August 14, 2016

Proper 15 Year C Pentecost +13

The beginning of Luke’s Gospel proclaims that Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79).  Near the end of this Gospel, the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples and offers a benediction of peace (24:36). And isn’t this the same Jesus who blesses with peace the sick whom he heals (7:50; 8:48). And did he not teach his followers to bring greetings of peace  as they traveled the country to share the good news of God’s kingdom? (10:5-6). But Jesus words in today’s reading are stark and maybe even shocking, “I came to bring fire to the earth” and “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” How are we to understand these contrasting messages of Jesus? How can the one who has previously rebuked his disciples for wanting to call down fire on the Samaritans, now himself seem to be doing the same thing? And how can this same Jesus who tells the parable of reconciliation between a father and a prodigal son now claim to want to set fathers against sons, and daughters against mothers, dividing families against themselves?

Maybe there is a clue in Jesus own words near the beginning of this passage where he says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” Remember that even though Jesus was, as the creed says, fully God, he was also fully human, and felt all the emotions and physical effects of stress that any other human being does. He has already told his disciples where he is headed, toward Jerusalem, and has warned them of his impending passion and death. So the context for this statement is full of a foreboding sense of his future. But that should not negate or disqualify these words of Jesus as untrue or mis-spoken. So what could he have meant?

Is the fire that Jesus brings a baptism of fire like the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, burning in the hearts and on the heads of those waiting for the promise Jesus had commanded them to pray for and empowering them to mighty acts of witness on behalf of this messiah, Jesus? Or is it rather the refiner’s fire, burning away the chaff and the fruitless branches. Or is it the fire of judgement, raining down from heaven upon the heads of God’s enemies? Most scholars are uncertain which path to follow. So perhaps the dilemma of this difficult saying can be best understood in light of the totality of the gospel story and the interplay between the ways of God and the realities of human history. Maybe this passage is more descriptive than prescriptive. Maybe it is not Jesus purpose to set children against their parents or vice versa, but Jesus is simply warning us of the divisions that will inevitably result as we seek to follow him and live into God’s kingdom.

We do not always appreciate the gospel’s great reversals. It is uncomfortable for us when those we deem undeserving receive the same abundant grace we have. It is uncomfortable for us when Jesus says those who do the will of my Father in heaven are my mother and brother and sisters, when our biological families are superseded by our baptismal family. It is a radical call to follow Jesus and proclaim our loyalty first to the kingdom of God and only secondarily to our nationality. It is part of the scandal of the gospel that when we choose to follow Jesus all other allegiances must be considered in the light of that singular call, “follow me.” Jesus has not come to validate human institutions and their values but to initiate God’s radical will.

Jesus says, "I came to bring fire to the earth. How I wish it were already kindled." You sense his urgency, his passion there. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. No, I tell you, rather division." And, of course, what he's talking about here is that kind of easy peace, that superficial peace that sort of papers things over while leaving disorder well below the surface. Jesus says in the Gospel of John, "I come to bring peace, but it is not of this world. My peace is not of this world." And the peace Christ brings of the deep reordering of our own interior life and the reordering of our relationships one to another. It is a costly and demanding peace that requires of us the free gift not only of ourselves, but of our various points of view and our imagination. And so, as we allow this authentic peace to seep into our consciousness and into our lives, we sometimes experience division -- division within ourselves: our desire on the one hand to be about God's work of transformation and binding up and reconciling, but then, on the other hand, our fear, our reluctance, that the cost may be too great. It may be too demanding of who and what we are, and so we equivocate, we compromise, we try to explain away the challenge that the Gospel holds out to us.

So the reordering of our life is not something abstract. It is not something remote and in some sense detached from our day-to-day experience. The reordering of our lives involves the very circumstances in which we find ourselves. They themselves contain the invitations that God seeks to hold out to us. A wise monk some centuries ago said, "The very circumstances of your life will show you the way." Therefore, listen carefully to your life and do not avoid the struggles that are presented to you in the daily pattern of your living. The cross we must carry is woven into the very fabric of who we are, the very structures of our own being. And the very demands and choices that are pressed upon us are the way in which our faithfulness is being delineated, and they are the way in which God is calling us into God's project of repair and rebuilding.

The cross, someone has said, is the sign of growth through struggle, and it is our willingness to enter into that struggle that determines the pattern of our own fidelity as disciples. Jesus was no stranger to struggle, no stranger to frustration and fear. The times he went in the hills to pray I'm sure were times of deep anguish: "Why isn't it going right? Why are my disciples so unable to get the point? Why are so many people resistant to this passionate message that I feel obliged to proclaim -- this message of reconciliation and healing?" Again and again in those times of prayer he had to re-situate himself in his identity as the Beloved One. He had to reclaim his vocation to do God's will, and he had to embrace freshly his mission, which is to proclaim the Good News to those who are broken.

And so, God doesn't expect us to be heroic and act out of our own energy, but Jesus invites us to allow him through the agency of his Spirit to live his own courage, his own response to God's will in us. In us Christ breaks down walls of division; he restructures us; he repairs us in order that we might become repairers of the world in union with him. And he takes us into his work, into his mission, into God's ongoing work of reconciling, binding up, and making whole. All this is demanding and costly, but we are not alone because it is Jesus who is our real peace, who is with us every step of the way.    Amen.