"I have come to set the earth on fire."
The Word for Sunday: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/081416.cfm
Jer 38: 4-6, 8-10
Hb 12: 1-4
Lk 12: 49-53
For those of us who grew up in the 1960’s, we well remember the turbulence of the time. Then, the most controversial issue was the War in Vietnam and race relations between black and white in this country. It was the time of President John Kennedy, of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It was a time of protest and demonstrations of outspoken civil leaders. Yet, in the background were musical artists like Peter, Paul and Mary and later Simon and Garfunkel, and others who would sing of peace and brotherhood and peaceful protest. We spoke of Hippies and flower-power and held up our two fingers in the peace sign.
The culture of today is in its way not much different. Maybe the deep emotions of people, particularly on politics and social issues such as the sanctity of human life and the understanding of marriage and family has reached more disturbing heights. The Church itself has certainly gone through its own reinterpretation and divisions not just since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s but also over the last near 500 years since the Catholic Monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 objections on the door of a German Cathedral in 1517. Certainly, long before that event we saw the great Schism of the Christian world between east and west in the 11th century.
Yet, we still see signs of unity, of peace and good will and generosity all around us. Many are doing good especially for the poor and the forgotten. Over 2 million young people just closed another very impressive and hopeful World Youth Day in Poland and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta is nearing formal declaration of her saintly holiness in early September. And we have a Pope who has made such a powerful impact on the World by his example and words and his call to mercy and Christian generosity to those on the margins of society. We can still say God is producing much light in the midst of what may appear darkness. Like a fire that causes a profound change in the forest, so too can the message of the Gospel be life transforming.
Our Scriptures this weekend, particularly the Gospel from Luke 12, have Jesus speaking of that same fire: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” Woah! What happened to forgiveness, mercy, and the compassion for the poor and suffering? That doesn’t sound like a blazing fire on the earth but rather a call to peace and dignity.
Jesus further emphasizes: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division . . .” Again we may wonder what our Lord is getting at. What is this “fire” and “division” he speaks of? So, we might be tempted to simply turn the page and find another less threatening passage like Jesus speaking of the “lilies in the field” or about the dignity of a child. Is the message and culture of the turbulent 60’s and the powerful emotion of today a reflection of Jesus’ own words?
Still, if we look throughout the Scriptures both Old and New Testaments, we may be surprised how often the image of fire is used. In the Book of Genesis, we read that God’s creation began with a burst of energy: “Let there be light.” You can almost hear the “big bang” that scientists have spoken about how the universe began.
From a burning bush Moses heard the call of God to go and lead his people out of slavery. There was a pillar of fire which stood as a kind of guard between the Hebrews and the oncoming army of Pharaoh before the famed crossing of the Red Sea. The prophet Elijah was taken up to heaven in a burning chariot.
In Luke’s Gospel we hear of John the Baptist prediction that the Messiah will come to “baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit. “Later, after the resurrection God sends the Holy Spirit in wind and tongues of fire. And there are certainly other examples when the image of fire was used to express the display of divine power and the effect of prophetic preaching.
In our beautiful Easter Vigil liturgy each year, we begin with the lighting of the new fire, the tall new Easter candle is lit and the fire from that candle spreads through the whole Church to smaller candles held by the congregation as the resurrection is proclaimed.
While the scriptural images are strong even more obvious is the power of Christ’s word both for unity and for division. Jesus well knew that his message would create controversy; that people would ultimately have to make a choice whether to follow him or not and whether to stay in the Church or not. And we still today need to make that same choice.
One scholar mentions that Luke’s Gospel reflected the experience of early Christians who found themselves in the midst of a hostile environment. Sometimes, those who chose to follow Christ caused division even within their own family members; those who gave their lives rather than compromise their Christian faith are designated martyrs of the Church and held in great honor.
While there are many examples of how life giving and inspirational our faith may be there are also examples that for those who truly believe and follow the faith, they may well become a sign of contradiction and in some cases ridicule or even worse, may pay with their own lives as history is still showing us today.
It seems the word of God today reminds us that the “fire” Jesus came to light on the earth is still burning brightly but that we are still called to make a choice – for Christ and his Church or not. Renowned speaker Bishop Robert Baron of Los Angeles has coined the term “beige” Catholicism. He states that the post Vatican II Church culture became what it was not intended to be and many today simply practice a more watered down and very comfortable version of our faith particularly through ignorance of its teachings. I clearly remember singing pop folk music for liturgy, taking a much too long time for the sign of peace, and a one time experience of a priest celebrating "Mass" in his homemade leather vestments (yes leather) and using a reading from Time magazine in place of the Gospel - weird!
He speaks of “balloons and banners” Catholicism in the immediate time after Vatican II rather than the full message of the Gospel’s challenging call to personal conversion. I don’t think that Jesus’ promotes beige Christianity when he says that his mission will bring division on those who follow him seriously. To choose Christ and his Way or not is our everyday opportunity for transformation.
Our first reading from Jeremiah tells the story of Jeremiah’s own rejection and near death when he is left to die in a cistern because his message was to “demoralizing” to others. Jeremiah had spoken truth from God, the hearers found it too disturbing to their way of life, and they tried to eliminate him – but we still read Jeremiah’s word today.
To follow Christ and to live as a Christian and Catholic in the world has never been an easy ride. It seems it isn’t meant to be but that we by our choice and our witness can spread that fire started by Jesus himself. Yet, that choice does not produce sadness and isolation but rather is ultimately a joyful one. There is a good reason why Pope Francis chose to call his first official letter: “The Joy of the Gospel.”
When applied to everyday life and real situations Jesus’ proposal of conversion through God’s forgiveness, mercy, love and reconciliation and the truth about the human person and God’s care for all humanity is often rejected in favor of a more self-centered, rather than Gospel centered, culture. The “me first” and “throw away” culture of today that we hear about sorely needs an alternative. The Eucharist each time calls us to not be beige Catholics and Christians but to see in Jesus’ own sacrifice a model for our lives; of how we are to live in this world.
The French theologian from the 1950’s Tielhard de Chardin once wrote: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
Made partakers of Christ through these Sacraments,
we humbly implore your mercy, Lord,
that, conformed to his image on earth,
we may merit also to be his coheirs in heaven.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
(closing prayer for Sunday)