He said what?!
[Jesus said] “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five 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.” (Luke 12:49-53 ESV)
Our Gospel account from Luke presents us with a message – the type of which isn’t unknown in the bible – conflict, judgement, division. Those Old Testament prophets could be pretty blunt, eg. the prophet Micah when describing society where no one righteous lived anymore advised:
Put no trust in a neighbour;
have no confidence in a friend;
guard the doors of your mouth
from her who lies in your arms;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
a man’s enemies are the men of his own house. (Micah 7:5,6 ESV)
So we’re not unused to tough talk or to judgements being given. We’re just not used to hearing it from this speaker. This is Jesus talking to his disciples. He began by telling them not to be anxious about anything for God will provide and they are to seek his kingdom first (Luke 12:22-34). Then he tells them to be ready for action – dressed, alert – not sleeping or slack or corrupt or abusive when the Master arrives for there will be consequences for unfaithfulness (Luke 12:35-48). And then Jesus tells them that he’s come to cast fire on the earth and he wants his baptism to be accomplished already and in case the disciples are still expecting ‘easy street’ or peace (maybe because they’re thinking in terms of ruling Israel – who knows?) Jesus says bluntly that he hasn’t come to bring peace but division, the consequence being that houses will be divided 3 against 2 and across generations and marriage. That’s what we heard today. Scary Jesus.
And I imagine the disciples are somewhat like fish blowing bubbles – their mouths opening and closing – thinking to ask questions and then saying nothing. Jesus has been teaching his disciples in this chapter (Luke 12) and great crowds have been listening in. There’s been question and answer – even calling out from the crowd – and the man who wouldn’t become judge or arbitrator about the division of an inheritance (Luke 12:13,14) now declares that he’s come to bring division to the world! And he then goes on to talk to the crowd accusing them of hypocrisy at being able to read the times weather-wise but not being able to read the times spiritually.
This is not gentle Jesus meek and mild! I think it is easy for us and the world to have a caricature of Jesus in our minds of some soft, hippy-like, patient, always accommodating, long suffering person who is there to let us do what we want and still be nice to us. This is love with no boundaries, no walls, no ‘No’s’, and the only consequences we want are: Jesus, help us and help us when we get into trouble.
So when Jesus who does talk about peace on other occasions (John 14:27) and over whom the angels sang at his birth that on earth God was making peace among those with whom he is pleased (Luke 2:14) talks about fire, baptisms, and not peace but division, then we need to listen carefully. We have the advantage of hindsight and we can see what the disciples were yet to experience – that Jesus and love and fire and baptism and distress and peace and division all meet at the cross on which Jesus would eventually be crucified. If we listen to the words with our own imagination then we’ll come up with what we want to hear. But when we are confronted by the cross, stand at the foot of it looking up, and then the words Jesus said – these scary ones on this occasion – speak to us, guide our thoughts and imaginations, and take us on a path of discipleship.
Jesus came as Saviour – to save us from the mess of our lives – all the conflicts and divisions – and yet precisely because of our sin and rebellion – and because God won’t turn our minds and wills off and make us into robots or zombies, people have the self destructive ability to push Jesus away, to reject him and his salvation – insane though that might be, it happens – and so his salvation is also judgement against sin and those who side with it.
Jesus speaks of his death as a baptism when James and John ask to sit at his left and right hand and they claim they can do what Jesus can do (Mark 10:38). That’s what sin is all about – presumption, arrogance, pride, and wanting the best place – but no one wants to be on either side of the cross. The thieves that were there with Jesus didn’t and only one of them saw his situation for what it really was – he was facing judgement correctly – he deserved it – but Jesus didn’t and yet because Jesus did, this thief was with Jesus in Paradise. Jesus would tell James and John that the seating allocation was up to God but that yes, they would drink the cup he would drink and be baptised as he was baptised – and in the cross, we see that as death to self, killing the sinful flesh, dying and rising again with Christ – in baptism – proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes at Holy Communion – and this creates conflict in the world. The other 10 were indignant that James and John had asked – had asked first in my opinion – but what we have with Jesus is a total reorientation of how we live.
The world moves from life to life grabbing hold of as much of it as possible – holding it tightly as they inevitably move towards death – trying to put it off as much as possible – trying to dodge it and its tentacles of shame, disease, impairment, loneliness, despair as much as possible. Christians start from death – deal with it – and then get on with living and life. Christians are so weird in this world that when physical death comes – and it can still be messy in this world – yet they regard it as ‘going home’ – as still being alive. The lifestyle of these Christians is marked by carrying their cross following Jesus – a powerful death image – not to be dour and mournful or even sadomasochistic but a strange mixture repentance and joy – I am a sinner and my life left to me would want everyone to serve me and I’d make your life miserable but Jesus forgives me and loves me and helps me live to serve those around me instead and I have joy in Jesus as I try and serve others.
Of course Christians are still sinners and we never get this right but it remains surprising that the world rejects and doesn’t like such Christian faith and attempts at service. Of course the conflict can be because the Christian still sins – hence our daily need for forgiveness and trying to reconcile with others – but there is another dimension here to Christians living in the world. The disciple of Jesus really doesn’t see Jesus in himself / herself – we live by faith and our experiences of this life are still lived in this sinful self – so we are basically blind to Jesus’ presence – but the world isn’t! They sense who the disciple carrying his cross in faith is following – Jesus and his words, his death, his cross – which calls to all sinners a twin message of judgement and salvation. This is a message the world doesn’t want to hear. And so conflicts arise.
Jesus’ ‘scary’ words reveal the seriousness of our sinful situation and the extent to which he has gone to rescue us. Should we ever diminish sin with all its depths and blind spots and diminish grace with all its cost and mercy, then we don’t see clearly Jesus and turn him into what we want him to be. His words today make us do a double-take – to look at him again, to see him on the cross, to see our sin and his forgiveness and love, and then to look at the world to serve it come whatever conflicts there may be.
- Luke 12:49 - 53