20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 38, 4-6, 8-10 + Psalm 40 + Hebrews 12, 104 + Luke 12, 49-53
August 14, 2016 at Saint Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, FL
Fire shows up a lot in the Bible. There is a bush on fire in front of Moses. There is a pillar of fire that leads the Israelites through desert nights. Fire burns in the golden Temple Lamp, it licks up the waters of Carmel, and it anoints the lips of a prophet. John the Baptist comes proclaiming and preparing for one who would come with a Baptism of fire and the Spirit. Then this holy fire that always signals God’s presence takes flesh in Jesus Christ, who is the earth’s firelighter.
These verses must not be taken literally. This is the Jesus who prayed and pleaded for unity, “That they may all be one.” This is the Jesus who rebuked the disciples who wanted to call down “fire from heaven” upon those communities who had not welcomed them and their mission with the Gospel. These verses should lead us to think of Pentecost and the Fire that came upon those gathered in that upper room. This is a fire that changes human hearts and the direction of human lives. It is a fire that brings courage where there has been fear and timidity. It is a fire that signals the presence of God, a presence that calls for a purification of those who stand in the presence of the Divine. It is fire that draws those into the light who have been in darkness, and a fire that warms those chilled by loneliness and isolation. It is a fire like the burning bush that leads God’s people into covenant and faithfulness.
My friends, none of can afford to forget what happens to us all on the day of Baptism. We are given a candle lit from the fire of Easter, from the candle carried into every darkened church, from a candle we bless with the holy name of Christ. He is the light. He is the fire. He is the one who has called us out of darkness and anointed us with His Spirit to bring light and warmth to a dark and cold world. As he says every time his words are spoken, you cannot put this light under a bushel.
In ancient cultures of nomadic peoples, there was always someone who carried the fire from place to place. Without matches or lighters, keeping the flame and the fire as they roamed about was essential to their very life. Water and Fire are perhaps the most primitive elements of life. It is these primal images that Jesus uses today speaking of his own upcoming sacrifice. It is a Baptism of fire he speaks of. It is an image of life, of promise, of hope that Luke puts before us. Rather than stir up fear, these verses for people of faith stir up hope and renewed sense of who we are as a people of light filled with the fire of the Spirit.
We are the firelighters of this earth now, a people enlightened by Christ, a people who have taken the fire to be spread everywhere upon the earth: not to destroy or consume, but to purify, warm, and brighten.
The days in which we live suggest to us that faith and religion are private matters reducing the church to a kind of private club that holds meetings now and then to talk about the old days when Christ was here. Really? Where is the fire? Jesus came to light a fire on the earth. All that is left of that fire is you and me. (There’s too much smoke these days.) The church for which Luke was first writing was a church living through a time of great internal division and strife. Jewish converts cast out of their synagogues and at odds with family members over their love for Christ and his promise of the Kingdom were hurting. These verses are intended to give them courage and some comfort in the midst of this turmoil not encourage them to be self-satisfied and dismiss anyone who did not share their experience and their faith. These verses do not justify nor give us permission to be comfortable with division and broken families.
When the real fire Christ is burning, it might be more like a campfire or the hearth in the center of a home rather than a raging forest fire. It will be a fire that draws people in intimacy, friendship, and love. It will bring warmth and comfort where there is none, and it will be a place where anyone feeling frightened in the dark can find hope and companionship. We have the light and we have that fire. Jesus would suggest today that we need to let it shine.