Sunday, August 14, 2016

What in Blazes is Going On?

13th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 15 (Year C)
Jeremiah 23.23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11.29—12.2; Luke 12.49-56
Sunday, August 14, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

What is going on? What happened to the Jesus who just last week offered words of hope and comfort when he said “Do not be afraid, little flock”? Just moments after saying these words, he pops off with “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” To be followed by “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” And then he talks about how this division will even be between family members. This all just seems so contrary to the image we have of Jesus. This is not the Jesus we know. And how can we not be afraid with his talk of fire and division?

Believe it or not, I actually kind of get the part about not bringing peace, but rather bringing division. Even though, at his birth Jesus was hailed as the Prince of Peace. The one Zechariah proclaimed would “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1.79b). Even though his ministry was characterized as commending, even exalting, peace – “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Mt 5.9).

To be certain, Jesus did bring division in the early days of the church. Whether by design, we cannot be sure. But there was division nonetheless. Jesus may well have been foreseeing the impact of his radical message, of his unconventional mission. For in the first couple of centuries following Jesus’ death, Christianity was certainly controversial. There were strong disagreements with Judaism, the parent religion of this new movement. And Christianity was illegal because it went against the established pagan religion of the Roman Empire, of which worship of the emperor as “son of God” was a key feature. As a result, those choosing to follow Christ often found themselves at odds with their family and friends. Sometimes bitterly so.

Beyond this, Jesus’ words about division may also point to the end times, when he will return in glory and usher in the Day of Judgment. A time that will culminate in the ultimate battle between good and evil. In this respect, Jesus may have been foretelling what is still to come at the end of the ages.

So with the 20/20 hindsight of historical perspective, and prophecies of apocalyptic end-times, I get it about Jesus not bringing peace, but rather division. The part that is a little harder to hear, that is harder to accept, is Jesus’ statement, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” It makes it sound like his main purpose was to bring fire. Even destruction. And particularly that he seems so impatient for that fire to be ignited – “and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Living in the West, we are quite familiar with fire. We know the power of fire. We see up close and personal how destructive fire can be as it scorches beautiful landscapes, turning them into blackened wastelands. And worse still, when fires destroy homes and result in the loss of life. Yet, at the same time, we know that some wildfires are beneficial, actually necessary, to the long term health and sustainability of some ecosystems such as forests. Fire is nature’s way of cleaning up. It burns away dead and no longer viable vegetation. Fire clears out undergrowth that prevents seedlings from spouting, clearing the way for new growth, for new life.

While fire in the Bible is sometimes associated with destruction, more often fire is used as an image of purification. Even where used in the context of destruction, fire is generally a proclamation of judgment and a means of purification. More often than not, to make way for new growth, for new life. Not unlike wildfires.

Such images of fiery judgement and purification in the Old Testament are sometimes associated with the long-awaited messiah. Of the coming messiah, the prophet Malachi writes, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3.2).

Not just used as imagery for purification and judgment, fire is a traditional symbol of God’s active presence among his people. God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush. During the exodus, God leads the Hebrews through the wilderness, going before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  And at Pentecost, God’s active presence among the people in the form of the Holy Spirit is evidenced when “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and . . . All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.3-4).

While the fiery image of Pentecost is a key moment in the founding of the Christian movement, there is another defining moment in the formation of our religion – Jesus’ resurrection, which we of course celebrate at Easter. We incorporate into this celebration another powerful image of fire – the New Fire that we light at the Great Vigil of Easter. The fire that represents the light of the Risen Christ coming into the darkness of the world. The light that overcomes the darkness of evil. The light that overcomes the darknesss of death.

My favorite story about the Easter Vigil and the significance of the New Fire involves St. Patrick. It was Easter eve in the year 433 AD. That year, the eve of Easter coincided with the pagan Feast of Beltane and the Spring Equinox. Patrick had come to the Hill of Slane to prepare for the Great Vigil of Easter. The location had been carefully selected. Ten miles across the valley stood the Hill of Tara, seat of the High King of Ireland. As Patrick was making his preparations, the Druid festival of Beltane was about to begin at Tara. In preparation for the festival of Beltane, all fires throughout the land were to be extinguished. The Druids would then light a large ceremonial fire at Tara from which all other fires were to be lit.

“On the Hill of Slane with darkness all around, Patrick kindled a large fire for the Easter Vigil. The High King and the Druid priests at Tara must have been astonished as they looked across the valley to Slane [to see Patrick’s Easter fire blazing]. Such a brazen act was considered blasphemous, punishable by death. As those at Tara watched in surprise, horror, and anger at such an affront to their beliefs, tradition has a Druid priest telling the king: “If that fire isn’t put out tonight, it will burn forever.” (Vogel, 48)

The High King drove his chariot in anger to the Hill of Slane to arrest this rebel. But Patrick was so eloquent in his preaching, and the King was so impressed with Patrick’s devotion, that the King was soon pacified and allowed Patrick to continue his missionary work in Ireland. Indeed the Druid priest was right, the fire was not put out, and the light of that paschal fire, the light of Christ, has burned in the land ever since.

While this story and its fiery imagery is specifically about Ireland, it also applies to the whole world, as Christianity spread across the globe. A fire that would show forth the light of Christ. A fire that would vanquish darkness, evil, and even death. A fire that would purify all of humanity, preparing us to receive and to be a part of the kingdom of God.

Of our Gospel reading, Elizabeth Palmer of the Christian Century writes, “The work of Jesus Christ on the cross—the baptism with which he had yet to be baptized when he spoke harshly with the disciples that day . . . is in fact the fire that purifies us, the Word that destroys the worst in us, the division that sets us apart from the status quo and calls us continually to be made new.” (full article)

Faithfulness to Christ and the Church, and adherence to the radical message that it proclaims – a message that, like the early Church prevailing against the Roman pagan religion; a message that, like Patrick’s Easter fire outshining the fire of Beltane – continues to have the potential to be countercultural, and therefore unpopular. In Jesus’ words of warning in today’s Gospel, he sends a message about the real purpose of his mission and ministry. That he came to a world that was hurting and in need of healing. That he came to turn our social systems upside down. That he came to make what is wrong with humanity right. That he came to make all things new. As followers of Christ, we continue that radical message today in our lives and our ministries.

That message continues to be a burning flame that energizes the Church to this day. A burning flame that continues to energize us in this place. It is the fire of God’s love burning within us – a fire that brings purification, burning away those things within us that stand in the way of our living the Gospel. The fire that burns those things that need to be destroyed within us for new life to occur. So that we might more fully live into who God has created us to be. So that we might take the radical, even controversial, message of Christ into the world.

Our world is still hurting and in need of healing. Our social systems are still unjust, particularly when it comes to dealing with those who are most vulnerable and those who are marginalized in our society. Our job as the followers of Jesus is not to sit idly by and accept the status quo. As Jesus’ followers, we are called, like him, to turn things upside down. We are called to be voices for change. We are called to set the world on fire with the message of God’s love.

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