Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 12:49-56
August 15, 2010
Deborah Magdalene, OSH
In the summer of 1972 my family fell apart. My 17-year-old sister became a Mormon, my parents were having serious fights, and I dropped out of college and moved in with my boyfriend.
It was a time of great upheaval. With the backdrop of the endless war in Vietnam, and in a culture of protest and resistance I began my own journey of truth-seeking.
Of course my parents didn’t see it that way. My sister and I were on opposite sides of a protest against our parents. She took the road of a conservative religion and I chose the road of the love-struck hippie.
Mother against daughter
Sister against sister
Daughter against both parents
Both parents against both daughters
And the United States at war with itself.
My family mirrored the chaos of the country we lived in. We were divided and at war with each other, and we each dreamed of a completely different outcome.
My dad wanted his family back together. My mom wanted to rescue my sister from unseen forces. My sister wanted a safe family religion where people lived what they believed. And I wanted to create a new world of love – with my beloved and me in the very center of it.
What we each desired, in our own distorted and confused points of view, was to be seen as we really were – to be acknowledged by someone, anyone, as honest and good people trying to live lives of integrity and honesty. What we all really wanted was to be loved and accepted as only God could love and accept us.
All I remember of that time now is how messed up my family seemed to me and how perfect my own little life with my chronically unfaithful and angry new boyfriend, who soon became my husband. I fell in love with a young man who embodied the exact problems that I thought I was leaving behind.
The next eighteen years of my life were spent in a prolonged state of denial. I denied that I was unhappy while choosing to believe that my marriage and new family were worlds away from the home I had grown up in.
But God has a way of teaching us lessons that will lead to greater understanding, broader perspectives, and the courage to change the things we are capable of changing.
God has a way of cleansing us with fire.
Jesus shouts at his closest companions, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
His words are not for the faint of heart. This is no gentle shepherd or humble servant washing his disciple’s feet. It is always a challenge to our faith to come to terms with the Jesus who overturns tables and shouts, “Hypocrites!” to the crowds.
But this is the Jesus we read about today and I believe that the angry power of this Jesus is something we Episcopalians must claim as our own, and not just the property of our Pentecostal neighbors. We need to understand what exactly this fire is that Jesus came to light. We have all been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. It is part of our call as Christians to carry Christ’s fire along the way as our Olympic torch of faith.
This isn’t the first time we hear about fire in Luke’s gospel. John the Baptist told his followers, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke3:16)
We are to understand from these words that our own baptism brings the Holy Spirit into our lives as well as the fire of Christ. We too easily associate New Testament fire with damnation and judgment. Today’s reading does refer to significant judgment. It is the judgment of the coming age. The age that Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension bring to pass. It is not the fire of damnation and hell.
Earlier, Luke quotes Jesus teaching that the vineyard owner will cut away the branches that do not bear fruit and throw them into the fire. (Luke 3:9) There is judgment implied in both this parable and today’s Gospel. But who or what is being judged?
There are two answers to this question that help explain why Jesus is so exacerbated. First of all we have the disciples. They are on their way to Jerusalem where Jesus has told them repeatedly that he would suffer and die. But they still don’t believe him. Jesus knows that his death will be the cause of the greatest division among Jews that the world has ever known.
It is the shame of the cross that keeps faithful Jews from accepting that Jesus is the Son of God. It is only after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ that his own disciples fully grasp who this man was and what his coming to them continues to mean. Those who believed were, and are, transfigured.
The “signs of the present time” that Jesus calls the crowds hypocrites for not seeing – is HIM. Jesus is the ultimate and final sign that the world as they know it is about to end. They are hypocrites because they daily recite the words of the prophets who warned them that these things were coming, that God would send a Messiah, and that God would purify Israel.
In the words of Mary’s Magnificat, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." (Luke 1:52-55) The Magnificat promises division.
Jesus is the one who divides those who believe from those who don’t. His disciples believe what they have seen, but only up to the point of their own denial. When truth hits denial it takes a jarring experience to knock the truth into our consciousness.
The second answer to “who is being judged” is the inner life of the disciples. More importantly, it is our inner life that we are meant to examine. Are we brave enough to allow Jesus to tell us the truth about our own faith, or lack thereof? Are we willing to accept the whole truth of who Jesus really is? We know how hard it was for the disciples.
Peter denies Jesus three times in spite of being one of Jesus’ closest companions.
It is no coincidence that during his denials Peter sits in the courtyard of the high priest’s house warming his hands at the fire.
He is much more comfortable sitting next to the flame than he will be when he finally accepts the burning shame of truth that he abandoned Jesus in his time of greatest need.
It is the burning flame of compunction that the gospel calls us to today. A very out-of-date word, compunction was one of the favorite words of the desert fathers and mothers. They called it ‘penthos.’ For them, “penthos was a Godly sorrow, engendered by repentance.” (Saint Cyril of Philea)
And that is what eventually washed over Peter. As he sat next to the warming fire he was flooded with shame and remorse that Jesus had predicted his denial. Jesus knew that Peter did not fully comprehend that the world as he knew it was about to come to an end through the wrongful persecution and death of Jesus.
There is nothing like shame to burn the truth deep into one’s soul.
The truth of who Jesus really is and what he accomplished for us through his death, resurrection, and ascension continues to divide families and friends just as it did in the First Century. But it is the division that lies deep within each one of us that causes Jesus to cry out, “Hypocrite!”
How many of us have said lightly to our children, ‘Do as I say, not as I do?’ How many of us have criticized and shunned someone for their behavior only to discover at some point that you yourself have exhibited that same behavior? We all criticize with clenched teeth and pinched face the behaviors that are most repellant to us.
They are repellant for a reason. I was terrified of my mother’s temper so I secretly ridiculed my husband’s outbursts. I am better than that. I don’t scream at the children. I will be the better parent. Hypocrite.
I had to face the shame eventually when I realized that my inability to speak up and face my husband’s wrath full on meant that my children grew up in fear. I wasn’t there to protect them in the way that I could have if I had known the truth.
It was the burning compunction of my own complicity in an abusive marriage that led me finally to ask God for help. I knew after my marriage ended that only God could gently teach me how to live a better life. And I also knew, deep within me, that I would continue to face layers and layers of denial once I began the deep journey with Christ.
It was too late to give my children a peaceful upbringing, but it is never too late to repent and turn to God for help.
There is one more concept for which Luke uses the image of fire. We are told that we will be baptized by the Holy Spirit and with fire. This fire is not just the truth of who Jesus really is; or of our compunction when we realize we never trusted him as fully as we could have.
In the continuation of Luke’s work, in the Book of Acts, we hear what happened to the first Christians on the day of Pentecost, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:3-4)
This fire danced on the believer’s heads as they spoke in strange languages that all could miraculously understand. This fire, the fire of the Holy Spirit, is what was released through the power of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
We are meant to see these acts of God as the ushering in of the present age. We are no longer alone, but are continually reminded of the truth through the workings of the Spirit of God who will never abandon us.
We are guaranteed that we will mess up, live in denial, ruin relationships, and make fatal errors, but we can always turn to Christ in repentance and ask for God’s will to be done. We must let go of the outcome when we repent, or the repentance doesn’t take. We can’t modify and correct God’s abundant compassion for our human predicament.
God’s beneficence is totally beyond our control. But self–examination and true repentance are ours to use as frequently as we desire. Peter didn’t wallow in self hatred and remorse. He went on to become a leader in the Church. At the end of his life, his final act of compunction was to be hung upside-down on the cross. He did not feel worthy to die in the same manner as Christ. His manner of death shows how deeply his shame affected him.
We do not need to do our soul-searching alone. Christian community is meant to be a place where we can bear our souls and receive forgiveness from our God and from each other. We invite this integrated way of life by listening to each other’s stories. We all have burdens. In our call to follow Christ we are asked to listen to each other and bear one another’s burdens for them. It is what the fire is telling us to do.