of leaves us hanging at this point. How should Jesus listeners have interpreted their present time, their moment in history? Jesus has come to earth. He is in their midst. He is on the way to Jerusalem. How should they interpret the present time?
Jesus will answer that question in chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel, but we don’t get that today. We won’t even hear it next Sunday. But if you’re curious about the answer, and you should be, all you have to do is think back to the very opening proclamation of Jesus ministry:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
When the sky threatens rain, grab an umbrella.
When the kingdom of God comes near, repent.
Repent. Be transformed. Change your ways. Turn around. Align yourself with God’s kingdom.
That is the call that Jesus issues to the crowd. And it’s no different in our own time. If we want to be followers of Jesus, if we want to be agents of God’s kingdom, if we want to be active participants in that great, radical, movement that Jesus calls the kingdom of God, the movement that will bring about justice, that will transform political, economic and social structures, that will re-orient our ways of living together, that will liberate the oppressed, heal the brokenness in our world, and yes, usher in true and lasting peace, then we are called to repent, to change and be changed by the fire of God’s presence in our world.
Homily: Yr C P20, August 18 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 5.1-7; Ps 80.1-2,8-18; Heb 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56
Image by Kevin Wood, Creative Commons