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'I come to bring Fire to the Earth'

Fred Nye, Sunday, 14th August, 2016

I usually feel comfortable with St. Luke’s gospel. Luke was the beloved physician, and his writings are usually focused on reconciliation: Our Lord’s healing miracles, the preaching of the good news to the gentiles, and the coming of God’s Kingdom of peace and justice on earth. But in chapter 12 of his gospel, the mood is different. The Jesus he portrays here is disturbing, disruptive – ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No! – division!’

To understand what Jesus is saying to us it is helpful to think of this language as prophetic. ‘Jesus, my shepherd, brother, friend’ – yes - but also ‘my prophet, priest and king’. Jesus was a true prophet, and here he speaks to us in prophetic language. He is asking us to have a complete change of mind and heart and to make urgent and critical choices -  because our behaviour in this life has irreversible consequences. Jesus is speaking not so much to our heads, as to our hearts, our guts, our consciences.

On one level, Our Lord hardly needs to remind us that religion brings conflict and division. There are just too many examples – the carnage of the Crusades, the persecutions and executions of the Reformation, the betrayals, bloodshed and prejudices of Northern Ireland, the oppression of Christians in the Middle East, the atrocities of ISIS and Islamic Jihad…need I go on? And Christendom itself is divided by so many fault lines: by bickering and bigotry over authority, doctrine, styles of worship, interpretation of the scriptures, the nature of the sacraments, and endlessly (or so it seems) by issues of gender and sexuality. So when Jesus speaks of bringing peace, it is with considerable irony. Human arrogance and tribalism so often frustrate the will of our Heavenly Father and the intentions of the Prince of Peace.

But Jesus the prophet points to another more creative source of division in our lives, prompted by an unspoken question: where is our loyalty? Is it to Jesus, or to some other? We are constantly taking critical choices – do we go with the flow of the world’s assumptions and standards, or do we remain ‘faithful to Christ to the end of our lives’? Of course we can never set ourselves up in judgement against the world and its values, because we are all fallen sinners. That sort of hypocrisy just won’t do. And we must remember that the world is God’s creation, saved and redeemed by his Son. Yet the Christian life demands that we put a distance between ourselves and some of the world’s most subtle temptations: sometimes a line has to be drawn.

I’d like to suggest three possible priorities to think about:-
First, our attitude to money and possessions. Christians believe that far from being evil in themselves, these things are gifts from God, and as such are to be shared generously with those less fortunate than ourselves. A self-forgetful, almost care-less generosity is the hallmark of the Christian economy.
Secondly, an attitude to the rejected, the disadvantaged and the despised that is marked by a similar generosity of spirit. Christ’s compassion for the poor has no room for fear, misunderstanding, prejudice or hatred.
And lastly, our acceptance and indeed welcoming of authority, God’s authority. God’s reign on earth is governed by law, the law of love: the love of God and of neighbour. This law brings perfect freedom, but it also demands the highest standards of behaviour that human beings can hope to achieve.

This is not the wisdom of the age. There are so many siren voices telling us to take care of our money and possessions, to take care of ourselves. We are constantly told that our fulfillment and happiness depend on the accumulation of wealth, on freedom of choice, and freedom from rules. What nonsense! What Jesus requires of us instead are Kingdom values, and often they will be at odds with our culture, our society, and our social groups - even at times at odds with our family and our up-bringing.

Of course if we just want a peaceful life we won’t bother with any of this. During Jesus’ lifetime people in Palestine had peace of a sort. The Pax  Romana under the Emperor Augustus kept an uneasy lid on dissension. Galilee was governed by Antipas, a member of the much disliked Herod dynasty; they were Arabs, and puppet rulers on behalf of the Roman occupation. There were open rebellions in neighbouring Judea until it came under direct rule from Rome – hence the appointment of Pontius Pilate as Governor. So this was the ‘peace as the world gives’ that Jesus’ disciples would have known.

The peace Jesus offered was very different. When he spoke of his ‘baptism’, he was thinking of his coming Passion, when in bringing salvation and reconciliation to the world he would be overwhelmed, submerged, by the world’s opposition. But his followers never really ‘got it’. They didn’t see why he had to go to Jerusalem to face death. Many of them wanted him to get rid of the Romans by force. But Jesus knew that the only way to peace was by self-offering, by defending the poor against the rejection, exploitation and legalism of the powerful, and by obedience to his Father’s Law of Love. In much of this he was at odds with those around him.  He was not to be a passive victim, but a determined, courageous and passionate victor. He went to the Cross to bring fire to the earth, the purifying and refining fire of judgement, the fire that tempers steel, the fire and warmth of the Holy Spirit.

‘I came to bring fire to the earth’. Jesus the prophet calls us to follow him, to be different. And the call to follow him, wherever he leads, is the light that starts the fire. To be Christ’s is to burn with love for him and for the world. The division Jesus brings is between the light and warmth of love, and the cold and indifference of the powers of darkness.

‘O thou who camest from above, the fire celestial to impart, kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart’.

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