August 18, 2019, The Fire, and What Came of It (Luke 12:49-53) – Mtr Kathryn Boswell
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Victoria and Lyanne introduced me to a new TV show a couple of weeks ago, called “Blown Away”. It’s one of those competitive reality shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “American Idol”, except this one is a competition for artists who do glass-blowing. It is absolutely fascinating. The glass-blower takes a little bit of grainy stuff, which is essentially sand. Then they heat the sandy stuff in what is called a crucible, to over 2000 degrees, so hot that it glows and sparks. Then they take a blob of the molten glass on the end of a blowpipe and they blow the glass very much like a child blows soap bubbles. There is a second furnace called a “glory hole” where they can reheat the glass to keep it hot as they shape it into whatever shape they want. There’s a lot more to it, of course, but that’s sort of the bare essentials.
On the molecular level, what happens with that little bit of sand is that as it heats up the molecules begin to vibrate, faster and faster as the sand gets hotter and hotter in the furnace. And that vibrating motion causes the bonds between the molecules to break apart, so the little white-hot blob of glass can stretch and grow and form a single spectacular and spectacularly beautiful creation of glass, sparkling and shining and translucent.
Jesus said to his disciples: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Part of what he’s talking about is the coming of the Holy Spirit, of course. You remember the great rushing sound and tongues of fire over the heads of the disciples on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit first came upon them in power, and the Church was born. There is something huge in the works, some great earth-changing event, and Jesus is not just predicting it; he is eagerly anticipating it. “I have a baptism to be baptized with,” he tells them, “and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
Jesus has been preaching to his disciples, urging them to be watchful, warning them to be prepared at all times. He warns them not to be attached to the things of this world, not to store up earthly wealth, but to set their hearts on things that will last. Remember the story he told them about the man who built bigger barns so he could stockpile his riches and kick back and live the good life, only to find that his good life was at an end. Jesus teaches his followers to live in readiness, to be watchful and alert, to be ready for the coming of the Master at all times. We’re in chapter 12 of Luke’s gospel now, and from chapter 9 on Luke follows Jesus in a steady course towards Jerusalem and the final events of his ministry there. The Kingdom is breaking in; God is on the move. Jesus is intensely eager, longing to bring his work to completion.
We know what’s about to happen; we’ve read the story hundreds of times, maybe thousands of times. Jesus comes to Jerusalem and is arrested and condemned and put to death by a joint conspiracy of the religious and political powers that be. His followers lay his tortured, lifeless body to rest in a tomb as the sun goes down on the Sabbath day. But on the morning of the third day – which would be a Sunday – he shows up in the flesh, more alive than ever. That’s the basic facts. But Jesus keeps the Big Picture in mind. He’s making something new. He is creating his Church. And he uses the image of the kindling of a fire.
Like sand that’s transformed into glass in the heat of the furnace, in Jesus Christ, God takes the down-to-earth substance of human flesh – formed from clay in his own hands. He thrusts it into the crucible of suffering and death, transforms it in the glory hole of the Resurrection, and on the day of Pentecost the Church is born, kindled into full flame by the breath of his Spirit. And that all makes beautiful sense.
But then, what Jesus says next doesn’t seem to make any sense at all: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he said to them. “No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” What Jesus says seems to be exactly the opposite of every Christian family magazine you’ve ever read. The one great commandment, and the sign that we belong to Jesus, is that we love one another, right? Also, the song of the angels over Bethlehem was all about “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” What can Jesus possible mean?
This is one of those uncomfortable sayings of Jesus that we might be tempted to either ignore or explain away. We can read right past it and find something more familiar and comforting, something that doesn’t make us squirm, anyway. Or we can look for an explanation that lets us off the hook. I have heard people interpret this passage by saying Jesus is warning his disciples that in the time of persecution – and persecution was coming pretty soon for the young Church – it would be a common thing for family members to betray one another, out of fear. A father might betray his son to the authorities if he became a Christian, or a mother her daughter. Those who were strong in the faith would have to stand strong even against their own flesh and blood.
And I’m sure that is something that happened, and maybe something that still happens in times of persecution. But it’s not a good explanation for what Jesus is saying here. And the reason I say that is because Jesus isn’t saying here that people will betray one another because of their faith. He does say that in other places, but here he is saying something very different. Here Jesus is telling his disciples that his purpose in coming was to bring division, even among the members of a family.
The first step in figuring out what Jesus is really saying here is to find other places where he says something very similar, and see if that helps us to understand this passage more fully. The first thing that comes to mind for me is also in Luke, chapter 14, where Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” That’s another uncomfortable word, but we do know what he means there; he means that our commitment to him comes before every other commitment. And he compares it to our commitment to our families because family ties are the first and strongest human bonds. It is our natural human tendency to bond together with those of our family, people who share our blood and our history and our language and our values. But Jesus has to come first. We understand that. We can mostly be comfortable with that, even if it’s a challenge sometimes.
But I think when Jesus talks about coming to bring division he is going a little farther, saying something even stronger, a little more difficult, a little more uncomfortable, than that. I believe that one of the things Jesus wants to do in his Church is to break down our natural human bonds, so that we are set free to grow in our love to our neighbor with whom we have no natural bond. Back to the idea of glass-blowing: the intense heat of the furnace causes the bond between the molecules to break so that instead of separate grains of sand it becomes a new substance altogether, able to stretch and grow, able to be formed into something new and beautiful by the breath of the artist. Jesus was doing something like that in creating his Church.
We see it happening in his own family. There was the time when Jesus was only twelve, and stayed behind in Jerusalem to debate with the priests in the Temple. When his poor frantic parents finally found him, he just said, “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” There was a time when Jesus had gotten so popular with the crowds that his mother and brothers thought he was going off the rails a little. So they came to bring him home. Someone came and told Jesus, “Hey, your mother and brothers are here to talk to you.” And remember what Jesus said. “Here,” he said, waving his arm at the crowds of poor and sick and desperate people surrounding him. “These are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God, he is my mother and my sister and my brother.” In these uncomfortable moments, Jesus reveals that he is creating something new, something that goes beyond the human relationships we know, but something that is more, not less.
We tend to value human bonds, bonds of family, bonds of tribe and religion and nationality, as the very highest of human affections. The love of a mother for her child, or a husband for his wife; the love a man has who gives his life for his country; most people would agree that these are the pinnacle of human virtues. These are the behaviors of natural humans at their very best.
But all too often we see natural human bonds at their worst. It is exactly these same good human loyalties that are at the root of so much hatred and violence. Natural human bonds are at the root of all kinds of evil: of racism and of war and of genocide. The “natural” human bond of race was the excuse people used to justify enslaving their fellow human beings. The natural human bond of our nationality is the reason people feel justified today in treating immigrants to our nation like animals. It is the most natural thing in the world to band together in groups, “us” against “them”.
And Jesus came to create something better. He came to bring division, to break down all our natural bonds, little by little, so that we can be set free to actually love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s not at all a matter of loving the members of our family less; it’s about being free to love everyone else just as our own family, even as our own selves. Think about what the Church is at its very best. Family and genealogy and class are of no importance. Race and nationality and gender are insignificant. We don’t display a flag because our citizenship isn’t in any one nation; we are immigrants and sojourners in any and every country. We don’t exclude anyone because we all have the same source of our belonging. Paul wrote: “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus came to break all those man-made bonds so that we could be one people, united in his love.
As human beings, it is our natural instinct to close our ranks, to draw our familiar circle close around us so we feel safe and secure. We strengthen our borders. We impose limits and conditions for who’s “in” and who’s “out”. And sometimes we even make his Church just another set of walls to keep “us” in and “them” out. It is perfectly natural. But Jesus was eagerly longing for something better. He came to break all those bonds that have held mankind captive for century upon century and millennia upon millennia, from the most basic bonds of family to the broader bonds of race and religion and nationality, until finally, when our only unity is in the One who is Love, we can truly be one. It’s not easy. It’s not always comfortable. But that is the beautiful, shining creation that the Church is meant to be.