I Come to Bring Fire

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Luke 12:49-59 can be shocking the first time you read it. Tearing families apart? Father against son; daughter against mother; daughter-in –law against the matriarch of the household (it was common for wives to live with their husband’s extended family, and mothers-in-law could be jealous and critical). This same fate is suggested in Matthew (10:36) and suggested in Micah 7:6.

One thing about the entire twelfth chapter of Luke is that it is transparent. Jesus says what he means without any of the twisted logic and challenges to understanding. We have already been warned about clinging to our earthly body or wealth. Fear only eternal damnation. Don’t worry about your defense when brought before the court for confessing Jesus as the Christ, “for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” Wisdom after wisdom. God will provide. Be watchful for God your Master, for nothing is hidden from God. Jesus speaks to the crowd and his disciples, back and forth until we don’t know to whom he is talking, and that builds the tension, forcing us into the stress that he is in.

And then he lays it on, somewhat impatiently, I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” and we get a hint of the human Jesus’ stress and constant testing in the face of the Cross, that other baptism. And he knows that his fulfillment for all of humankind will bring disharmony as families crack apart, some holding to their traditions and safety, others clinging to him and his Way. Again we are told to let the dead bury the dead, leave family and follow, give up everything in compassion for the poor. And Jesus has a headache and rants on for a while to make the point. And he challenges the crowd. You all know the folk wisdom for seeing a storm coming. And it is usually true. And yes, hypocrites, the signs are all around you and you do not see that I, Jesus, am standing right here, the Christ, and you can’t see it. Jesus is frustrated. His time is running out. For us, and probably for him, when those feelings come up it is probably time for food, a nap, and most of all, a trip up a mountain to pray.

We can’t forget he was human. As we can’t forget he is God. That is the link that we are forged into, in our human sin, in our baptismal covenant with God for redemption. In Jesus and through his sacrifice we are sanctified, and, if we follow his commandments and obey his Father, we, too are remade in him and raised to him in glory. That is the kernel of his teachings. It is hard. And that is why we have confessions scattered all over our sacraments and rituals. Fess up. Pay up. Now or later, and later will be so much worse. And so he teaches at the end of this reading to reach out of reconcile before you go to court, because you don’t really want to face the judge, now do you. Jesus asks, “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” And warns them that the judge could not be kind to the man but punish him until the debt is paid. And we are back to debts, trespasses, sins. And that we are all connected to each other. But that is the warning, not the answer.  Trust one another with the faith that God will reveal and heal. “Listen to him,” who is the Son of God. Forgiveness and love are more pleasing to God than being right. Because in the end, we all die, and only God and obedience to God counts. It is the promise of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ baptism and gift of fire which he awaited, an advocate to whisper the will of God, so that if we can listen we might be able to discern what is right.

At the beginning of the chapter a man asks Jesus to tell his brother to share their inheritance, and Jesus, rightfully, waves him off.  That is not the kind of sign he was brought here for. Earthly squabbles are not important. Living in the sight and judgment of the Holy One is. And the judgment is not about property. We know that Jesus doesn’t give a fig about property. When he gives us the example for prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, it doesn’t teach us to ask for riches or luck, as many pagan prayers did, and even misguided Christian prayers do. We are to ask for today’s bread, not a storehouse of grain. He reminds us that we are a community, and forgiveness both ways is the glue that binds us, aided by the Spirit (which is why we add “with God’s help” in so many ritual interrogations). And to pray for salvation in the time of trial, and to be delivered from the Evil One if we fall.

It is this second baptism, the one of fire, the burning fire of pain on the Cross, that not only brings the redemption of the world, but which connects the living God to us and our suffering, and puts into context how little our suffering is, and how God’s love and perpetual presence are beyond human squabbles and disagreements. It may be sad that a family breaks up over following Christ, but give it time. Let it go. Jesus warned us that this transition wasn’t going to be easy, but it was needful.

And there we have it. Jesus under stress. Not the clever Jesus with his convoluted parables that force us to think, think as he thinks. Not the compassionate Jesus who opens his healing and heart to Gentiles – Samaritans and even Roman officers. Not the Jesus who calmly exposes the foolishness and ungodliness of holding the Law above and over the needs of the hungry and sick. But Jesus who is angry because he is coming to the bitter end as he must in obedience to his Father, and it won’t be nice, and nobody seems to get what he is teaching.  But of course, his teaching sticks, which is why we are here. And we consistently fall into the same sorts of sinful traps that those who were with him, and around him, and defying him, fell into. Don’t sugarcoat this passage. It is full of teaching, but also full of frustration, anxiety. Just as in our lives. He is our Saviour. He is our Lord and our God. He came to be one of us in the fullness of our sinful lives. And he truly knows us and loves us. And forgives us. Can we do less for each other, and forgive ourselves for being the scrappy, deaf, blind disciples of such a Teacher?

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

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