Proper 15, Year C, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56
Over the last few months we have been talking about a peaceful Jesus. Today we hear of fire and division. Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am pressed until it is completed.” I will not tell you today that this passage is supposed to bring us great comfort. Yet, at the same time, it is not antithetical to the Gospel of peace that we have been talking about either. To have a better understanding we have to take a close look this passage.
First notice the parallelism between the first two sentences. Fire is paired with baptism. I think the fire here is not that of a destructive blaze, consuming what it touches but that of the refiner’s fire. A blazing fire that purifies and makes something better than it was before. Also in these first two sentences notice the parallelism of urgency. The wish for the fire to already be kindled is paired with Christ being pressed for all of these people to be baptized. The people are not baptized. They are not following Christ just as this fire isn’t already alight. But it is out of urgency that Jesus wishes things were further ahead in this plan.
This urgency comes because we are moving closer to Jerusalem. Several weeks back we read that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and we are still on this journey. Time is running out. And Christ feels pressed that there is so much to do and so little time before he is no longer physically present with them. After all, suffering and death is also the baptism that Jesus will be completely immersed in.
The second shocking thing we read is that of division. The divisions Jesus brings are real. I’m not sure division is his actual intent but it is clearly a result of who he is and the actions he requires of us. The divisions result from our human nature in which we are enmeshed in the world with that of who Christ is calling us to be. The division between father and son, mother and daughter are real. We read of them in the letter to the Hebrews, in which the early church Christians were killed because of their faith. Sometimes they were outed by family and friends to the roman government. Then some were stoned, tortured, and sawn in two. But these divisions are not Christ’s desire for us but out of our reaction to each other.
If we look more closely at the divisions Jesus mentions, we find that these are household divisions; father and son, mother and daughter. The house hold was a core tenant of the Roman world. It was organized in such a way that it was also used as a model for society and even to some extent government. There was division between men and women, where men made the decisions and women were to be subservient; power and prestige vs the lowly and powerless. The divisions Christ alludes to are the destruction of the current way of life; to that in which the playing field is now equalized. There is no Greek or Jew, no free or slave…
Through Christ, the divisions that existed between households and status exist no longer. The divisions that occur come from our inability or unwillingness to follow the law of God. Of course there are also divisions created between believers and non-believers. Again I do not believe that these divisions are what Christ wants but they are a result of our own arrogance from our thoughts about religion and who we see God as.
This is a realignment of values in which male centric roles of decision-making fall. A new paradigm allows for disagreement within groups that never had a voice before; daughter against , daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. These divisions forge the new relationships, the new world order of peace between God and humanity. This new peace that Christ is setting forth will not be welcomed by all. Christ wonders, how can we not understand what he is doing? How can we not see the sign of this new age? We see all kinds of other signs in the weather but we cannot see this. We cannot see that Jesus is the Son of God.
Two weeks ago, Christ calls a man a fool, today he calls them hypocrites. These are words of truth not slander. Jesus knows that the people can read the wind and the sky to forecast the weather. My guess is that weather is very important to these people and that they wanted to understand these signs. Whether they were farmers or city folk, knowing if it was going to rain or be hot and dry was very important. Much like today knowing the weather helps plan the timing of planting or harvesting the crops. This forecasting was especially important in a day without hi-tech irrigation. Or imagine living in a house without glass in the windows. Your home would be open to the outside elements unless you were able to shutter the openings. Imagine walking on dirt streets without boots or umbrellas. Knowing the weather would be very helpful.
Jesus implies that forecasting the Messiah should be just as plain for the people as the weather. A few chapters back in Luke these signs seemed self-evident when he says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, [and] the poor have good news brought to them.” The people Jesus was speaking to then didn’t seem to need an explanation as to what these signs meant. It was evidence that he was the messiah. So why in today’s story should is group of people not understand? Why do they not hear what has been told to them by the prophets? How can they be so blind to what the scriptures say? This is the hypocrisy that Christ is speaking of; a feigned ignorance of faith and of the true life around them. Much as we claim that ignorance of the law is no excuse; Jesus is saying ignorance of the scriptures is no excuse either.
Change and growth, whether spiritual or physical, often cause pain. Sometimes we inadvertently avoid this growth because we are so adverse to the pain it may cause. This is also in part what our Hebrews passage speaks about. The author lists many faithful people and their great accomplishments. He speaks of the horrors that some of them faced as a result of their faith. He calls them a great cloud of witnesses, surrounding us as we run this race.
The good people that Jesus is speaking to are not stupid. They are not evil. Sometimes we cling onto a way of life or our routines because they are comfortable. Sometimes we are taught things growing up which later turn out to be outmoded or inaccurate. Nonetheless, it is hard to let them go for they have become a routine part of our thought process or world view.
My grandmother was a secretary for much of her life. She could type like the wind without making a mistake. In the 1980’s I was trying to impress her with my new computer which had word-processing software, but she couldn’t understand its purpose. I tried to explain that when a spelling mistake occurred the software pointed it out. She thought I needed to work on my spelling and mistakes such as these should be caught before you type them. I said you can rearrange sentences or paragraphs without having to retype the page. Again she wasn’t at all impressed. To her this may have been an assault on her intelligence, her expertise. A good typist didn’t need a tool such as this. They could do these things without the need of a computer, and to be fair to a large degree this was true. But for a high school student, this closed the gap between my abilities and hers. I was able to do much more without the years of practice and experience. She saw the computer as a new-fangled typewriter and couldn’t see the other things it could do.
I wonder if we sometimes suffer from this type of pain when we don’t understand why we need to be so politically correct. Why some people are offended by words or phrases that we have used since we were children? I wonder if this is why it is so hard for society to change? Paul tells us that there is no longer male or female in Christ; but the world hasn’t seen it this way for nearly two thousand years. It wasn’t until the early to mid-twentieth century that the majority of countries in the world allowed women vote. And it wasn’t until this very last year, 2015, that we can say all but one county allows women to vote. By the way this last country is not a Muslim country. It is Vatican City. And to be fair, the only election they have is on the occasion for a new Pope. This election is done by a select group of Roman Catholic cardinals, obviously men. Even with this said, many would say that women are not treated equally here at home, in the United States. They will point to labor statistics among other things to show this.
Do we struggle with similar issues around race, immigration, and violence; at least in part because of the views with which we were raised? Shouldn’t we take time to understand how our Christian heritage informs us about issues such as these? It may be that we do not find clear answers. But it is possible that in our exploration we may find the signs, similar to that which Christ talks about. Then we can consciously struggle with our personal heritage through the lens of our faith. But if we decide not to look deeper into our faith than are we not doing exactly what the people of Jesus’ day were doing?