Sunday, August 18, 2019
By Bernadette Gibson
Mama Mia this week’s Gospel is a doozy! Jesus said to his disciples: “I have come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!” The fire is the fire of divine love, the fire of the Holy Spirit. No one could emerge unscathed, unchanged from such an immediate encounter with the living God. This fire is burning, purifying, transforming, overwhelming, thrilling, energizing, and at times terrible. The instinct of most of us is to avoid confrontation where possible; to promote reconciliation, harmony, dialogue, and mutual respect. Still, conflicts will arise, and it’s good for us to be reminded of this, to expect it, not to be overly alarmed by it when it comes. What we have to do above all is remain deeply united to Jesus, in Love. And at every holy Eucharist we have to ask the Lord to send down his fire into our hearts, into our lives; to transform us by his Holy Spirit: so that we truly become ablaze with His love.
“I have come to send fire on the earth.” There is a strange, unique abruptness in the utterance. We are compelled to assume a pause, a moment’s thought, as in one whose gaze looks out into the future, and who at once feels its terrors and yet accepts them.
Not a very cheerful passage, is it? Remember that Jesus and his disciples were on their final journey to Jerusalem. As Jesus moved closer and closer to his destination – his death – a sense of urgency must have been rising in him. There was so much his disciples still did not understand about the Kingdom he had been born to rule. They were still looking for a Messiah who would be a military champion, someone to bring down Rome in a great show of armed strength. They were looking for a king who would restore the throne of David. It must have been very frustrating for Jesus. Here he had been teaching with stories and parables about the way the Kingdom of God works, and they still didn’t get it. Once in a while, there would be a glimmer of understanding, but it would quickly fade, as the disciples who knew Jesus best kept trying to put him into the box of their own expectations. Can you hear the exasperation in his voice, as Jesus breaks out of his mild-mannered Clark Kent persona, and starts yelling – first at the twelve, and then at the crowds that were always gathering wherever he went?
The Jesus we see in this passage seems out of character with the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor. This is not the sweet baby Jesus for whom the angels sang, “Peace on earth, goodwill to all” back in Luke 2. No, this Jesus announces division instead of peace. His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes. On the other hand, Jesus has not come to validate human institutions and the values those institutions promote. Jesus has come to set into motion God’s radical will for the world. The stress Jesus is under is not anxiety, but a total absorption in his mission. That mission is to redeem a broken world. It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without complete unity. He is not satisfied with half measures.
I don’t know about you but I find it hard to stomach the news these days. My entire body clenches when I think of the division in our city, our country, and our world. Jesus holds division and peace in tension and asks us to interpret the times through God’s clock. What time is it? The same time it was 2000 years ago. Time to wake up! Time to take off the blinders and see what God sees. Time to repent of our complacency, our hypocrisy, our willingness to act one way in public and be something else in private, our willingness to maintain the status quo instead of moving radically into the demands of Kingdom living and caring for our neighbors in need. It’s time to take a good, hard look at who we are, and what we do, and see how far it is from what Jesus asks of us. It’s time to realize that the weather is shifting. In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.” The time is now. The Kingdom of God is always at hand.
Bernadette Gibson is the director of Pastoral Care at Old St. Patrick’s Church.