Here is a link to the readings.
One of my personal heroes of the faith is the great reformer Martin Luther. His stand against the abuses of the medieval church – from nailing the famous 99 theses on the door the Wittenberg church to his courage at the Diet of Worms, summed up in the statement “here I stand, I can do no other” – is inspiring. One of the key things about his story, it seems to me, is that is testament to the truth of the gospel passage today – that Jesus brings discord, not peace.
This is a pretty shocking claim. Isn’t Jesus the ‘prince of peace”? Didn’t he say “blessed are the peacemakers”? What are we to make of this apparent contradiction?
Let’s start by looking at the text.
“I come to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus says to his disciples, “and how I wish it was already kindled. I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
There are two strong symbols here. The first is fire. It was a column of fire which guided the Israelites through the wilderness; the tongues of fire resting on the disciples at Pentecost; the refining fire that Paul spoke about. It can mean a lot of different things – destruction, purification, renewal – and all of them bring different nuances to bear.
The other image is of water. To be baptised is literally to be dipped in water. But, more broadly it means to be washed clean, to be purified. Why do we wash food, or our hands? To cleanse them. And if you have ever sterilised a needle with a match flame before extracting a splinter, then you’ve used fire’s cleansing power.
So, working together, we have an image of purification, of being washed clean, of all that is impure, unreliable, not lasting being stripped away.
But what is the baptism with which Jesus was to be baptised?
For us, baptism is a joyful event, and it is easy to lose sight of how radical it is. But beyond the celebration of new life and new faith, it is going under the waters of death, and being brought to new life. As Paul says in Romans 6:
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
The baptism with which Jesus was to be baptised was, of course, his suffering, death, and resurrection.
“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;”
Jesus sees the division the gospel brings as starting “from now on.” You can certainly see this working out in Jesus’ life – it was the acute division that he brought that led to his execution by the religious and civil authorities. Now that’s serious division.
You can also see it at work in the community to which Luke was writing as people separated from their old communities and old ways of synagogue and temple to commit themselves, body and soul, to this weird, risky new movement.
And finally, Jesus changes his focus to the crowds, and to those who think they can read the signs of the times.
He also said 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 Mediterranean is, of course, west of Israel, so that’s where the rain came from. And to the south, the Negev, the Sinai, and Egypt. Hot places all.
It’s the same for us – only, of course, rain comes from the south, and heat comes down in those horrible north westerlies off the desert. I know when I’m cycling, in the summer I wince if I see a northerly on the forecast. It means I’m in for a long, hot slog up St George’s Road.
But what’s with the whole “hypocrite” thing? What’s hypocritical about being able to give a reasonable weather forecast? What’s the problem here?
In Greek, “Hupokrites” means an actor. In the Classical world, actors wore a mask, and so they literally showed a false face to the world. So Jesus uses it to mean someone whose outward appearance doesn’t match what they are really like. Often we use it in English to mean someone who claims to moral virtue, but doesn’t live up to it.
However I think what he’s getting at here is that people who pass themselves as knowing what’s what, who pride themselves in understanding the ways of the world but haven’t the foggiest notion of what is really going on. They can see rain brewing in the oncoming clouds, but they don’t understand what’s really going on, right in front of them.
Maybe we might say that “you know what it means when the reserve bank lowers its interest rate by quarter of a basis point, but you have no clue about what’s going on right in front of your face.”
In fact, it’s stronger than that. They are hypocrites because they should know what’s going on – and they should be onside with it. It’s not just that they can’t see, it’s that they actively won’t see, and oppose Jesus and his message.
Which is that the Kingdom of God is being inaugurated, and Jesus is both its herald and its inauguration.
So much for what the passage says. But what does it mean?
I have to admit, when I first saw the passage for this week, I was a bit nonplussed. When I’m preaching, I ask myself: what is the good news here? So, when I opened my Bible (or, more accurately, googled the passage) I encountered this furious person making obscure prophecies and criticising weather forecasters. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what was good about this – or, frankly, even news.
But I got on with my research, and discovered that I was far from the only person to worry about this. A lot of people writing on the lectionary this week have chosen to go with the Hebrews reading, with its encouraging stories of heroes of the faith.
Those who did look at the gospel often seemed to want to downplay the conflict. They could see all the division in the world and they wanted to give advice about how to not have conflict, or how to handle it well.
I can sympathise with that desire. I am ambivalent about conflict myself. On the one hand, I’m tempted to be a bit of a smart alec and a stirrer. A bit of a wise guy. On the other hand, I like a calm, quiet life. I don’t want to be bothered with conflict and all the nasty shouting that it can engender.
And of course it is important to handle conflict well. Just because you are in an argument with someone doesn’t mean that you are necessarily following Jesus’ example, no matter how strongly you feel about it. Just because you are being persecuted it doesn’t follow that you in the right. Sometimes you are just wrong – or a self-righteous idiot, which is even worse. Jesus was particularly scathing on the topic of self-righteous people, which ought to be a clue for us.
However, interesting and worthy as all that is, I don’t think that’s what the passage is about. The very short version of the passage could be rendered as: Jesus is doing something which is going to cause division and people who should be on side with it can’t seem to even see it.
So at one level, this is just telling us how it is. The radical in-breaking of God’s Kingdom upsets the natural order of this fallen world, and that will inevitably cause division.
We can see this operating globally. According to the Christian persecution watchdog Open Doors, 2015 was the deadliest year for Christians in modern history, with over 7000 people killed for their faith. From routine persecution in China, through genocide against Middle Eastern Christians by ISIS, to North Korea, the worst offender, there are many, many places in the world where confessing that Jesus is Lord can get you into serious hot water.
You can see this at work in the list of martyrs in the Hebrews readings. Many people “of whom the world was not worthy.” Nothing is new under the sun.
It is, of course, nothing like that here in Australia. Though admitting to being a Christian in some settings can lead to a certain frostiness. Depends on your context of course, but I’ve certainly been in situations where I participated in some, lets say, robust discussions with colleagues. One of which resulted in a telling off from my boss.
Perhaps the good news here can be found in the reasons for the conflict. The Chinese dictator Mao said that “the revolution is not a dinner party.” While I’m not in the habit of taking advice from him, perhaps there is a clue here.
Being a Christian is not a dinner party. It’s not about being a nice, biddable, go along to get along middle class consumer, obedient to the latest orthodoxy from our betters. It is confessing that, contrary to appearances, Jesus Christ is Lord. We do not belong to ourselves, rather to God, and to one another.
It is, in short, important. It’s easy to overlook this, somehow. When confronted with the problems of the world, it can be hard to see that our message has any traction. The message that, God is acting through Jesus Christ to bring God’s Kingdom is so distant from our instincts that I am tempted to remain silent.
Surely the solution is to be found in economics or political science or some species of personal enlightenment, rather than this alien, counter-cultural message?
In the Classical world the division was that if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. In our world perhaps it is if Jesus is Lord, then I am not.
The strength of the opposition is, ironically, a kind of reassurance. Strong reactions are always interesting. If someone is angry, they feel strongly about it. It has hit a nerve. There’s traction there.
The claim that, ultimately, Jesus Christ is Lord of all, cuts to the quick. It reveals our idolatries – of money, sex, status, power – whatever we put in the place that rightfully belongs to God.
One of my favourite summaries of the gospel is this: There is a messiah. It’s not you. It’s short and sweet and cuts to the nub of the modernist dilemma.
In our culture we are so strongly encouraged to believe that our salvation can only come from ourselves – from progressively throwing off more and more shackles, coming to more and more freely express ourselves. Holding ourselves to no law outside ourselves. Our own will triumphant at last – a position indistinguishable from nihilism.
If all that exists is to please myself, then there is only a short step to the abyss of meaninglessness, because what I want isn’t a strong enough thing to hold onto. If all I have is my own desires, then that is a very small thing against the infinite depths of heaven and the vertigo of the endlessly cycling years.
Into this, Jesus speaks. There is a messiah – there is a Lord of all. And in and through this Messiah, God speaks. We can only be truly free when we place God at the centre. The Kingdom of God is within us – we can participate in God’s plan for the world, not as self-generating geniuses, but as God’s beloved daughters and sons.
To not grasp that is to be like those people who are so good at telling what the weather is going to do but so unable to see what is really going on.
This is something worth holding onto.
If we aren’t experiencing at least a little division, a little tension even within ourselves over Jesus’ claims on our lives, then perhaps we haven’t really grasped quite how radical the Gospel is.
Which brings me full circle back to Luther. It was no light thing to stand up to the medieval church, but he persevered, as did the witnesses the Hebrews reading talked about. And as did, of course, Jesus, whose followers we are.