Fire And Division

Ordinary 20C

Luke 12: 49 53

Introduction

One of the good features of following the international 3 year dictionary Scripture reading cycle is that we are confronted by all parts of the Gospel accounts. We are not free to quietly pass over the unpopular parts and always choose our favourites. This weeks reading is one of the less popular passages, and one which if taken out of context, can appear strange and disturbing.

We need to remember that it is an extension of the block of teaching by Jesus as appearing in our readings over the past few weeks. It is important therefore not to read it out of context. In other words, the thoughts and reflections on the readings of the past few weeks should be revisited and kept in mind as we unpack the brief reading before us.

Setting the Scene

Recall that about 8 weeks ago we began the "travel narrative". In this we have observed Jesus evangelising in the areas south of his Galilean home territory. We encounter him now, still on his "spiritual" path to Jerusalem. In the first half of this journey (Luke 9 — 14), Jesus, in forthright manner, makes clear the qualities he requires of those who follow him.

Jesus is still surrounded by a great number of people which included enraged leaders, excited and curious crowds from ordinary folk, as well as his own little band of disciples. It is in this setting he adds to his previous teaching, some rather (at first sight) abrupt words which take his listeners from thoughts about his return to personal crises in their own lives.

Some Notes On Our Text

Verse 49

Jesus opens this section with the words:

"I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already."

Unlike the prophets of old, Jesus never called down fire from heaven to consume or destroy his opponents. In this reading he is using "fire" as a figure of speech, because of what it can do. Fire can:

  • destroy by burning to ashes (e.g. rubbish)
  • purify by removing what is not desired (e.g. removing impurities from gold)
  • strengthen by changing the nature of something (e.g. metals)

Our Lord is thereby making an outspoken claim that he has come to:-

  • destroy the evil in humanity
  • purify the goodness
  • strengthen human weakness.

Far from intending to frighten his faithful followers, our Lord has a very consoling message for them. Perhaps it could be paraphrased as:

"I have come to free God's people from all that hinders them, troubles them, disturbs and harms them. I have come to build up the goodness within them and make it even better in God's sight. I have come to strengthen them where they are weakest. I want these things so much for them, I wish it were already accomplished for them."

Verse 50

He goes on to say:

"There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!"

We know that Jesus was already baptised when he said these words. He is therefore again, using a familiar term in a metaphorical way. One does not baptise oneself in water. If we wish to be baptised we submit ourselves to someone in authority who passes on membership, belonging, and restoration.

Jesus implies:

"I have yet to be plunged into suffering as a person is plunged into water when they are baptised. The very thought of this encounter causes me great distress. However, I have come to restore membership to God's family of all who are willing to be cleansed and lifted up. I will be anxious until every such person is recovered".

Verse 51

Jesus then puts the question: "Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division."

This is sometimes interpreted as "I have come to cause division."

Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is one of the reasons for so much understanding about these words of our Lord. Jesus is not the cause of division.

It may be helpful to re-express his words in our contemporary manner of speech. He is in fact preparing his followers, no matter what epoch they live in, to realise that it is not he, but his coming which can lead to division. He is saying:

"People have a choice. I have come to give them that choice. Sadly, only some will choose to listen to me. Those who do not will often taunt those who do."

Jesus has come to give peace to those who listen to him and choose to follow. But it is not a peace, in this world, which evades conflict.

Verses 52 and 53

Tragically there will be conflict and division even among the nearest and dearest. But even this, suffered for Christ's sake, will help usher in God's Kingdom.

Conclusion

This is a difficult passage for us until we begin to see the end result our Lord is working towards. Then we see that it is about his suffering more than ours, and how we can bear our share of the burden with and for him.

Jesus will not allow anyone to be carried away by misleading fantasies of what he is or will do! He tells us honestly what discipleship will demand. But is the process we catch a glimpse of the inner life of the Lord. His opening words are a cry of anguish from of his soul — not because of the pain he must bear to obey his Father, but rather the anguish he suffers until his saving work is completed.

He is surrounded by hatred and enmity and these make him, even more impatient to establish the reign of love. Meanwhile, those who enter his kingdom will find peace and friendship with God but the free will humans enjoy will cause division and conflict, which must be quietly encountered and suffered for God's glory.

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