"A Cause of Division"

LUKE 12:49-53

April 6, 2014



            The first amendment of our constitution protects freedom of speech, but to what extent does it protect incendiary speech, speech that fans the flames of agitation, strife, division and and leads to violence?  Three years ago the Minnesota court of appeals upheld the convictions of a former nurse who hunted for suicidal people in online chat rooms and encouraged two to kill themselves.  While the convicted man acknowledged that what he did was morally wrong, he also argued that he merely exercised his right to free speech   The Minnesota appeals court disagreed.

            I'm not accusing Jesus of making an incendiary speech today, even though he does talk about bringing fire to earth, but I do say what he says makes me very uncomfortable.  I know I'm not alone on this.  A fellow pastor uttered these words after reading Jesus' words.  He said, "All this talk about bringing fire to the earth and that he can't wait until it's set ablaze.  What kind of talk is that?  Then there is the part about how households will become divided because of him.  For goodness' sake, that's exactly opposite from the kind of community we're trying to build in the church."   

            He has a point.  Can you imagine coming this Wednesday, the last in our Wednesday Lenten gatherings, and the subject I teach is "How to Divide Your Family in Five Easy Steps?"  I know you are very polite people of God, but politeness or not, some of you would walk out. And I have no doubt but that the number one item on the Session's agenda at their next meeting would be to ask the question as to whether or not I've lost my ever-loving mind.  Nope, I don't like this passage one bit.

            And to tell you the truth, I think I may have been on medication when I decided to preach on this passage.  I've been going through Luke's gospel, sorting through passages to include and passages to skip over in our series, "Luke: The In Between Years" and for some unknown reason, I chose this passage.  Maybe Trudy and I had a fight that morning and I was thinking about division in our family, I don't know, but I wish I wouldn't have included these verses.  Nonetheless, I stuck myself with it and consequently since you chose to be here rather than working the New York Times crossword puzzle over a coffee or two, you are stuck with it, too. So let's make the best of it, shall we?  As uncomfortable as it is, let's see if we can make some sense of what Jesus is saying.

            The passage easily divides itself into three handy sections: fire, baptism and division, and we'll take them in the order of appearance.  Section one ... fire.  Verse 49. 


            I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!


            There is something mysterious and provocative and even romantic about fire. We don't need fireplaces when we have central heating, but we have fireplaces anyway.   Some of us pay MUD extra for fueling our gas logs and some cut down wood, all to enjoy a nice fire on a cold winter night. 

            The discovery of fire, of course, changed the life of primitive people.  Fire made possible the change from a nomadic existence to a settled existence.  It gave warmth to the huts and caves where primitive persons lived, allowing settled existence even in areas where there were significant temperature shifts.  And, of course, fire helped banish the fears and limitations of darkness.

            And fire is certainly prominent in ancient folklore and religion.  Several old mythologies say that fire is a special gift of the gods.  Remember the tale of Prometheus, the god who felt sorry for humans?  He stole fire from the gods' altar and gave it to humans.  As we turn to the Biblical record we also notice the prominent place of fire in religious experience.  A burning bush caught the attention of Moses until he began to hear the voice of God.  At the Jerusalem temple, fire consumed the cereal and animal sacrifices offered by the people and priests, speaking of atonement and forgiveness and reconciliation between God and people.  And at Pentecost "tongues of fire" sent by the Holy Spirit settled on followers of Christ enabling them to proclaim the gospel in word and deed.

            All this brings us to Jesus' words here and I'm suggesting the fire of which he speaks is of two sorts: the fire of judgment and the fire of the spirit.  In speaking of the fire of judgment, one biblical scholar referred to Jesus as "the crisis of the world."  He said that if we really think of Christ as our example, we soon come to realize that we are desperately in need of forgiveness.  That is to say, coming face to face with Jesus causes a crisis in our life.  Compared to other people we may come off well, but compared to him we come off poorly.

            That's the judgment that Jesus brings to our lives.  It was certainly going to come to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.  The way they treated other people, I'm sure Jesus was looking forward to that.  Of course, we've lost that sense of Jesus bringing judgment.  That was not always the case in the history of Christendom.  The image of Christ in late medieval Christianity had a note of the fiery judgment of Christ more than in our time.  Christ was proclaimed as God's judgment upon sins large and small.  We have softened this fiery, judgmental understanding of Christ, and we do not want to return to it.  But we sometimes wonder if we have not erred in the opposite direction.  Christ today is the figure of acceptance, forgiveness, gentleness and warmth.  We have portrayed him in ways that few children or adults feel uncomfortable in his presence.  The centuries that have taken the terrors out of Christ are to be appreciated, for certainly there was something spiritually unhealthy about these earlier images, yet we sometimes catch ourselves wondering if we haven't overdone it.  We wonder if we have totally eliminated the judgmental impact of Jesus Christ upon our lives.

            The second fire of Christ is the fire of the Spirit.  Note to whom The Lord may be speaking at this point.  Look with me at verse 41.  "Peter said, 'Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?'  And The Lord said," and what follows all the way through our passage seems to be directed at Peter. 

            Now remember in order to follow Jesus, Peter had left his fishing business on the Sea of Galilee.  That was the first time the fire of God's Word had invaded his life.  He was growing cool in that job -- cool and bored, casting the same nets each day and each night.  A person tends to cool down in boredom.  So Jesus came along. "Come, follow me," he said. "Come, let the Word of God heat you up, for you are beginning to cool down."

            So it is with us all.  We all have those cool down moments, those times when the fires of love grow frosty and the ice of boredom replaces the fire of passion.  Do we need the fire of the Spirit to heat us up?

            Maybe you recall the hymn from the 70's that was so popular.  It was titled "Pass It On" and the first line went, "It only takes a spark to get a fire going."  It went on, "And soon all those around can warm up in it's glowing.  That's how it is with God's love, once you've experienced it, you want to sing, it's fresh like spring, you want to pass it on."

             When did that fire first descend upon you?  At church?  At camp?  At a crisis time in your life?  During the birth of your child?  When did that fire first descend upon you?  Do you need it to descend again?  Jesus was looking forward to that fire, the fire of the spirit spreading throughout the earth.

            So, that's the fire.  Now let's turn to the baptism.  Verse 50,


            I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!


            The Greek word here for baptism literally means "to dip or "to be "submerged," and it's used in many ways.  For instance, the word is used of a sunken ship "submerged" beneath the waters.  It's used of a student submerged by a teacher's questions, in our modern idiom feeling "sunk."  But above all the word is used metaphorically of a person being submerged, feeling in over his or her head.  That's the sense here.  Jesus sees the cross looming.  He needs to get through this to the other side.  He knows he will get through it, but right now he's feeling a little overwhelmed, submerged, under water.

            How unlike many of us, to be so honest about how he was feeling, about what he was facing in life.  I guess it becomes ingrained in us at an early age.  Keep a stiff upper lip.  When the going gets tough, the tough get going.  People don't want to hear about your problems, they have enough of their own.  Don't let 'em see you sweat.  But here's Jesus admitting that's he's facing a terrible experience through which he must pass and is life is full of tension until he passes through it.

            I wonder what would happen if we were actually honest when someone asked, "How are you doing?"  What's our typical response?  "Fine."  How was your day?  "Fine."  What would happen if we answered honesty?  What would happen if we weren't doing "fine" and had the courage to say so?  How refreshing to hear Jesus admit that everything was not fine, it was awful at the moment, that he had bad days like we have bad days.  "I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed." 

            Then there is the division.  Verse 51,


            Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  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.


            There are few words of Jesus that catch us more off-guard these words.  When Jesus asks, "Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?" most of us would have been inclined to answer, "Yes!  Yes, peace instead of division, disunity, and a sword.  Yes, peace, O Prince of Peace, and goodwill among people everywhere!" 

            So what is the meaning of all this, of Jesus bringing division instead of peace?  Here's my best guess, and it's only a guess and so, if you have a better guess, let me know what it is.  I think he was warning us that our mission of making disciples, of introducing the Prince of Peace to the world, will always bring the sword slingers out of the closet.  He meant to tell us that those who work for unity will in the process have to go through conflicts that result in divisions and brokenness before the oneness emerges.

            Unfortunately, history is filled with paradigms of this truth. Abraham Lincoln attempting to hold our nation together as one, ends up vilified by his enemies and ultimately assassinated.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., attempted to bring unity to the United States of America, and he sought to do it through nonviolent means.  We call this social oneness "integration."  Yes, he sought to make America a nation of integrity.  But the process of fulfilling his dream, as we well know, involved division, the sword, and his own assassination.

            Most of the apostles of Jesus himself were martyred at the hands of those who became unnerved by these messengers of peace.  Those whose mission was to bring the peace of God often brought the sword upon themselves through no fault of their own. 

            Is Jesus the Prince of Peace?  Yes, he is.  Does Jesus want peace instead of division?  Of course he does.  But he doesn't come walking leisurely among us with the gift of peace under his arm as a handout.  The peace he offers has to be won, and some folk will do whatever it takes to make sure his offer of peace is never accepted.  And he warns Peter about that, and in so doing, he also warns us.  Amen.