St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 23.23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56
It strikes me that our gospel reading presents us with a contradiction. Let’s back up a bit and examine it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5.9; NRSV) and “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5.38-39; NRSV).
But in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12.49-51; NRSV)
Can these passages be reconciled? “Blessed are the peacemakers! Oh, by the way, you should know I come to bring division!” And what about this fire that Jesus brought to earth? How are we to understand it? What is it?
Our reading from Jeremiah provides some insight: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23.28-29; NRSV)
Jeremiah was called to speak the Word of the Lord. In Jeremiah 1.9-10, Jeremiah says, “The Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (NRSV). It appears that Jeremiah also brought some division.
Did Jeremiah have an easy task? By no means! He endured great persecution and imprisonment. Here is how he sums up his mission and relationship with God:
O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot (Jeremiah 20.7-9; NRSV).
Jeremiah experienced considerable pain and suffering due to conveying the word of the Lord. On one occasion, he cried out, “Cursed be the day on which I was born!” (20.14; NRSV).
God’s word came to us through the Old Testament prophets, but it comes more fully in the person of Jesus Christ and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who, incidentally, appeared as tongues of fire!
Jesus Christ opened a new era in salvation history, for God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” I believe this baptism to be none other than Jesus’ experience of the cross. Jesus’ sacrifice followed innumerable preceding sacrifices grounded in the scapegoating mechanism and its accompanying violence. Testimony to this fact is found in the words of Caiaphas: “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Luke 11.49-50; NRSV). Behold, the Scapegoat!
Unlike prior sacrifices, Jesus did not remain dead; he was resurrected through the divine fire of God’s love. Jesus placed complete trust in God, and it is in that sense that the author of Hebrews refers to Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12.2; NRSV). As Dennis Hamm, SJ, points out, “the perfecter of faith” is a phrase so startling that some translations . . . add the possessive pronoun “our” (apparently to avoid imputing faith to Jesus.)” Thus, a more precise rendering would be “’the perfecter of faith’ – in other words the one whose own faith showed what true faith is” (Hamm: http://liturgy.slu.edu/20OrdC081819/theword_hamm.html). This true faith “sustains us through any and all rejections” (ibid).
The Holy Spirit empowers us to love as Jesus Christ loved. This love does not bring peace as the world understands peace (primarily as the absence of conflict); rather, this radical love naturally results in division. Why? Such love serves to challenge the values of this world. Such love reflects God’s kingdom, and we must always remember that kingdom love is antithetical to the interests of this world. For example, those who place a universal interpretation, an interpretation grounded in love, on Emma Lazarus’ words,
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me . . .
are now told these words only apply to Europeans, i.e,, white people. Racism is about power, and the world worships power.
Can we reconcile Jesus’ seemingly contradictory messages: “Blessed are the peacemakers!” and “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”?
In Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples set forth in John, Jesus says: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14.25-27a; NRSV). The peace that comes to us through Jesus Christ is very different from the peace this world would offer.
The world, as mentioned, understands peace as the absence of conflict – such peace may demand compromise, even capitulation. Think of the Pax Romana. The peace of Christ comes through knowing that in the face of conflict, we have an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who comforts and empowers us when Christ’s love, working in us and through us, brings division. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also told us, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5.10-11; NRSV).
We can know the peace of Christ, and we can extend it to others. But we should expect to encounter some opposition. As Christians we are ambassadors of Christ’s love, but we are also strangers sojourning in a foreign land. But know this, the Comforter is with us, helping us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and … [to] run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” And a great cloud of witnesses is urging us on!