“A Gracious Arson”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
52“From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;53 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.”
54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (NRSV)
Early in Luke 12, Jesus tells the crowds, “Do not fear those who kill the body.” A little later he tells his disciples, “Do not worry about your life.” Last week we heard him say, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” It all seems wishful thinking, though. Chapters 12 and 13 of Luke convulse with Jesus’ own anguish.
“I came to bring fire to the earth,” he says, and “division” rather than “peace.”
“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
In this section, Luke isn’t merely assembling stories about Jesus. He’s writing his readers into a diorama. He surrounds us with images of the crushing immediacy of all that Jesus faces on his way to Jerusalem.
In this climactic moment, Jesus declares that God has chosen him to spark a blaze in the Creation. This scene foreshadows and burns with all the agony of Gethsemane, and of Peter hearing the rooster crow. It recalls Joseph facing the brothers who betrayed him, Moses demanding that Pharaoh release the Hebrews, and David admitting his treachery against Uriah. It’s confession and liberation, death and resurrection.
I trust that if Jesus is behind it, if he’s alive within it, whatever it is offers new life to all Creation. I also trust that the promised newness will be achieved in ways consistent with the life of Jesus. He enters the Creation and discerns what is holy and corrupt in all things. Then he tenaciously commits himself to redeeming the Creation by nurturing God’s reconciling holiness into ascendency the way one blows on an ember and encourages it into a flame.
The fire Jesus sets is a gracious arson. It refines and enlightens. Its heat represents the com-passion of God – the burning with us of God. And through this mystic alchemy, our true selves are revealed, redeemed, and set free.
When Jesus pronounces division, I hear him crying out in lament, not threat. He knows that when faced with their holy truth and their earthly calling, his people will struggle with discernment like Jacob at the Jabbok, or Elijah in his cave, or Jesus at his temptation. Discernment is a place of refining and defining tension. It’s a fiery crucible where, through honest, prayerful, and often arduous deliberation, we learn the gifts of humility, gratitude, generosity, and justice. Without thoughtful discernment, lasting re-union doesn’t happen. Instead, assuming supremacy for ourselves or our group, we cave to the easy way. We cave to violence and to divisive judgment. Discernment demands more from us than division. But through its agony, all things can be liberated.
In refusing to walk to the back of a Montgomery city bus, Rosa Parks declared to herself and to the whole world, I am a human being equally beautiful and valuable as anyone else. I will quit acting otherwise. Her prophetic act of cultural arson helped our nation to face the entrenched reality of racism. She helped to push us deeper into a grueling, and still incomplete, season of discernment.
Think about it nationally. Who are we? Are we a society in which, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, a “self-evident” truth has, indeed,declared that “all [people] are created equal…[and] endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…[such as] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”?
And are we paying attention to the signs of the times? Jefferson said that our “experience [shows] that [hu]mankind are more disposed to suffer…than to right themselves by abolishing the forms” that enslave, humiliate, and oppress. And yet constraining “evils” have found new purchase on our liberated soil.
Jefferson was a member of the land-owning, slave-owning gentry when he declared independence, and when he wrote, he didn’t have in mind people of African descent. Still, his words marked the beginning of the end of slavery. Racism is another matter, though. Jefferson’s “long train of abuses and usurpations”has continued in subtle and overt ways. And is it not the “right…and duty” of oppressed peoples, wherever and whomever they may be, to “throw off” tyranny? And is it not our calling as followers of Jesus to add our voices to his fiery cry for justice?
In discerning her own full humanity, Rosa Parks declared her independence. And in doing so, she invited a divided household toward “a more perfect union.”
Now, maybe, in our increasingly divided society, part of our struggle to be at peace in community arises from our struggle to be at peace individually, our struggle to accept and love ourselves as we truly are at the core of our being. Maybe, before we can understand and heal the divisions among us, each of us needs to learn to understand, love, and forgive ourselves.
That’s certainly true for me. When I am most irritable, most impatient, most prone to make decisions that tear apart rather than bring together, those are times that I feel most conflicted within myself.
It seems to me that the divisions clawing at us right now are timely signs of the Gospel’s unnerving truth: In Jerusalem, life as we’ve known it comes undone. The path to Sunday necessarily passes through the trauma of Friday, and the isolation of Saturday. The gracious fire of Jesus guides us through this dark passage. His Friday-to-Sunday baptism completes our redemption. Whether or not we live in that completion, Jesus has shown us what is originally and finally true about ourselves and about all Creation. God has declared us “good,” and “beloved.” And no division can, ultimately, separate “us from the love of God.”
There’s a communion hymn that begins: “I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved, and free, in awe and wonder to recall His life laid down for me.” And the third verse says: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us makes us one, and strangers now are friends.”1
Pride is often listed as the last and least of the seven deadly sins. But I think pride leads to all the others, because pride makes idols of our own selves, our own tribes. Prideful idolatry is the fundamental hypocrisy by which we divide ourselves one from another.
Humbly and confidently offering the best of who they are, Jesus, and other whole-hearted folks like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai hold a burning torch to the best within us. When it comes to discernment, we’re not perfect. And while we’re not without forgiveness, we are without excuse. We know better. It’s just really hard to follow Jesus in this tension-wrought world.
“Do not be afraid little flock.” The Light of the World burns within you, and among all of us. And as stewards of politically divided, racially volatile, environmentally fragile times, we face an urgent call to claim and to declare God’s gift of liberating, reconciling, resurrecting love.
1“I Come with Joy,” Brian Wren (1968, rev. 1977). The Presbyterian Hymnal, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville/London, 1990. Hymn #507.