Author Elizabeth Palmer recalls the time she heard The Rev. Gordon Lathrop preach on our gospel text for today. His voice trembled as he said; “Our Lord Jesus Christ is not tame, not nice,” and then he paraphrased Jesus’ words: “I have come to bring fire to this earth.” Pastor Lathrop is an icon in the Lutheran church – an expert on all things liturgical; he was for many years Professor of Liturgy at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, he is a celebrated author and a respected preacher. He was able to make his voice capture the seriousness with which Jesus must have spoken those words to his disciples. After all, what kind of savior and redeemer would bring division and would cause strife in families?
It seems that fire is a dangerous image for Jesus to use, even if he doesn’t mean it literally. We know the danger and aftermath of fire, but people in the first century would have experienced it firsthand, with the constant proximity of open fires and the lack of effective medical care for burn victims. Jesus’ voice must have trembled when he made those declarations. But Jesus wasn’t the first to use that imagery. The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed – “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
The concept of placing our trust in a God who brings fire and acts like a hammer does not sound very comforting or even appealing. But, as we might anticipate, God does not use these fierce and frightening images for our destruction but to destroy evil and clear the way for justice and mercy. God wants to destroy the structures and institutions of society that are harmful instead of helpful to people. In Jesus’ day some used their religious beliefs as a way of “guaranteeing” their salvation, yet, ironically that actually distanced people from God. That is still true today, when religious beliefs are used to divide and persecute people instead of bringing us together as one family in God. Jesus says his fire will destroy our need to look for security from human institutions instead of finding our security in God.
The next portion of Jesus’ proclamation is equally difficult to hear. He talks about our relationships and how sometimes they can be broken and families can be divided. In his day the controversy about his ministry caused divisions in families and communities. Some became loyal followers, others were intrigued by his teaching and still others felt threatened by him. As the gospel spread some families were torn apart, a reality that has continued throughout history. Arguments over religious differences have divided families, communities, even countries. Our own denomination was formed out of division between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. Ireland has a long history of bloodshed between Protestants and Roman Catholics. People came to America in search of religious freedom but in some colonies once they established their denomination they excluded and sometimes even persecuted others. The good news is that at our annual Churchwide assembly this past week, the ELCA voted to approve Declaration on the Way a new document that seeks to draw Lutherans and Roman Catholics closer together.
In many families and friendships there are differences – political, religious, economic or social. Often those differences are simmering tensions just under the surface and people can navigate their relationships without those differences erupting into fights. But sometimes people just can’t tolerate the opinions or actions of others and the result is division. An example of that can be found in seminaries. If you visit and meet the students, you will inevitably find at least a few who are answering the call to ministry in spite of the lack of support from family and/or friends. Some people think it is crazy to give up more lucrative opportunities to serve the church. Sometimes people are afraid that the responsibilities of ordained ministry will take the seminarian away from them. I was accused by some people of abandoning my immediate family, even though the decision to attend seminary was made with their support.
The last section of our text illustrates our need for control, where Jesus addresses our inability to realize what’s really happening around us concerning Christ and God. The word used is “hypocrites” but Jesus is really talking about those who can read the signs of the past and future, but can’t figure out the “present time.” That isn’t exactly hypocrisy, but is more a lack of vision. The label of hypocrite makes sense if we say we believe that Jesus brings salvation through grace, but we insist on works righteousness, working to achieve our own salvation. Or, if we believe that we have a monopoly on the truth about ourselves and our world. We delude ourselves into thinking we have everything figured out, that we can always be in control.
This accusation of hypocrisy by Jesus is meant to encourage us to consider how we live out life in the church and the world. Are we open to hearing and responding to God’s call for justice, or are we complacent and ignore all the injustice that is around us? It is true that sometimes fighting injustice can cause division, but Jesus calls us to trust that God is at work in all situations, and to remember that God has claimed us as beloved children, not because we are perfect but because of God’s pure gift of grace. In spite of the harshness of our gospel for today, it still reflects the good news that we have faith in a God who maintains a close, personal and caring relationship with us, one that is so close that we can bear some criticism and correction. God is not far off in the distance, merely observing, but God’s Holy Spirit is active in our lives, helping to destroy those things that cause division and empowering us to work for justice and mercy in the world. Amen.