My childhood household was filled with maxims and adages and odd sayings. My parents had a million of them, it seemed.
Some of my mother’s sayings were very wise and thoughtful. One that I heard frequently, one that has become a part of my adulthood, is the simple sentence, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” It has taught me that not every thought I have needs to be, or should be, spoken. Discretion is the better part of valor.
Apparently Jesus never heard of this maxim because in today’s Gospel reading he speaks with very little discretion. His words are startling, even harsh. Our Lord declares that he has come to cast fire upon the earth. He continues that he has come not to bring peace but division and that families will be at odds.
These are hardly the words that we would expect from a gentle and merciful savior. But we need to remember that Jesus was a man of passion and mission. He did not come to live and die as one of us simply to be enshrined in stained glass or to offer only a just gentle caress of salvation.
Jesus came to make a difference, to reorder the world, to bring about the kingdom of God. This is the root of Jesus’ passion and this is what we should keep in mind when reading today’s Gospel.
Jesus, in a moment of zeal, proclaims, “I have come to set the world on fire!” He is telling us that he has come among us to make a difference. We hear this image of fire and may think of judgment and recoil. But what Jesus is saying has very little to do with judgment but with renewal. It is as if Jesus is saying, “I have come to set the world on its ear, to turn the world upside down.”
In this moment of zeal our Lord proclaims his sense of crisis, the sense of a turning point. Jesus’ mission was not, and is not, one that will bring peace on this earth but division.
Our Lord tells us his message will not bring peace upon this earth. The Greek in this passage reads that Jesus has not come to bring welfare or quietness upon the earth. Jesus’ message will not leave us undisturbed; if it does we have not heard it.
Instead Jesus has come to bring division. And that is literally what the Greek means. There is no sense of war or strife here, but simply division. Jesus’ message will disturb us and cause us to choose to follow or not.
With any choice we leave something behind. It is in this light that Jesus tells us that he will bring not peace but division. His message, when heard, and responded to, will change us.
Our Lord has come to set the world on fire, to set us on fire, to make a difference in our lives, to change us.
Listen to the passion of this reading. Jesus tells us that he is constrained until his mission is fulfilled. Jesus is bound by his zeal to make a difference.
We hear these words two thousand years into his mission and puzzle over them. We are even able to let them roll off our backs as simply the missionary aspect to a faith we have grown up in and grown comfortable with. But that is, perhaps, the biggest danger we face in the American Church today: a sense of quietness, of assuredness, of peace that our Savior never intended.
Jesus’ message was that God’s kingdom was and is breaking into this world. God was and is active, saving and redeeming then and now. And so we live in the crux of a paradox of faith: We live in a kingdom that is both already and not yet. We follow a God that has both fully embraced us and yet calls us ever deeper.
And this is our crisis, the turning point of our faith. God’s call upon us is always present, ever offering the opportunity to walk closer and into deeper faith. The fire that Jesus set in this world still burns. At times this fire even scorches and we draw back. But it continues to burn and it continues to beckon us.
It is an everlasting flame of hope and vitality, it is the fire of everlasting life. It burns in this church, upon this altar; and let us pray and strive, that it may burn always in our hearts.
The fire that Jesus cast upon this world is the birthing of a kingdom that grows and challenges to this day. And this fire will not give out until its embers provide their glow for the incense offered before the throne of God when we all join in eternity to sing, “Holy, holy holy Lord, God of power and might.”
This fire is the passion of God that seeks after his children that they may return and be saved and found once again in his bosom. Then peace will reign.
Do not hear these words of Jesus as judgment but of hope. For the fire he has set is not one to annihilate us but to catalyze us. This fire seeks to warm our hearts and give a spark to our dearest hope that we are loved and cherished by God. And we are.
Come warm yourself beside the fire Jesus has cast. Grow in its glow until you can allow yourself to be caught aflame with its love and until we are all consumed by its passionate, disturbing and peaceable heat.
© 2019, Tom Thoeni