I Have Come to Bring Fire and Division (08/18/13)
49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;53they 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.”
In Plato’s “Symposium,” there is an allegory that imagines the beginning of human beings. The gods created humans in a very unique way. Each human was a mixture of both male and female. In other words, each human had four hands, two noses, four feet, and two mouths. They also had both male and female genitals. Having been created in this way, they were extremely powerful. They were so powerful that they became aggressive against the gods. Fearing that they would try to take over, the gods decided that they must punish the humans. They decided that they could not kill the humans, for then there would be no one to worship them. Finally, Zeus decided that humans would continue to live but that they would be cut in half. By cutting them into two parts they would no longer retain the power. Zeus then went ahead with his plans and cut the humans in two, asking Apollo to help so that the wounds would not be apparent. After this was done, the humans were sent separately in different directions into the world. These humans spent the rest of their lives searching for their other halves who could make them whole.
Thinking of this story, I have thought of our lives full of relationships with others. It seems like the relationships make us whole. We search for a life partner. We want to be involved in groups. We want to be connected with others. We want to be part of a community.
Unfortunately, we have broken many of our relationships, intentionally or unintentionally. As the gods did to the humans in the story, there seems to be a tendency to break our relationship with others into parts. We don’t want to break our relationships with others because we could end up being alone which we dislike. Experiencing the division is very harsh and stressful. No one wants it.
Paul says in Ephesians 4 that until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ, we are not united. He sent a letter to the Corinthian churches which were experiencing divisions. He appealed to them, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” John Calvin who was a protestant reformer in 16th century said that the Devil’s chief device was disunity and division.
As the Bible and religious leaders teach us, the faith community should reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of Christ. His message was that we should love one another. By the crucifixion, he finally broke the walls people had built and made us one body before God. We call him the prince of peace.
However, this morning we face a harsh message from the teachings of Jesus. It has been said by many pastors that preaching this text would be a stressful sermon and they would turn to other texts for their sermon. Let us see how stressful this text is.
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth,” “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” The next teaching is much more shocking and stressful. He said, “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.”
Wow, really? It looks opposite of the teaching of Jesus who says in Matthew 18, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
Sometimes, a father and a son stand against each other. A mother and a daughter stand against each other. And a father and a mother stand against each other. When I was a child, I very often saw my father and mother stand against each other. It was too fearful for me. My mother was a dedicated Christian but my father was not. My father was not happy with my mother who went to the church. Because of her faith, they fought a lot and that made me so worried about the relationship of them. It was terrible.
We know that standing against other members of our family is especially heartbreaking. Hopefully, even though we fight each other, we finally end up being together again and we thank God for it. We don’t want family conflicts. We want God’s healing for our broken relationship, especially with family members. This is what we pray for. Obviously, this scripture is opposite of what Jesus teaches us.
Now, how should we understand this stressful message? Let’s first see the first line, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” What does it mean?
Fire has many biblical images. It can represent the presence of God. Think pillar fire in Exodus (13:17-22) and the tongues of flame at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). It can also represent God’s judgment. In Revelation, the enemies of Christ will be consumed by fire (20:7-10). Fire also represents purification. Zachariah (13:9) and Malachi (3:2-3) each refer to God’s intention to purify Israel like a refiner purifies silver by fire. That is, bringing fire to the earth means that Jesus embodies the presence of God which simultaneously judges and purifies. The fire is the passion of God’s Holy Spirit bringing people to abundant life in Christ.
Jesus says in the text that this fire was not yet kindled or completed. In order for the fire to be ignited, Jesus has to be rejected by the people and crucified on a cross. That is, Jesus came with the fire and ignited it by dying on the cross for the world to be purified.
The following verses are about the conflict followers of Christ must face in their faith journey. Family separation and conflict are painful issues for disciples. For Jesus to say “I have come to bring division” is very disturbing.
According to a professor of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, the division of which Jesus speaks is the result of the purifying fire he bears. The kingdom of God he proclaims represents a new order governed not by might but by forgiveness, not by fear but by courage, and not by power but by humility. Yet those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming kingdom. Hence Jesus, though coming to establish a rule of peace, brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships among family.
Following Christ has never been easy. To believe and accept Jesus’ Lordship involves a costly commitment. Look at your own faith journey. In order for you to follow Christ’s life, you need to live with the new order Jesus brought into your lives, not by might but by forgiveness, not by fear but by courage, not by power but by humility, not by hatred but by love. Also, unlike many people in the world, we serve our church and neighbors with commitment. It is a huge job. We spend our time, money, and energy in the journey of faith. Jesus knew that not many people could do that.
Jesus came with fire in order for us to stand before God and purify ourselves. Then, the next step is to follow Christ but it is a huge step. For some of us, it seems too much and we end up not following Christ’s teaching. This division can cause division even in our family. You know that.
Surely, even though Jesus is a prince of peace, he brought division into our lives. I understand that it means Jesus left us a mission. As the followers of Christ, what we should do is to pray for the people divided from us. Pray for them to be sensitive to God’s presence and pray that God guides and protects them. Pray for them to be involved into our faith community. This is the mission given to us right after we became Jesus’ disciples.
The journey of faith is one of conflict. This journey is not easy but we have hope that we will finally end up being together, living in the peace Jesus has brought into our lives. I pray that God be with you in the journey of faith.
Let us pray.
Dear God, you come to our lives as fire to purify us. We thank you for that. Now give us courage to follow the new order Jesus brought into our lives governed by faith and love. Fill us with your compassion toward our neighbors and grant us faith to pray for them. In your name we pray. Amen.