49 “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! 50 I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. 52 From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three. 53 Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54 Jesus also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed it does. 55 And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time? (CEB)
The Present Time
Last Sunday, the text we read from the Prophet Isaiah was a difficult one to hear. If you got here this morning and noticed that we’re reading from the Gospel of Luke and thought, thank goodness we get to hear about Jesus this Sunday… Sorry. This, also, is a difficult text. To us, these words of Jesus might even seem out character. “I came to bring fire…”? “I have come instead to bring division…”? “…a household… will be divided…”? And, Jesus resorts to name calling when he addresses us as “hypocrites”?
This sounds like grumpy Jesus. I didn’t even know there was a grumpy Jesus. I mean, isn’t Jesus supposed to be the Prince of Peace? How can he say that he came to bring division? It’s like Jesus got up on the wrong side of the bed, or stubbed his toe, or ate a bad fig for breakfast. It would be nice if we could attribute these harsh words of Jesus to a bad mood, or a mild heat stroke, and brush them off as something he didn’t really mean, but I think it’s probably better to take his words seriously.
Jesus certainly is the Prince of Peace. Let’s restate and affirm that much. Zechariah sang that, “Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace” (Luke 1:78-79 CEB). The angels sang the proclamation of Jesus’ birth by saying, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14 CEB). Throughout the Gospel story, Jesus offers peace to those whom he heals, and he talks about peace in his parables. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus offers peace to his disciples in the form of a benediction (c.f. 24:36).
Yet, there is a discordant strain that goes along with the peace of Jesus. When Jesus was dedicated at the temple, Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms, blessed Mary and Joseph, and said to Mary, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (Luke 2:34-35 CEB).
Hear that again. On his eighth day of life, it’s revealed that Jesus would be the cause of the falling and rising of many, that he would be a sign that generates opposition, and that opposition will reveal people’s inner thoughts.
I don’t know about you, but the thought that someone could reveal my inner thoughts is a little scary. I’m not always a very nice person inside my head, and I don’t really want that to be known. (So, just forget that I said that, okay?). But, isn’t it our own actions that reveal our inner thoughts? Isn’t it also our own spoken words that reveal our inner thoughts? Aren’t we the ones who reveal our inner thoughts by what we say and do in relation to the teaching of Jesus?
The first words of Jesus in our text are, “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed!” (Luke 12:49-50 CEB). In the original Greek, it comes across as more emphatic, because the first words of the first two sentences are fire and baptism: “Fire, I came to throw on the earth…” “[A] Baptism I now have to be baptized…”
Fire and baptism point to Jesus’ mission. Remember when John the Baptizer told people, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out” (Luke 3:16-17 CEB).
Fire, in Luke 12 and in Luke 3, is a multifaceted metaphor. In one sense it clearly points to the work of the Holy Spirit that burns in our hearts and fires us up to live according to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. It’s a fire that refines and purifies, that burns away the chaff. It’s also a fire that implies judgment. There is a separation of wheat from chaff, and the chaff is burned with unquenchable fire. Now, that unquenchable fire might mean what most people think it means: that those who are “the chaff” will burn in hell forever.
But I don’t think we can so readily separate the fire that burns the chaff from the fire that purifies and ignites faithful courage. I lean more toward God’s grace. I think that unquenchable fire can also suggest that God doesn’t give up on any of us. God’s purifying fire doesn’t go out. Ever. As much time as we require in the metaphorical furnace, God’s got patience.
As for baptism, it means immersion. When Jesus says he has a baptism with which to be baptized, he’s saying that he’s immersed in God plan. He’s all in. The moment Jesus turns his face to go to Jerusalem 9:51, he knows that it will lead to his death. When Jesus says, “How I am distressed until it’s completed!” (Luke 12:50 CEB), he’s not talking about anxiety. Rather, it’s about that baptism; that full immersion and total commitment to the mission of God which Jesus came to accomplish. Suffering and death for the sake of the whole world is part of the baptism into which Jesus is fully and completely immersed.
But another part of that baptism, that immersion, that mission of God is reconciliation. Ironically, it’s this part of Jesus’ ministry that leads to division! It’s this part of Jesus’ ministry that causes us to reveal our inner thoughts. It’s this part of Jesus’ ministry that makes him a sign that we, ourselves, can oppose just as so many others have done before us.
And I know you might be thinking, how can peace and reconciliation bring division? Peace and reconciliation bring division when we… don’t… believe… other… people… deserve… it. Jesus taught parable after parable about this. The reconciliation of God to humankind, and of us to each other, brings division.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of our favorites. A son basically tells his father that he wishes he was dead, and he wants his inheritance now. So, the father being the generous person he is, gives his son the inheritance. The son squanders it and ends up so destitute that he decides to go back to his father to see if he can be hired on as a servant. And he’s practicing what he’s going to say as he makes the journey, how he’ll confess his sin and beg for a job. But his father had been waiting by the door, and the father sees his son a long way off and runs to him, embraces him, kisses him. The son tries to say the lines he’s been rehearsing, but the father is already calling for a celebration and feasting because this reconciliation—this peace that is made—is so beautiful. To the father, peace with his son is worth a party to end all parties.
It’s a beautiful parable, isn’t it? It has a powerful message, and it means there’s hope for everyone.
But the parable isn’t over yet. The elder son, the faithful son, the son who never disobeyed, the son we usually forget about in the story, the son who is but a footnote at the end; he comes in from the field where he’s been faithfully laboring for years. He finds this party going on, and he finds out that this celebration is for his worthless, no good, younger brother who abandoned his family and wasted their resources. And he’s furious. He refuses to even go inside. When the father goes out to him, the elder son tells his father that his younger brother doesn’t deserve it. He’s the good son, but he never even got a goat, let alone the fatted calf! His worthless younger brother should be dead to them all! And the father says that the younger son was, indeed, dead. But we should celebrate because now he’s alive again. He was lost, but we celebrate because now he’s found.
Peace and reconciliation sow the seeds for division. And we who are faithful churchgoers have a tendency to play the role of the elder son more than that of the younger son, the father, or the others who were celebrating that new-found peace in the household that evening.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the workers in the vineyard highlights the same seed of division. In the early morning a landowner hired workers for his vineyard. Then, he went out and found more workers at 9:00, noon, 3:00, and 5:00, and he hired them all. When it was time to pay, everyone got the same wage. Those who were hired early, who had worked all day long, grumbled about that. They thought they deserved more. But the landowner responded, “I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?” (Matthew 20:14-15 CEB).
Again, peace and reconciliation sow the seeds of division. Jesus’ parables suggest that the division Jesus proclaims is descriptive of what happens when the mission of God’s dominion is carried out, not prescriptive of what must happen. Because we don’t have to be resentful at God’s generosity. When others come into the dominion of God, it doesn’t mean there’s less room for us. We don’t have to react in fury like the elder brother, or grumble like the early workers.
But our reaction to reconciliation and peace between others reveals our inner thoughts. It reveals our preference for those who are like us. It reveals our judgmental jealousies, and our habit of deciding who is a deserving recipient of God’s grace, our charity, and even who should be allowed to step foot into our building, let alone join our holy community.
“I have come instead to bring division” (Luke 12:51 CEB).
The ministry of Jesus was a ministry that makes peace between long-standing enemies. Such a ministry will inevitably cause division when certain relationships depend on those well-delineated lines. We don’t always appreciate the great reversals of God’s dominion. We don’t always like it when those we deem undeserving end up receiving the abundant grace of God. When we oppose the kind of reconciliation that Jesus preaches, we’re revealing our preference for our self and people like us.
We serve a God who was willing to die for us. Seems to me that God gets to choose who receives God’s mercy and grace. If we can see and interpret signs in the clouds and in the wind that tell us what’s happening with the weather, why can’t we see that God’s Son came to make peace with all people; that peace is our mission because God’s dominion is, itself, defined and known by peace? Why would any of us resist that peacemaking instead of rejoicing over it?
Jesus has some harsh words for us. The Prince of Peace is going to make peace whether we’re on board with it or not. Jesus is fully immersed. He’s all in. What we need to reflect upon and examine within ourselves is, are we?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay