“Fire to the Earth”


In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

I don’t like conflict. I like a peaceful, stress-free day. I like a peaceful, stress-free life.

So I’m sympathetic to the traditional image of Christ as “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” According to this picture, Jesus was always opposed to conflict.

He was a peacemaker who believed that his followers should always love their enemies. If a follower of Christ were punched in the jaw, he should “turn the other cheek” and take another blow as well.

There are many passages in the Gospels to support this image of Jesus. In the Beatitudes, Christ teaches that peacemakers are blessed. When one of his disciples tried to defend him with a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, he ordered the disciple to put away his weapon and to make it very clear that he didn’t approve of a violent approach to his Roman enemies. Jesus healed the soldier whom the disciple had wounded.

And so, many Christians find it hard to understand the saying of Jesus that we heard in today’s Gospel. There he says: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

He goes on to ask his disciples, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” Jesus says that, “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.”

Even if Jesus is exaggerating in this passage to make a point, he could hardly be called a pacifist! He knew that his message would sometimes bring conflict.

He knew there would be political strife if the Gospel were followed. Why? Because he taught that God should be obeyed ahead of human leaders. The text we just heard anticipates that the authorities would respond to this rebellious preaching–and that they would respond with force. The “baptism” Christ refers to is the “baptism” of the Cross.

Nor was Christ’s own life free of struggle. As he says in the Gospel, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

So we may need to modify our image of Jesus. He wasn’t just trying to bring peace and love—though he certainly was doing that. He was bringing a message that would disturb peoples and nations. He was bringing fire to the earth.

To some degree, I think, modern Christians have gotten this message and revised their understanding of the Gospel. Leaders of the largest world churches—Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox as well as the World Council of Churches all regularly issue declarations condemning various military actions. These leaders have denounced the violent actions of the Egyptian army, for example, as well as the Islamic violence against Egyptian Christians. These declarations aren’t popular with politicians. In these cases, advocating for peaceful resolution of conflicts itself leads to conflict!

The same problem can arise on an individual level. For example, a Christian in a relationship may find himself arguing with his partner about fidelity.

There is nothing engraved in stone that enforces this rule, and a large part of the American population seems to think it’s out of date. But for Christians it’s the necessary basis for trust–trust that allows a relationship to deepen and mature. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the only criterion that Jesus seems to have allowed for people to get a divorce was adultery.

And this ideal of faithfulness is really part of a larger commitment Christians have toward the ideal of truth. Jesus in the Gospel warns that his teaching will lead to conflicts in family relationships because Christ’s followers are committed to a higher authority. Even the closest human relationships are eclipsed by the demands of God’s Kingdom.

I was recently asked to review a new book about the author, Madeleine L’Engle, who died in 2007, at the age of 88. L’Engle wrote stories for children that were very popular in the second half of the 20th Century; the best-known was entitled, A Wrinkle in Time. In addition, she wrote memoirs and spiritual books for adults, and she was much in demand as a retreat leader and lecturer. As it happened, Madeleine L’Engle was also a New York Episcopalian.

The book I’m reviewing consists of interviews with some fifty people who knew L’Engle, including family and friends, as well as people for whom Madeleine was a mentor and spiritual guide.

And while virtually everyone who met her was impressed by her intellect and wit, a frequent theme in the memoirs is that she treated her family badly. Instead of giving her children and her husband the attention they wanted, she chose instead to help young writers who were beginning their careers, or people who were troubled by religious issues. As she herself noted in an interview, “My children want mama to be mama, and if I’m known, it takes me away from them.

I can’t comment personally on this criticism. When I was just starting my ministry, I met her through her son-in-law, who was an Anglican priest, and I have to say that she was generous to me with her time. Madeleine lectured to a group I was in charge of, and, on one occasion, she welcomed me to her country home.

But even if she did ignore her family in order to help strangers, I wonder if she should be blamed for that? Maybe she was right. Maybe she was following a higher calling. Maybe God wanted her to take time away from her home life so that she could nurture faith and literature in a larger number of people.

We who aren’t famous don’t have this problem! But we may have a similar issue. Those of us who are transplanted New Yorkers are distant from family members “back home.” And so we can find ourselves giving more time and energy to our friends in New York than to our relatives elsewhere.

This can cause guilt. But I’m not sure that the guilt is always deserved! God leads us to help people whom we meet day by day–and those are the people we are called to help. If that causes resentment in absent family members —well, we have to put up with it. That’s where our faith leads us.

Christ’s original disciples obviously had the same problem. The Kingdom of God demands that we serve our spiritual family.

I remember hearing a former Bishop of New York giving a talk to a small group of us clergy about parish conflicts. He concluded, “If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen!”

As Jesus said, the Kingdom brings “stress.” That’s part of the package. If we are going to find the peace of that Kingdom, we also have to be ready for the fire!

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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