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Fire on Earth

[Note: For background to the section on Biblical authority, see also The authority of scripture and Scripture: Christ the key to interpretation ]

The message of the Gospel today is difficult. I was tempted to preach on something else because I like to encourage people with the positive things rather than to warn of the negative. I suppose we all have our favourite parts of scripture; and there are parts that we would prefer to avoid. For this reason I need to say something today about the authority of scripture. First let us confront the challenge in this passage. We recently had reason to remember Jesus as the Prince of Peace, yet here in the Gospel for today he is reported by Luke as saying:

Matthew records the same teaching in perhaps even stronger terms:

Then follows the illustration of families being divided because of him.

Our natural expectations our disturbed: Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! -- Luke 12:51

What do we make of that? Can Jesus be the Prince of Peace whose coming was prophesied by Isaiah and at whose birth the angels sang of peace on earth and still the same Messiah as the one who also said Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?

Biblical Authority

Can we avoid what seems to be a hard word here? It depends in part on our attitude to scripture. It is tempting to believe some things and not others; but the trouble is that if we pick and choose to suit ourselves, we tend to undermine the authority of scripture altogether, so we might as well not have bothered to try to understand it. That is why some people react against the modern tendency to rationalize everything and insist instead upon the literal truth of every word in the Bible.

That literal fundamentalist treatment of scripture gets into great difficulty and can survive only by ignoring differences and being highly selective. For example in the text of the saying we are considering now, Matthew and Luke are different; do we have to ask which one is right, or whether they were reporting two different sayings? Scholars think they were both using another source and putting it in their own words. The main idea is the same, and we can clearly hear what is being said even if the words are a little different. We can use our brains to understand without threatening the authority of scripture.

The authority of scripture is important. The official teaching the church is that all doctrine, all, at least what we teach as the substance of the faith, must be tested with reference to the Holy Scriptures. The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church puts it this way:

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated. ...

The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits its ministers to preach from these ...

As we understand it in the Uniting Church, the scriptures are the primary witness to the Word of God. Jesus Christ himself is the Word made flesh, and he is the key to understanding what God has to say to us. So we say in the Basis,

Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist.

And, we say in our basic document,

When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses.

So you see, the scriptures witness to Christ who is himself the Word of God and our interpretation of scripture is guided by our belief in Jesus Christ. We may claim to know something of Christ by other means, such as the sacraments, the traditions of the church, private devotions, Christian fellowship, and the service of others; but whatever insights we gain must be tested by reference to scripture. At the same time, because Christ himself is the Word we must centre our interpretation of scripture around our understanding and worship of him. To do that we need to see how different parts of scripture point to him in different ways and show different aspects of his life and character. [See Scripture: Christ the key to interpretation. ]

One good thing about following the Lectionary is that we are forced to think about things that we might have avoided. Although we are not necessarily limited to these readings in our worship, and do sometimes read other passages which are suitable for special occasions, the standard series of recommended readings is helpful in giving attention to all the major themes each year and to a comprehensive coverage of the whole Bible in the course of three years. So we should get a better more rounded picture of Jesus and of what God has to say to us than if we only read what interested us from time to time. One of the consequences is that we must face difficult passages which sometimes appear to contradict others which appeal to us, and which we are inclined to give greater authority, because they are more consistent with what we believe otherwise. We must, then, face the challenge that Christ might not always fit our fantasy.

How then do we understand this saying:

Or in Matthew's version:

The baptism of fire

In Luke's account Jesus began by saying:

One can sense here some of the same sense of urgency that we noticed last Sunday in the parables of the Kingdom in the preceding verses: things are going to happen unexpectedly and followers of the Messiah need to be ready, dressed for action with their lamps lit, to welcome their Lord. Jesus is confessing to some impatience and feeling stress as he waits for decisive events. He is human about these things. At this point in his ministry he is on his way to Jerusalem, and he has already told Peter and his closest disciples that he must go there to be condemned by the chief priests and die. When he says, I have a baptism with which to be baptized, he is talking of his death. Why baptism? Had he not been baptised by John at the beginning of his ministry? -- And it is true that baptism marks a new beginning. Why is his death also called a baptism? -- because his death too marks a new beginning.

John the Baptist looked forward to another kind of baptism that Jesus would bring with fire:

The cleansing power of fire

This fire is a cleansing agent, getting rid of the rubbish. Of course, the linking of fire with the baptism in the Holy Spirit looks forward also to Pentecost, when

There it signifies new life in Christ, sharing in the life of his resurrection through the Holy Spirit; but while fire as a sign of the Spirit points to a new life, at the same time it refers to the end of an old life and the possibility of judgement. Remember in the parable of the vine, how the useless branches which we cut off were burned in the fire.

It is like the chaff that John the Baptist spoke of being burned with unquenchable fire. It is from such images as these that we have the traditional picture of hell. That is a complex question, and not the main point of the passage we are considering today. The basic idea is that whatever does not go on into new life in the Kingdom will be destroyed. It has no future. Fire is a cleansing agent. This applies to changes within ourselves. Peter wrote of fire as refining the rough ore to produce a shining precious metal, as a picture of the way our lives can be renewed:

Believers share in renewal of life

Testing times are sometimes called trials by fire. That is how Jesus was to be tested in the baptism of his death. All of us who share in his risen life are united with him also in his death. That is the meaning of baptism, according to Paul in his letter to the Romans:

So just as water used in baptism cleans by washing away the dirt of the old life, so fire also cleans. It is a matter of new life replacing an old way that ends in death. When we are united with Christ, we begin a new life. That is why people were given a new name, a Christian name, when they turned away from the worship of idols, turned to God in Christ and were baptised. So we say that in Christ through baptism we share in both his death and his resurrection.

In this way we come near to the Kingdom: it is only through the fire of judgment that one finds the Kingdom. There is a saying of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, one of the many books about Jesus that did not make it into the New Testament, and in this case it may well be a genuine saying: Whoever is near me is near the fire; whoever is distant from me is distant from the kingdom. -- Gospel of Thomas, 82.

Division caused by change

The radical change brought about in human life and history by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has its consequences in relationships between people. When some are united with him and some are not, or when truth must be distinguished from error, or when some people change and others do not, there are sure to be tensions. The natural relationships of family, tribe or local community are tested. There is nothing new in that. It is commonly recognized that marriages can be tested when one partner develops in a new and unexpected way. So in matters of faith: allegiance to Jesus Christ will put any other allegiance under challenge. That is why the coming of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit can cause divisions. Real changes in people have real affects on others.

Christians have learned a little about accommodating changes in people and differences of beliefs through costly struggles over many centuries. Some degree of tolerance is expected as a result in our society and within our families. We can often accommodate differences that are still very important. These days it is not uncommon for some members of a family to be worshipping Christian believers and others not, although sometimes that it achieved by downgrading the importance of what we believe and making compromises. Still, there may be less tension now than in other less liberal societies when whole families or whole tribes had to act as one unit.

The degree of toleration that we have in Western democracies is possible in part because we live in a society that has been shaped in many ways by Christian belief. But, we should not lose sight of the fact that nothing is guaranteed; there are authoritarian ideologies today which deny the very freedoms which allowed them to develop and there is more outright opposition and suppression of the Christian faith than has been known in our society for a long time. The differences are being sharpened and the day could come when we will need to remember some of the warnings Jesus gave. Certainly young Christians today cannot expect an easy ride. When the natural supports of family and community no longer reinforce a Christian commitment for many people, deliberate choices and personal commitments become more important and can be divisive.

Peace through conflict

The reason why there is struggle and division is that there is evil in the world. There cannot be true and lasting peace unless evil is overcome. Jesus confronted evil and overcame it in his own life, but it was a costly struggle culminating in his death. In the end, eventually, the victory will be complete, and each of us may enter the kingdom where lasting peace is already established. In the meantime, in this life in the earth we must expect the challenge and struggle of discipleship to cause some division and strife. It is part of the cleansing and renewing of life begun by Christ himself. So even if now for a little while we struggle, we are assured that peace and reconciliation will come through the fire he cast on the earth. However much differences can be tolerated, when it comes to the things that really matter in the long run you cannot have unity without truth, any more than you can have peace without justice. What is false and evil must eventually be replaced by truth and goodness, but it will come at a cost, the cleansing fire of which Jesus spoke.

Jesus will be seen to be the Prince of Peace in the end. But his way is not an easy way. Peace and unity will come in the end, but in the meantime, allegiance to him may cause division, and that is difficult for us to accept because it is against our natural inclinations. We would prefer to have him endorse our lives as they are in our natural state, and many fondly imagine themselves to be so blessed, but our lives have to be changed. We ourselves have to change. There is old dead stuff in us and in our community that must be left behind to be burned. The true word can be the hard word, and for our good in the end. When we are united with him in a death like his, it is in his cleansing baptism of fire. We are then promised a share in his victory over sin and death in the life of the resurrection. For that we praise him, and God our Father who raised him up with the renewing power in the Spirit. Amen.

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