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! –
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
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
‘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