"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled"
So begins the Gospel read in many denominations and churches today (Lk 12:49ff)
The Greek includes the word ballo (a verb which means to throw, to scatter, to pour out. Our English words ball and ballistic come from this Greek root). Jesus says He has come to toss this fire on the earth. He says it is His desire that the fire start burning, that it be ignited.. It does not mean, as I had long assumed, that Jesus was disappointed that His message had not caught on and people were not "on fire" for Him (a popular expression in my younger days).
In the OT fire refers to judgment. When a battle was fought fire was used to lay waste the opponents 'camp.' Elijah famously called down fire from heaven to consume the Baal priests (something the apostles asked Jesus to do to the inhospitable Samaritan town,only to be rebuffed). Fire is also connected to the mysterious covenant ceremony with Abraham (in a trance state he saw a dancing torch between the cut up animals). It is likewise in Exodus (Moses' burning bush and God's presence is fire at night). Perhaps, more than judgment, fire is God's presence. His presence creates judgment (a point of decision). The process of purification also uses fire.The power of fire to clean is manifest anytime you leave the burners on full blast and close up a dirty grill.In God's presence that which is common, or imperfect, must be perfected and made holy.
The NT may use fire even more than the Ancient Covenant (OT) texts. Jesus speaks often of fire and judgment (although it is popular to claim Jesus is love and no judgment). Jesus is clear that God's coming among us entails judgment and purification. No one is clean. No one. So for all of us the encounter with God will be fire and judgment (and thank God His love is great enough to heal the burning fire).
Yet the next statement ("I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed") of Jesus is a reminder that God is not some far away actor, dishing out fire with no regard for humankind. Jesus' baptism--the cross--is God's answer to human sin. If Jesus longs to see the Kingdom come, once and for all, He also knows there is a steep cost for Him to pay first. The internal logic of creation includes God's self emptying. God hands power over to humanity (hence sin) and allows creation to be tied in with human freedom (hence evil and death). Until God reigns alone, we live with the painful consequences. Yet, not without hope, for God Himself in the flesh of Jesus takes on and redeems it all.
Yet this redemption--a free gift, a grace, an offer of unmerited kindness--entails a decision. "For Me or not?" Jesus asks. Will you embrace Me or some other, follow Me or another, serve Me or an alternative? This produces divisions. In 12:52-53 Jesus uses the example of a married couple living with her mom and their two kids. Jesus' demands will separate the family and tear it apart, He says. He reconfigures relationships. He redefines priorities and commitments. Jesus is not family friendly. He places Himself above family. "Seek first the Kingdom of God!" He announced elsewhere.The demands of Christian faith--not to "be good" but to love, serve and obey God totally--are such that one's answer takes away being neutral. There comes a point where Jesus says, "pick up the cross and follow." Those not aligned with Jesus will be more than happy to speed you on your way to Golgotha.
Some two thousand years later, the fire has yet to be kindled. We still live in the before-time, before the Final Coming. We still reside in a period of unfulfilled promises, living with hope (or disdain) and waiting (or not) for Jesus' return. Fire and division are never my favorite parts of the message. I do not always understand why it must be so hard. Yet, I know, that in the end what He endured for us impacts what we ourselves must endure. I seek to be more eager to follow Him and love Him. I know He is worth the price.
hat tip to Fr. Rene, whose penultimate homily this week gave me fresh insight into this difficult saying of Jesus